The Washington Post

Daughter may have to ‘divorce’ mean, self-centered mother

(Hadley Hooper/For The Washington Post)

Q. My mother, a difficult, self-centered woman, has problems that have profoundly affected me. I’m a middle-aged, divorced professional and the mother of two sweet, bright, funny, empathetic — and bipolar — boys, ages 16 and 12. The older one also has a bad case of Tourette’s syndrome, and the younger one has obsessive-compulsive disorder.

My mother ignored and neglected my sister and me when we were children, and she said that my sister was pretty but I was smart (and fat and unfeminine). I’m only close to normal because I had a good relationship with my grandparents and took extra courses so I could graduate and leave home at 16. I now live 2,000 miles away and have a social life, support from my church, a niche for myself and my children, and the knowledge that I’m really petite, attractive and feminine.

My mother’s preferential behavior continues, however. She now says that my sister is a perfect mother, with perfect children, and that I caused my older son’s problems and favor my younger son. She also ignores the remarkable progress they’ve made, primarily because of the early intervention, medication and psychotherapy they got, at great expense, and because of all the attention I gave them in the early years when their problems were so severe.

We could barely leave the house in those days, so my father paid a cleaning service to lighten my load, but my mother wouldn’t even drop by with a bag of cookies and a movie. And when my husband became abusive, she wouldn’t let my sons and me move in because she didn’t want the family to know that she was having an affair.

She did watch my children while I took a licensing exam, however; she helped me out financially sometimes, and she paid for the boys’ summer camp. But she wouldn’t help when my older son was suicidal and hospitalized for weeks. Instead, she said that it was my fault because I only think about myself. This time, something snapped. I told my mother that she was out of line, and for the first time, I swore at her and called her a bad name.

We are now estranged. I didn’t answer her long, self-justifying e-mail, and I won’t let her pay for camp anymore. I just don’t have the emotional energy to fend off my mother and take care of my children, too. I know that she’s turning 70, that she feels insecure and helpless, and that she gets angry and vicious if she can’t fix a problem. But I can’t care about that anymore.

Or am I missing something?

A. No, unfortunately you’re not missing anything.

Your mother is a self-focused woman who wants to lay her own failings on your doorstep, not because they belong there but because she is so desperate to get rid of them. As much as she wants to turn her mistakes into your mistakes, however, you can’t let that happen. And as much as you want her to turn into a warm and loving mom, you can’t make that happen because you can’t fix the unfixable.

One day, when your life calms down and your sons are better, you may be able to accept her flaws with compassion and grace. But not yet, not now.

As harsh as it sounds, you must divorce your mother as you once divorced your spouse, even though your long relationship with her may make it hurt much more. The rules of separation are the same. When she’s kind to you, be friendly but keep your guard up. When she’s mean, be distant and unavailable, but don’t let her know that she has hurt your feelings again, and don’t even apologize for dropping that curse word in her lap. Your mother would wave your apology around like a scepter.

You shouldn’t bring up her past mistakes either, because she will dredge up some mistakes you’ve made, or that she thinks you’ve made, which will put you back on the treadmill again. If you want an independent, pain-free life, you have to ignore what’s gone before.

When the memories get too much for you — and they will — write about them in a journal, confide in a psychotherapist. Or read “Toxic Parents” by Susan Forward and Craig Buck (Bantam, 1990) or “When You and Your Mother Can’t Be Friends” by Victoria Secunda (Delta, 1991), the two classic books about troubled, troubling mothers. Another book to consider is “Will I Ever Be Good Enough?” by Karyl McBride (Free Press, 2009). The clarity of her writing may make this book the best one for you, or for anyone who has to deal with a judgmental parent.

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