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How Not to Throttle Your Mother

Dear Betsy,

My mother is destroying our family by undermining everything my husband and I are trying to do with our kids.  For example, whenever they sleep at my parents’ house, they return with expensive clothes and gifts.  Whenever I complain, my mother becomes a martyr.  And now anytime I say “No” to  the kids, they get Grandma to say “yes.”  What do we do?

Barely Civil

Dear Barely,

Your story sounds eerily familiar.  Is it possible that your mother is my mother back from the grave?  Twelve years after her death, I can still remember some very painful arguments on this subject. 

Me:  Mom, I love you.  Molly loves you.  You don’t need to buy her things to get her to want to be with you.  Can’t you guys bake or sew together?

My Mom:  I’m the Grandmother!  Grandmothers get to spoil their grandkids.  If you  don’t want Molly to have a grandmother . . . fine!  I’ll be like those grandparents who never see their grandkids.  And you can explain it to Molly. 

I’d like to say we worked it out, that eventually my mother gave in and started respecting my values and wishes.  But she didn’t.  I refused to back down, and eventually she stopped pushing.  But it wasn’t because she respected me.  After a while, she just couldn’t take anymore rejection.  She died unexpectedly when Molly was only four.  That’s how the issue got “resolved.” 

In retrospect, I wish we hadn’t had those arguments.  I know now that they hurt my mother more than I realized back then, and not because I was mean or harsh.  Certainly we both had our moments.  But that wasn’t what caused the pain. 

What caused the pain was our mutual lack of interest in or compassion toward each other.  I never asked my mother why it was so important for her to buy things for Molly that Molly didn’t need.  I didn’t care.  I was too angry.  I just wanted her to stop.  I wanted her to respect me as a mother, and stop pushing her needs onto us. 

But now that Molly is nearly grown and I am nearly 50, I understand that for my mother—the child of poor immigrants, whose bed was a wooden bench in the kitchen of her parents’ house—being able to buy nice things meant something important.  Something different from what it meant to me.  For her, shopping wasn’t a hobby.  It was a lifestyle, an art form, a sign to the world that said, “I’ve arrived.  I belong.  I’m just as good as you.” 

I know that your story is different.  That you and I are different.  That your mother has her own reasons for pushing and you have your reasons for wanting her to stop. 

All I can tell you from here is that I’m sorry for the pain I caused my mother.  In my case, I overestimated her ability to negatively influence our daughter.  I know this because after my mother’s death, my father continued to buy Molly “special little treats” she didn’t need.  She still turned out to be a lovely and gracious young woman who—interestingly enough—hates getting gifts.

Because of my own insecurities as a new mother, I underestimated my ability to teach my daughter the lessons I felt were most important.  It’s obvious now that she learned those lessons, and has become a young woman I am proud to know.  Her memories of her grandmother are of a generous, open-hearted woman who loved her lavishly. 

I wish now that I could have accepted my mother as she was, with all her anxieties and insecurities, and with all her pushiness and need for control.  It’s ironic that her efforts to protect her children from the harsh judgments of others ultimately caused her own children to judge and reject her.

If I had it to do again, I would have insisted that my mother and I see a counselor together.  Since her death, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing several women and their mothers in therapy together.  It is always healing for me to work with them, and I am always humbled and amazed at the fierce love these women have for one another.

Copyright reserved by author.

Betsy Sansby is a licensed marriage & family therapist whose private practice is in her home near Minneapolis. Betsy is the coauthor—with her husband--of seven books, and has just produced an ingenious communication tool for couples called: The OuchKit: A First-Aid Kit for Your Relationship. Clients who have used the kit describe it as: “Couples Therapy in a Box.” For more information go to: Send Betsy an email, with your question. 

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