Dear Carolyn: My parents (mom and stepdad) are in their 70s, retired, healthy and doing well financially. They spend their money on traveling the globe and constantly remodeling their new Florida McMansion. That's fine. They can spend their money on whatever makes them happy.
They weren't the most caring parents. They did provide what they thought they should, but anything extra — school activities, extra clothing, hobbies, cars, etc. — my siblings and I were expected to take care of on our own. And we were expected to move out at 18. Again, that's fine. We are very independent.
My sister had joint-replacement surgery and has high medical bills. I am going through a legal fight with a previous employer, am unemployed for the first time in my life (I've had a job since I was 14) and legal bills are eating my 401(k). Our parents know the details. We're not asking for any help.
But I don't want to get on the phone with my mom and have to hear all the issues of remodeling rooms that looked perfectly fine when I visited a year ago. Plus they don't even ask how things are going with their children and grandchildren. It's all talk about superficial things and how awesome they are doing.
There are other old issues stemming from some childhood abuse and all the divorces, but my mom is in complete denial about that.
I don't want to talk to them anymore. I want to tell them that since they choose to live (what I consider) selfishly, they should not expect me to just smile and nod.
But we are made to feel guilty if we don't call as often as my mom thinks we should.
Do I just ghost my own parents? Seems no matter what I do, they'll think I'm awful and wrong.
— Hate the Smile and Nod
Hate the Smile and Nod: Is that the worst that could happen, though? That parents you think are awful and wrong think you’re awful and wrong?
Plus, if you’re not on the phone with them, then it’s an awful-and-wrong falling in a forest. Who’s to say it even happened.
But let’s back up for a second. You’ve presented this as a two-item menu: either endure your mom’s affluenza, or stop calling your parents.
There’s a middle choice, though: truth. “Mom, [sister] and I are buried in legal and medical bills. I can’t sympathize over expensive renovations.”
She won’t respond well to that, right? So have this handy: “Okay then. Let’s talk another time.” [Click.] This middle is where you set the agenda to your emotional limits, making time to converse with people — but not to be anyone’s audience. Draw this line case by case, whenever and wherever you need.
To back up even further: It’s hard for anyone to rewrite the emotional terms of a long relationship. It’s harder still when the old terms are unhealthy and lifelong. You mention “childhood abuse and all the divorces” as a tangent, but how is that not central?
To have kids fend for themselves on the material margins is a valid doctrine; to do so emotionally is an abdication of parental duty.
Some therapists will charge on a sliding scale, so consider looking for a good one near you. Your parents’ legacy might run deeper than you know.