Care and Feeding

My Newly Divorced Mom Is Acting Like She’s 17 Again

How do I get her to stop wearing my clothes?

A middle-aged woman dressed younger than she is.
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,

I’m 17 and will be out of the house for college next year, so maybe I should just wait this out, but it’s really bothering me. My parents got divorced recently, and it’s like my mom is trying to be me now. She keeps “borrowing” my clothes and accessories (without asking, so is that borrowing?). We are around the same size, but she’s 45! It makes me uncomfortable. She says she “feels young” and that I shouldn’t judge her for her determination to start over without my dad. I don’t mean to be body-shaming her! If she wants to wear different clothes, that’s fine. But these are my clothes! It’s especially bad if she picks me up from school. How do I get her to stop?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

—Mine, Not Yours

Dear Mine,

No, you shouldn’t wait this out—it’s not good for either of you. Your mom is going through a rough time (and I feel for her), but going shopping in your closet is a violation of your privacy and your boundaries. I appreciate your noting that you don’t mean to body-shame her and that you don’t disapprove of her wanting to shake up her style of dress—but I also wonder if you really mean it. (What makes me wonder? The way you say but she’s 45!) So before I help you get your mother to back slowly away from your closet, let me pause to ask you to let go of your assumption that a middle-aged woman should dress in any particular way. I can pretty much assure you that your own enjoyment of whatever kinds of clothes you like to wear now will not magically disappear when you reach a certain age. And I want to make it very clear that there are in fact no rules about what people should wear—that although there are those who insist/pretend that aging means giving up fun clothes for more “sensible” ones, or clothes that do a better job hiding/disguising an aging body, this is (in a word) bullshit. No rules. Everybody ought to be left in peace to wear what they like.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

It sounds like (among other things) your mother is rebelling against her own rules about clothes, and/or against the “uniform” she wore for all the years of her marriage. She wants (and needs) to shake things up. New clothes, utterly unlike the ones she wore while she was married to your father, are a feel-good, harmless, probably liberating way for her to begin to do that. New clothes are a stand-in for new life, new self. All of that is fine.

Advertisement
Advertisement

But she needs to buy her own new clothes. And you need to tell her that, as kindly and lovingly as you can. If you can’t figure out a way to say this, just hand her this column. (And if she objects that it would be silly to spend money on new clothes when under her own roof there is a perfectly good supply of them that she has paid for herself, it is time to have a talk with her about healthy boundaries and respect. And to point her to the nearest cool-clothes thrift store.)

Advertisement

Slate Plus Members Get More Advice from Michelle Each Week

From this week’s letter, I’m Dreading the Fights I’m About to Have Over My New Baby: “It nearly tore my mental health to shreds last time to have so much conflict.”

Advertisement
Advertisement

Dear Care and Feeding,

My mother frequently makes comments that make me feel like a child who doesn’t know how to run her own life. I’m 39 and married! Most recently she has been harping on two things that really bother me. One is that my husband and I are “too independent” because we each often travel by ourselves and our friend groups don’t overlap much. (It’s always been like this for us, and it works.) The other thing she won’t let up on has to do with what I choose to wear. Because of her intrusiveness, I visit rarely (birthdays and holidays only) and communicate with her only when I absolutely have to. But this past weekend I was visiting for my father’s birthday, and she made three separate comments about how what I was wearing was “inappropriate.” None of what I wore was inappropriate to me. One was a band shirt that did have the f word on it (my choice, not her business!); another was a pair of shorts that were “too short” (fwiw, I have worn SHORT shorts in my life, but at my age I’m over that). How do I get my mom to stop giving me her opinions and suggestions on things when I don’t want them? When I ask her to stop, she insists it’s just because she cares or is worried about me.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

—Old Enough to Dress Myself

Dear Old Enough,

Your mother is unlikely to stop offering her unwanted opinions and suggestions no matter what you say or do. I’ve said this before, of course, but it’s always worth repeating (and repeat after me, OK?): We cannot make others change their ways. We can only change the way we respond to them.

You’ve already limited your time and contact with her in order to protect yourself. That’s one healthy way to respond. Now you need to figure out how to keep from feeling miserable every time you do see her.

The truth is that no one can make anyone feel anything. That is: if you felt confident, secure, and happy in all of your own choices, your mother’s hectoring you would not be getting under your skin this way. If you can’t brush off her comments, you might want to think harder about how you feel about yourself. It would be great to get to a place where her comments bounce off you so lightly and meaninglessly that if she is saying these things to destabilize you, she’ll stop (because what fun is it to pick at someone when they’re unaffected by it?). If she is genuinely worried but there’s nothing to worry about—you are truly just fine the way you are (and who cares what anyone else, your mother included, thinks of the way you and your husband conduct your marriage? It’s nobody’s business but your own and you are happy with it!)—maybe she’s just a compulsive worrier; maybe you need to work on how to live with that (and ignore it). As to her comments specifically on your clothes: as I just told Mine, Not Yours, everybody needs to get out of everybody else’s way when it comes to what they want to wear—but some people seem to insist on being the clothes police. That doesn’t mean you have to pay attention when they issue a summons. (I do have one question, though: If you know she’s going to give you a hard time about what you wear, and you know it bothers you a lot when she does so, why would you wear a t-shirt with “the f word” emblazoned across it? Are you absolutely sure you weren’t baiting her?)

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

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,

After my dad left my mom, she and I got really close. We’ve been through everything together for the last seven years. But she’s been really stressed my entire senior year, and the closer we get to my starting college, the worse she gets. She tried to get me to do college remotely, and I understand why she was upset that I didn’t want to when it was an option, but I did most of high school remotely, and I want the social aspect of school as well. She makes comments a lot that honestly kind of hurt my feelings, as pathetic as that sounds, about how I’m leaving her like my dad did, and she’ll be alone forever, etc. When I say that isn’t true, she cries. She keeps asking me not to go, and I know it’s not in a joking way because she gets mad when I say it’s important to me. I thought it was normal mom sadness about her daughter leaving for college, but she’s getting more stressed the further into summer we get, and now that I’m leaving in a few weeks she has started yelling and trying to unpack my stuff. I guess my question is, how do people leave home without destroying their parents? I’ve been telling her I’ll call and text all the time, come back on holidays, always be available, etc., but it’s not helping. She’s really heartsick and I feel so guilty about making her life harder even before I leave, let alone after.

Advertisement
Advertisement

—Sad Mom, Guilty Kid

Advertisement

Dear SMGK,

I’m so sorry you’re having to deal with this. Your mother needs professional help. Is there an adult in your life you can confide in who might be effective at persuading her to seek this out? And in the meantime—and I don’t mean to be alarmist, but her shouting at you and unpacking your belongings as you get ready to leave for college is alarming—you need to concentrate on your own wellbeing. Is there a place you can go (a grandparent’s? an aunt or uncle’s? a friend’s family?) when your mother harangues you about leaving? I know you’re worried about her (I am too) but what’s happening is way, way beyond “normal mom sadness.” You are not making her life harder, as much as she insists you are. Her heartsickness is not something you can cure.

Advertisement

And to your question about how other people leave home without destroying their parents? It’s because their parents do not expect them to take care of them, to put their (the parents’) unhealthy needs ahead of their own healthy ones. A child grows up and leaves home, starts their own life, becomes independent of their parents—that’s how it’s supposed to be. Your mother can’t abide that because she’s not well. You mustn’t let this derail you from living your life. (And I would say too that calling and texting constantly once you leave for college is not a good idea—not for either one of you. Don’t promise you will “always be available.” You should not always be available when you’re away at college [or now].) I know this is going to be hard for both of you—for her, because she has convinced herself that you are all that’s between her and a life of loneliness and emptiness and grief; for you, because she’s convinced you of that too. But it’s not true. She needs to learn this, and you need to untangle yourself from her, and from this folie à deux. I’ll be thinking of you as you go off to school, and of her too—I hope she gets the help she needs.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Want Advice From Care and Feeding?

Submit your questions about parenting and family life here. It’s anonymous! (Questions may be edited for publication.)

Dear Care and Feeding,

A couple of years ago, just before the pandemic, my husband, our two daughters, and I were fortunate enough to be able to take a vacation to Disneyland with my parents and my brothers and their families. My relationships with my brothers’ wives have been complicated over the years and we weren’t exactly chummy, but we were at least amicable (before this trip).

I’m an exhaustive planner and made sure to shop for and bring most of our meals into the park with us to save money. The first day of our trip, one brother’s wife (who was pregnant at the time) mentioned how good the salad I had brought looked. I’d planned to share it with my mom, but I gave it to my sister-in-law, leaving my mom to go and buy some lunch. Then, while I was doling out mini cucumbers to my children, my brother’s daughter whispered to my brother and he asked if she could have a cucumber. I gave her mine. After eating it, she whispered to him again and he asked if she could have another. I gave her my husband’s. As I mentioned, I’m a planner, so I had allocated a cucumber each for my parents, husband, children, and myself, but my niece proceeded to ask for a third. I refused, and, to make a long story short, my brother and his wife are still hung up on it to this day. And when I mean hung up, I mean, he stills tells my mom that if they had had cucumbers and my daughter had asked for all of them, they wouldn’t have hesitated to give them to her. The funny thing is, they didn’t (and never do) bring food that isn’t Goldfish or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches because they aren’t planners. My SIL has mentioned that her “brain just doesn’t work that way.” Anyway, this and other incidents on that trip have led to her to say she would never take another family trip with me again. We haven’t spoken since.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

I could say more about the nature of the dynamics in my family, but I want to zero in on the cucumber episode. Was I wrong to withhold cucumbers? Should I have just given them all to my niece to keep the peace? Two and a half years on, and they’re still talking about it.

—Confounded over Cucumbers

Dear Confounded,

I don’t think this is about cucumbers. I think your sister-in-law (and your brother?) were looking for an excuse to cut you out of their life. I have a sneaking suspicion that you have been looking for a reason to be the aggrieved party, too. Even without hearing about “the nature of the dynamics” of the family, it seems clear that this was a fissure waiting to happen.

Advertisement

Since you dislike—or at least disapprove of—your brother’s wife and her inability to plan ahead, I’m not sure why you’re disappointed about never taking a family trip with them again. (You note that you’re not a fan of other sisters-in-law either!) And while sure, it seems petty for them to still be talking about miniature cucumbers all this time later, I’ll confess that it seems a little petty to me that you packed precisely the number of tiny cucumbers that you needed for your family. They’re mini cucumbers—how much room can they take up? Why not throw a whole bag of them in your tote and pass them out? To demonstrate what a poor planner your sister-in-law is? To show all concerned that you are the better mother, smarter about nutrition—deeply committed to offering whole, healthy foods to your children while others settle for Goldfish crackers and PB&J? Why not spread the good nutrition around?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

I’m not suggesting you be tasked with feeding everyone (though since you’re good at this, and others are not, it might have been a family-wide plan in advance of the trip, with others being assigned tasks that fit their skills and talents, too). I understand that you are not responsible for anyone but your own children. But it’s nice to share (you’ve taught your kids that, no?), and by now you must know in advance that your nieces and nephews don’t have parents who think ahead…and (I’m going out on a limb here) you must love them. That’s why this all seems to be about more than (and maybe even not at all about) cucumbers.

—Michelle

More Advice From Slate

Generally speaking, when one parent or the other is periodically gone for a brief business trip, what level of parenting is acceptable? I’m talking about things like meals, screens, etc. In our family it’s usually two days tops, maybe once every two months.

Advertisement