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Carolyn Hax: How much truth about your daily struggle is too much for elderly mom?

(Nick Galifianakis for The Washington Post)

Dear Carolyn: I've been feeling low on and off for several years — extreme overwork leading to burnout, quitting my job, a bout of depression, my father's brain injury, a close relative's Stage 4 cancer, and a long job search — and that was BEFORE the pandemic hit. Now, when my mother and I talk by phone, several times a week, her question is always, "Did you have a good day?"

The answer is often "no" or "meh" or "my boss yelled at me for something I don't think was my fault." I mean, I'm single, lonely, bored with working from home, getting older and having aches and pains, and my new job is great but the hours are still long and preclude some of my few options for enjoyment. A lot of my friends are sad and stressed. And my appliances keep breaking down.

But if I tell the truth, she'll be sad, anxious and discouraged, and I don't want to do that. She's 80 and still puts in incredible efforts to make things nice for everyone around her.

Moreover, she'll immediately tell me to look on the bright side, think about what I'm grateful for, etc. — basically, that I shouldn't feel the way I feel.

So I lie. I tell her, "Yes, I had a good day," and think up some little anecdote to share. But then I feel bad, both about lying and realizing one of the people I love most in the world can't accept me the way I am, depression and all.

Is there a way out of this? Or, do I need to accept she's dealing with so much on her end that I just need to "dump out" (as in the circles-of-care model: keep telling her what she wants so badly to hear, even though it's untrue?

— Toxic Positivity

Toxic Positivity: Your choices aren’t limited to complaining or lying.

Which is good for the obvious reasons, but also because you two really need other stuff to talk about.

Like +/- everyone right now.

All the important things are there. You have each other. You care. You’ve mostly weathered a terrible time.

So think small now. Think simple mechanics to reroute conversations. Since all prompts in the “How are you?” family — How was your day? What’s new? What’s up? — are well-meaning duds anyway, you’re not obligated to answer them specifically. “I started this great book” is as good an answer as rating your day.

For your purposes, it’s actually better; you two talk almost daily. She knows how your days are. She just wants to connect.

And she may indeed accept you fully, as is, but misunderstand what does and doesn’t help you.

So use her boilerplate prompt to launch whatever topic you’d rather tell the truth about — or ask her for one. Or go rogue.

This may feel like emotional work when you’re already spent. But it can be an upfront effort that reduces your workload indefinitely ever after: Write down a few things you want to talk or ask about. Cheat, even, by searching “conversation starters.” Even left-field prompts work if you preface them with “This crossed my mind today.” Keep your list handy for these calls. See whether you like your days better when you lead your mind — and your mom — somewhere else.