It is clear that I’m supposed to praise her, something I never do to her satisfaction. I get annoyed, then she criticizes me for that. She’s a lonely woman with a boring, limited life. How can I let this roll off my back?
Annoyed: Even someone with decent skills would struggle to converse — and lapse helplessly into muffin monologuing — at some point in a “boring, limited life.”
Which is, of course, the real problem. People generally don’t get happier or more interesting when they lie mentally fallow for any length of time. There’s also the companion to the real problem, which is your … frustration? disgust? contempt? for her letting things get to this point.
I’ve been thinking this a lot lately, with normal daily lives generating too few things to talk about and abnormal daily news generating too many: Sometimes conversation is too much to ask. We’re tired and scraping by and spending more time than ever with a smaller circle of people and oh please don’t bring up the news, thank you.
The “better” or “simpler” times to go back to right now might be the ones that actually did exist — where people dug out the Scrabble board or read to each other aloud or played cards. Dust off the pianoforte! (Yes, I’ve read too much Jane Austen.)
Your mom touts her baking abilities, so maybe next time bake muffins together when you get there. Maybe she can teach you her pastry technique or her secrets in making your old favorites. This can satisfy a need to be heard.
If she has (or had) a craft, then ask to do it with her or have her teach it to you.
How’s her memory — can she recount family history? On video? Does she have old photos that need sorting, or priceless recordings in outdated formats?
If not, how about a movie night?
Think of what you have to offer each other besides a dissection of each other's day, and refocus your visits on that, with patience. Less talking, more doing.
This advice hinges on one interpretation of your bad feelings: that you don’t enjoy your mom’s company lately, feel bad about that, feel bad you’re not able to conceal this from her, and feel bad when she lashes out against that with criticism. If the bad feelings run deeper, then playing a board game won’t fix it.
But two people at work on a joint project they both value or enjoy rarely want for things to say, and often the topics are emotionally neutral. Making these new memories could be good for your mother’s health, too, not just your relationship’s.
And companionship doesn’t even have to include conversation to be companionable. In fact, it can be more so the less you try to say.