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Dear Care and Feeding,
I’m a 32-year-old single mom. My sister is 18 months younger than me, has school-aged twin daughters, and is remarried. We also have two younger adult brothers. Growing up, our family went through a lot, but now (pandemic notwithstanding), everyone is doing pretty OK with their individual adult lives. During childhood, Mom would punish us with the silent treatment for offending her, and it could last for weeks. She continues this practice now, despite it being somewhat less effective now that we’re not in her house.
My sister and I are both invested in breaking these unhealthy cycles with our own children. Recently, she has been at odds with our mother, and has asked for some space after repeated attempts to get Mom to respect her boundaries. Mom was distressed and asked to call me about it. I listened to her talk for two hours and was dismayed to hear a lack of accountability to the conflict, complete contempt for “boundaries” (immediately after expressing her understanding of them), and disregard to mention events I know took place. Worst of all was her admission that she doesn’t know if she can let go of her pride over this issue. In the same breath that she tells me she’s scared of my sister withholding her girls, she lets me know that if this conflict isn’t resolved in a way that suits her, SHE will choose to cut off contact. I told her how sad that was to hear and that it made me feel like she would do the same thing to my son and I if we had a disagreement or I tried to hold a boundary with her. Eventually, our call “got cut off,” and although we had cordial texts afterward, she is clearly now attempting to give me the long-distance silent treatment.
I respect if she needs space (and I am not interested in fawning for her attention as I would have as a child), but this woman we love is constantly sending us (and now her grandchildren) the message that her love is retractable at any time. I don’t want to extend any olive branch only for things to remain the same, and I don’t want to drive two hours to visit her after vaccinations if she’s going to make me feel unwanted. I don’t feel like I should have to keep fighting this fight. I’m not in this place anymore, filled with judgment and spite. My life is really happy and filled with people who love me in ways I didn’t know was possible. I know the amount of fawning I will have to do to win her attention back, but I absolutely will not treat myself this way or allow her to make me think I did something wrong by not telling her she was right during our phone conversation.
My mom is hurting herself so much with her behavior, but she refuses to examine it even as it reaches the point of absurdity. How do I keep my mom and my kid’s grandma in our lives without enabling her to play this cold-shoulder power game?
—A Momming Mom
I am so sorry to hear that your mother is behaving in such a manipulative and unkind way. Without knowing what her issues are, I can imagine that there is some source for her insecurity as it relates to her children, as well as her lack of self-awareness about how it manifests—is there something about her, her background, her family, that contextualizes any of what she’s been doing? I’m not sure what exactly your sister and you have done to help address some of the pains of your childhood, as well as your continued relationship to your mother, but as I often do, I will advise that a professional therapist or counselor might be a significant source of support and direction as you try and navigate what happens next.
Either way, you and your sister have every right to explain how you feel to your mother about the need for boundary-setting, to erect those boundaries in ways so that she cannot step out of place—and to hold her accountable when she does. Furthermore, you also have the right to set the terms for what participating in your life, and in your children’s lives, must look like. Be firm: Tell her that you aren’t going to suffer the silent treatment and mean it. As you said, you have these healthier versions of love in your life, and she has the choice to at least try and be more respectful of her daughters, or to step aside and let you all focus on your children, as opposed to her mess. Wishing you lots of luck.
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