Queeries: How do I tell my mum she’s hurting me?
Sometimes you've got to nurture your own mental health says our Fagony Aunt. You have the freedom to walk away.
21 Mar 2021
Dear Fagony Aunt,
I’m a queer 21-year-old Pakistani person who recently moved back home after a few years away. During that time I accessed counselling services after a big mental health dip and it really helped. Throughout my childhood, my mum has been angry, impatient, stressed and abusive towards me and my siblings. She lacks general patience or understanding and perceives herself as perfect or really good at everything. She’s really quick to react, and instead of recognising that she’s hurt, she gets aggressive and angry straight away. She blames her issues with my younger brother on me, saying that me accessing counselling means she has no faith in her parenting anymore.
I’ve suggested her getting therapy once before but she said she doesn’t need it. She’s flat out told me she doesn’t want any feedback from me, good or bad because it’s all manipulative. I’ve been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and see a lot of those traits in my mum too so I’m tryna bear that in mind when I interact with her. I really do have her best interests at heart and am looking to grow with her and compromise so that we can have a healthier and happier relationship, but I have younger siblings that are affected by this more directly than I am so I want to get some help.
I need to explain that some of her expectations and mood swings are extreme and unreasonable but I think this would be perceived by her as gaslighting. How do I broach the topic of her mental health possibly needing some attention given she’s super sensitive, defensive and perceives everything I’m saying as a criticism or an excuse for my own incompetence?
Okey dokey, lots here, thank you for sharing it! Luckily for you, I do consider myself something of a m*mmy issues connoisseur although top tip, don’t put that in your Tinder bio. We’ve all been knowing that dads aren’t shit but sometimes, often, mums hurt us too. It’s not all hard work, sacrifice, home-cooked meals and tenderness. In the place where nuance, personality, trauma and the death of the gender binary meet, lives mean mums, mamans, mzazis, hooyos, ammis… There’s something particularly sharp and lonely about being treated unkindly by your own mum and my heart really and truly goes out to you. You are not incompetent. You’re clearly trying so, so hard to make things better for absolutely everyone and she is so very lucky to have someone like you as a child whether she’s able to understand or express that or not.
Something that never left me after reading All About Love, the 1999 novel by bell hooks, was her discussion of how completely powerless children are and how depressing that is. “[Children] are the true victims of intimate terrorism in that they have no collective voice and no rights. They remain the property of parenting adults to do with as they will… Whenever domination is present, love is lacking,” she wrote. For too many people, childhood is a place where neglect, violence, criticism or punishment get partially or fully swapped in where affirmation, care and love should be. Because these are our only life experiences, we come to think they’re normal but they don’t have to be. It’s worth sitting with this reality of powerlessness because I reckon a lot of your work going forward will be about soothing that young child who needed to feel safe and be heard. What I mean is, more important than speaking with your mum about her health, is nurturing yours. Let’s start there.
The fantastic news here is you’re not a child anymore, and while it might not always feel like it, you have freedoms and options you didn’t have before. You’ve left home before and I would highly recommend doing it again. Of course, there are things keeping you there – financial incentives, convenience, your siblings, guilt, obligation, duty – but ask yourself if any of those things are worth sacrificing your mental health for. What you’ve described is a toxic environment in which you are routinely belittled, blamed, shouted at, misinterpreted and punished for wanting to take care of yourself and others. It’s not okay or right or fair and you don’t have to tolerate it. I wouldn’t be surprised if the thought of leaving home permanently makes you feel guilty or like you’re rejecting or turning your back on your mum and wider family because abusive dynamics are kind of built to make you feel like that. Try not to let those feelings trap you into staying in an unhealthy environment. The erosion of your mental health will help no-one in the long run, and creating some decent physical space will likely foster new, healthier, boundaried channels of communication between you and your mum that just aren’t possible right now.
“You’re not a child anymore and you have freedoms and options you didn’t have before”
Whether you leave or stay, we need to find a way for you to start practising centring yourself and your needs. After reading your question I legitimately had to turn around and have a small nap because stepping into your head for a mere three mins was exhausting babe!! You are doing so much work my dear :////////////////, to parent your mum, your siblings and yourself at the same time. It’s way too much pressure, and while I’m sure you’re doing an absolutely beautiful job, it’s not your place to save your mum. You cannot have this conversation with someone who does not want to have it!
I know this can feel so cold and uncomfortable to internalise, and perhaps is not traditionally how we do things in our beloved families of colour, but your mother’s happiness is hers and hers alone to find and maintain. Her unhappiness is not your fault, your doing or your responsibility. There are a million ways we could pathologise, make excuses for or meaningfully deconstruct your mother’s behaviour and needs, but I’m making a conscious effort not to do that here, and I hope you’ll find a way to maintain the same energy going forward. All this love, empathy and compassion you’re using to try and reach someone who clearly is not able to receive it right now needs to be directed back to you. You deserve it too.
It sounds like you’ve tried in many ways to communicate to your mum that you are concerned for her wellbeing and want to support her. She is not able, ready or willing to hear it and it’s apparent that not only does she not want your input, but she’s okay with making you feel terrible for trying! This is very negative energy that I wish for you to shelter yourself from, but if you did want to approach the subject one more time, perhaps you could write her a letter or record her a video or voice note. This way you may be able to replace the defensive confrontations that you’ve described with something tangible that she can look back on when she’s alone or in a receptive mood, and you can also shield yourself from her immediate response.
Use this moment to explain how her behaviour impacts you, what you need from her, what boundaries you’re putting in place for the time being, and what you’ll be happy to offer her when she is ready to receive help. Are you down to help her find a therapist, or suggest some reading materials or supportive communities she could join? Is she looking for support doing the shopping or caring for your siblings? Maybe she’s down to write back to you?! Let her meet you on equal footing when she’s ready to do so with openness and kindness. Until then, do what you have to do, but protect your energy.
“Use this moment to explain how her behaviour impacts you and what you’ll be happy to offer her when she is ready to receive help”
I want to acknowledge that your siblings are a big part of this for you. Please don’t underestimate how much you’re already doing by being such a thoughtful, protective, caring sibling and friend to them. Sometimes we can’t immediately change a situation because we don’t have the power to, so we do what we can. We uplift each other. We pick up the phone, we get on the bus late at night, we feed each other. Your ability to communicate to your siblings that they aren’t to blame for their mother’s anger, and your validation of their pain and grief, will help them grow to understand that this doesn’t have to be the norm and they aren’t the problem. It will afford them some valuable mental distance that you probably didn’t have. That’s huge! By investing in yourself and your own happiness, something your mum might not have so far been able to do, you can also model independence, responsibility and joy for them (not that you have to). Don’t think you have to stay suffering in the same environment to be supportive.
It’s so hard to draw boundaries around and between the things and people we know and love, because who tf knows what’s lurking on the other side of it all?? Trust yourself though, it’s good stuff. When we grow up around turbulence and abuse, not only do we come to find it normal, but it begins to feel familiar and sometimes even desirable. We may even wish to seek it out and replicate it in other relationships in our lives. The thing is, intensity isn’t love and if someone is not able to meet you with respect, you do not have to accept it. You deserve the chance to figure out what love can feel like on your terms, and while boundaries might feel cruel or harsh, they can help create the groundwork for much more honest, kind, clear and loving relationships.
Parent problems can sometimes feel like a lose-lose situation. You stay within the painful dynamic you’re currently in, of being continually dismissed and shut down by someone you care about and are trying to help, hoping that something will change, or you create and maintain real boundaries and run the risk of having to tolerate any guilt, anger, pain or isolation that comes with that. Remember though, however you choose to handle this, it doesn’t have to be forever. Things might and probably will shift over time, especially if the environment within which this dynamic has flourished is shaken up a bit.
Oh, and with respect, if you’re able, get your ass back into therapy ASAP and help your sibs access it too. You can’t do the work for your mum but you have plenty of your own bullshit to rummage through, and who knows – maybe your dedication to yourself will rub off on her…
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