Care and Feeding

My Narcissistic Mom Treats My Son Terribly

A woman in her mid-fifties wags her finger.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Like a lot of people, I have unresolved issues with my mother. She’s incredibly narcissistic and difficult to reason with, and she imbued me with a lot of bad habits and coping strategies by inappropriately treating me as a confidant instead of a child when I was growing up. I’ve had therapy for this, I’ve accepted that she’s not going to be held accountable for her behavior, and that trying to discuss it with her is a losing battle (she will weep and tell me how hard she tried and what a waste her life has been). I have modified my approach to our relationship, and things have been mostly okay for years.

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But now I have my own child. Recently, my son (he’s 1) threw some food on the floor and my mother told him, “You know, that wasn’t very smart.” On another day, she was showing him how to hit a gong and he didn’t get it right away, and she said, “You’re not the sharpest tack.” The way she talks to him has made me realize that it’s likely she taught me a lot of life skills by berating and criticizing me. I can’t believe I was not aware of this until now. When she told me that I don’t have to toilet train my son “because kids will figure it out eventually,” it made me wonder if the way she toilet trained me (or didn’t, I guess) was to criticize me for not using the toilet until I felt bad about myself and figured out what I was supposed to do.

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So I’m now faced with a few things. Obviously I get to go back to therapy, which is super exciting for me, but unlike other issues in my history with my mom, I can’t work through this myself and then move on—I also have to handle the way she talks to my son. Is it better to correct the behavior each time I see/hear it, or to try to have a talk with her about it in general? I’m not sure which method is more likely to get through to her, which way is less likely to trigger a narcissistic tantrum, and how long I have to deal with this before my son starts to internalize it. We see my parents once a month or so, so it’s not extremely frequent but also not that infrequent.

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—Breaking the Cycle

Dear Breaking,

One thing that amazes me at my advanced age is that our issues with our parents come back to haunt us (or maybe just keep haunting us, even if they’ve sometimes been quiet ghosts for years at a time) throughout our lives. Even those of us who’ve been in therapy will find that at key moments, childhood trauma—particularly the earliest of it—will come roaring back and need to be addressed and struggled with yet again.

One of the great challenges of this, I think, is to figure out how to separate our own childhood selves from our children. Of course you want to protect your year-old son from his grandmother’s criticism; of course you want to make sure she doesn’t do him the harm she did you. And I am all in favor of your responding to each occasion of her insults with a corrective measure of some kind (as matter-of-factly, and with as much good humor, as you can—like, “Oh, that’s silly, Mom. He’s a year old—throwing food on the floor is kind of his job” or, “Goodness! He’s the sharpest tack I know!”) and also finding a time when she seems relatively receptive and telling her that you don’t like it when she insults your child. You may indeed trigger a narcissistic tantrum—it may not take much—and you may not get through to her either way. (Although who knows? Over time, you may; or maybe, if you call her out on this enough, even if you don’t “get through,” she’ll cut it out just because she’s sick of what she’ll consider your harping on it.)

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But I want you to keep this in mind: While it’s painful for you to hear her saying the sorts of things to your child that you’re sure she must have said to you, she cannot do him the harm she did to you. The dynamic here is entirely different. You are his parent; you’re the one who matters. And if she keeps up being mean to him when he is old enough to understand what she is saying, he won’t internalize it—she won’t ruin him. What she’ll ruin is her relationship with him. (I know this firsthand because I had one grandmother who did exactly that with her constant insults and criticism. And while I know it must have hurt my father deeply to hear his mother talking to me the way she must have talked to him, she did not do to me what she did to him—it simply wasn’t possible.) So even as you stand up to her, which I think you need to do for your own sake, try to keep her unpleasantness in perspective. Your son is safe because she is not his mother.

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Slate Plus Members Get More Advice from Michelle Each Week

From this week’s letter, I Don’t Want My Dad to Share Custody of Me With My Mom: “I’m not saying I never want to see him again, but I can’t hang out with him and pretend everything’s okay.”

Dear Care and Feeding,

My personality has always clashed with my parents’, and although they were good enough parents and kept me clothed and fed, they never liked me as a person. I figured this out in my teen years and just kind of accepted it, trying to cause the least friction possible. Now I’m a mother to the most wonderful baby boy. I adore him! When my parents were over recently and my son started fussing, my mother turned to me and said something along the lines of, “Now you get to see how hard it is to put up with an annoying kid!” I was furious. I told her sternly that my son was being a baby, not being “annoying,” and both my parents were visibly confused and hurt; they left soon after.

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After the fact, I’m of two minds. They were clearly trying to commiserate with me now that I’m a parent too, and I was rude to them—but I will never let them make my son erroneously think that he is annoying or unlikeable. I think I overreacted in the moment because of my own issues with feeling unlikeable as a child. I shouldn’t project that onto my son’s relationship with them, but even as a joke I don’t think it’s appropriate or accurate to call an innocent baby “annoying.” How do I bring these two ideas together to be fair to both my son and my parents, without making it all about me?

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—Three Generations of Personality Clashes

Dear TGoPC,

I’m sympathetic to your “overreacting” in the moment. I’m afraid I would have reacted the same way. I am hypersensitive, in fact, to this sort of comment, even when it’s made by a perfect stranger—even when it’s said about a baby to whom I am not related. But I have learned to keep my mouth shut when someone talks to me about “good” babies—the ones who sleep a lot, don’t cry a lot, and are easy to calm and quiet when they do cry—versus “bad” ones. I’ve wasted too much breath defending the non-sleeping criers who are hard to soothe, arguing that there is simply no such thing as a bad baby. People who see babies this way are never going to change their minds.

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And as I just told Breaking the Cycle, we never fully recover from our own childhoods. Even with plenty of therapy, whatever harm was done to us in our earliest years is likely to rear its ugly head from time to time, particularly (but not only!) around issues having to do with our own children. I would venture to say, too, that if as a teenager you made the decision to accept your parents’ attitude toward you and just get on with it, then you have probably repressed a great deal of sadness and anger. Being disliked by one’s parents is a brutal experience for a child, who rightfully expects—and needs—to be loved by their parents. That means that there is every chance that this scenario is going to repeat. That is: your parents will say something to or about your child that will get under your skin, triggering—as it were—your own childhood disappointment and pain.

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You seem to be well aware that your parents’ relationship with your child is going to be different from their relationship with you, and aware that you don’t want to undermine it by confusing him with you (the child-you). I think that awareness will go a long way. I don’t think you will undermine it.

If it turns out they are going to be good grandparents—and we all know that many people whose parenting was less than stellar end up being loving grandparents—I don’t think you need to be afraid that your projecting your feelings will cause trouble (for him or for them). But I think it’s probably time for you to take stock of the damage they did to you and not let them off the hook so easily. I don’t mean that you need to confront them; I mean that you need to acknowledge fully what your childhood felt like. This may help you to be less reactive when they say something that may be innocent (or seem innocent to them, anyway) but that is bound to press your buttons. What you want is to be able to get to the point where you can—as noted above—matter-of-factly brush off what they say (“Annoying? Oh my, not to me!”) while simultaneously correcting them when they say something you deem inappropriate.

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Catch Up on Care and Feeding

•  If you missed Friday’s column, read it here.
•  Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 12-year-old daughter has always been somewhat counterculture in her style. She is very artistic and often wears clothes she has designed herself. Recently we were swimming and I noticed she had a lot of hair under her arms. I asked her mother if she had explained about shaving, and she had. Apparently our daughter doesn’t want to shave because (she feels) it’s a social rule she doesn’t want to follow. I get it, but I’m afraid the other kids are going to give her a hard time when they notice. I’ve tried to convince her with gentle prodding to consider shaving, to no avail. I don’t want to say, “Just do it!” but I think she should. Am I being unsympathetic? Am I supposed to just “let her be her” even if it means she’s unknowingly making her life more difficult?

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—Bushwhacked in Bradenton

Dear Bushwhacked,

Yes, you are indeed supposed to let her be her, at least when it comes to making decisions such as this one. Are there any circumstances when a parent should override a 12-year-old’s self-determination? Of course—when her health or safety is at risk.

Trust me: your daughter knows all about shaving versus not shaving. She’s made a decision about her own body that is absolutely none of your business. (And my guess is she knows exactly how to handle it if anyone gives her a hard time. But even if she doesn’t, she’ll figure it out.)

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am very excited that gender role stereotypes are being targeted for change. I’m optimistic, though not unrealistically certain, that the majority of Americans will someday appreciate this sort of diversity. I wish more adults would lead by example to teach their kids about arbitrary definitions, and this is absolutely my intention with my own children. But I find myself wondering about whether we should just move to “they/them” pronouns for everyone. Wouldn’t that help us see people as people, rather than pigeonholing them by gender? So I find myself wondering if I ought to teach my children to think about people in this way? The only thing that gives me pause is that LGBTQ+ labels may help people embrace who they are. But do we need to—and should we—define ourselves with such labels? We know that identities and choices can be fluid, don’t we? Am I missing something important?

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—Thanks for your Perspective

Dear TfyP,

The important thing you’re missing is that we ought to use the pronouns—and the names, and the honorifics—that people ask us to use for them. Everyone is entitled to define their own identity, and respectful people honor that. That is what—or rather, one of the things—you need to teach your children.

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—Michelle

More Advice From Slate

Our daughter (17F) sat us down last night and explained that she was in love with the (16M) neighbor next door. Instead of being delighted, as we’ve known the boy since birth and they’ve been friends almost as long, my husband threw a fit and forbade her from seeing him ever again. An argument ensued and our daughter accused my husband of being racist (we’re Filipino and the neighbors are Black.)

When he shared his reasons for reacting the way he did, my world changed forever. And I don’t know what to do with this information.

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