Hax: Daughter is trying to raise 'Momchild'

  • Article by: CAROLYN HAX
  • Updated: December 4, 2011 - 1:47 PM

Dear Carolyn: I don't know how to deal with my mom and her recent irresponsible decisions. She is in love again with her on-again-off-again boyfriend. To mark this new development, he recently gave her a very expensive "commitment ring," or, as I like to call it, an "I cheated on you, so here's a blinding diamond to forget about that" ring. She says in another life it would be an engagement ring (not sure what that means) and she is "sooo happy."

I've witnessed two-plus years of the emotional roller coaster this man has put her on, but apparently my mom has forgotten all about that. I am 27; she is 57. I would define our relationship as more of a best-friend relationship rather than a traditional mother-daughter relationship.

This has proven to be difficult at times, in that she tells me everything, the good, the bad and the ugly. Yet, knowing all this guy has put her through, she walks back into his arms and expects me to be their No. 1 cheerleader.

I have explained to her that I want her to be happy but that she is setting a bad example for me and my siblings, as well as making a decision that will likely lead to heartache for her (again), and she needs to wake up! I've been supportive, diplomatic, and tried tough love. Mom seems unwilling to hear or accept the truth. What do I do?

Carolyn says: First, I suggest you advance another step in your redefinition of your relationship with your mom. It's not traditional mother-daughter, and it's not best friends -- it's really that you're in the parent role, trying to raise a 57-year-old Momchild.

Next, take a look at what that says about your mom's idea of boundaries, an overused word I can't overuse enough. She's not keeping her behavior within adult bounds, and she's not keeping information within parental bounds.

Next, take a look at the way you've internalized her disregard for (ignorance of?) boundaries. You, at 27, are not keeping your behavior and information within adult-child bounds. Specifically, you've involved yourself in Mom's relationship drama, trying to get her to "wake up" and "accept the truth," and you're even trying to teach her how to be a parent with your concern about her "bad example."

In other words, please see that you're fully symptomatic with the family affliction.

The path to family health isn't for you to cure your mom of what ails her, be it the emotional crack addiction that is her current relationship, or the profound immaturity that sent her in search of that high.

Nor would it be your place to if you could; adults, even those fitting that description only in the chronological sense, get to decide what self-improvement they need and what they'll do to get it. Please accept that your mom's relationship is as bad as she wants it to be.

Also accept that the only productive path here is for you to get well, by choosing healthier ways to respond to your mom. You can stop thinking and hoping she'll change, for one. You can stop pinning your view of success and/or happiness to her changing. You can also choose not to listen to her good, her bad or her ugly love-life revelations: "You're my mother and I love you, but I'm not going to get involved in the boyfriend drama anymore."

In fact, just by giving her teenage romance so much of your attention these past two years, you've encouraged her to pursue it, deftly undermining your own intent.

So withdraw all negative attention by putting up your Mom-I'm-done boundary and, more important, enforcing it.

You can: (1) be firm while still being kind, and say her ring is lovely (and not harp on it); (2) say you hope they're happy (and not qualify it); (3) decline to support her antics with "You know how I feel about that" (and not re-explain it); (4) express "Aw, Mom, I'm sorry" dismay when something goes wrong (and not told-you-so it).

You can't: (1) talk her off the thrill ride or (2) ride it with her.

Your mom-habits will be difficult to break; the path to therapy is well worn by others who've been in your place. Should you ever conclude you can't change your pattern alone, getting competent help would make sense for you, too.

Just know that your detailed awareness of your mother's frailties puts you in the strongest position to identify, isolate and address your own. Think of yours as a search for two strategies: one to recognize the sensation of getting sucked into someone else's drama, and another to have the words ready that distinguish your business from hers. Two stellar examples to set.

E-mail Carolyn Hax at tellme@washpost.com, or chat with her at 11 a.m. each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.

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