Care and Feeding

My Mom’s a Total Narcissist. Is It Time to Cut Her Out of My Life?

A woman with her suitcase.
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 considering cutting my mom out of my (and my child’s) life. She comes for visits twice a year and stays with us in my small apartment. Prior to my daughter’s birth four years ago, and when we lived near each other, she didn’t ever visit or call, and I’d have to ask if I would see her at holidays. I should mention that she meets all the criteria of a narcissist, and that I have a therapist who has said this repeatedly and encouraged me to employ grey rock techniques with her. She brings my daughter obscene amounts of clothes, far too many for her to wear before outgrowing them, and then tries to force her to wear only clothes she’s bought and gets angry with her if she doesn’t want to. She mocks the clothes she chooses to wear instead.

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On her last visit, which just ended, my child didn’t want to eat the meal my mom had prepared. I told her to try two bites of everything on the plate, and if she didn’t like it, we would get something else. She did, but the bites of one item were teeny tiny, and although I didn’t care, my mom sure did. She tried forcing the fork into her mouth and then started threatening her about “what happened to your mom when she acted this way.” What happened to me was that my mom would forcefully try to shove forkfuls of dinner into my mouth until I cried, and then she would storm out of the room, telling me I would have to sit there until my plate was clean. I would sit at the dinner table for hours while my family went and watched TV. Eventually I would be told to go to bed. Ironically, my mom also regularly called me fat and would make me calorie-restrict. I’ve had food issues all my life as a result.

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I practice gentle parenting. I’ve never and will never lay a hand on my child. This is a direct result and in complete contrast to my childhood, which included spanking, smacking, verbal assaults, and public humiliation (along with my childhood diets, I would be told in front of the whole family, “You can’t have dessert like your cousins because you’re fat and they’re not”). I could go on and on.

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I’ve had a difficult relationship with my parents my whole life and have periodically been estranged from my dad since I was a pre-teen (even when living in the same house). I’m a single mom and a foreigner living in this country. My husband brought us to the U.S. for his work and then went MIA. Lots of therapy has taught me that I married a narcissist due to being raised by narcissists. But I’m scared cutting my mom out will also cut out my whole extended family, as they may choose sides. I feel like a small island floating alone in the sea, and while I don’t want my daughter exposed to the abuse that filled my childhood, I want her to have a support network. I never want her to feel as alone as I feel. I don’t know what to do.

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—A Terrible Parent or None at All

Dear ATPoNaA,

An abusive, narcissistic parent is not better than none at all. As everyone knows by now, I am loathe to suggest cutting ties with a parent except under the most extreme circumstances. I think this qualifies. If the rest of your extended family cuts you off in retaliation, they weren’t much of a support network to begin with.

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Start working on building your own support network for you and your daughter. The families we choose can very often better ones than those we’re born into. Protecting your daughter from her grandmother is more important than preserving the illusion of family togetherness. Make friends. Form your own community, for your sake and your child’s.

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Slate Plus Members Get More Advice From Michelle Herman Each Week

From this week’s letter, How Do I Explain Why I Refuse to Leave My Child Alone With My Father?One thing I had always been clear on was that I would not allow my future children near him unsupervised.” 

Dear Care and Feeding,

My almost-2-year-old is more intense than my other children. She demands more attention, has very strong opinions (the kid has had passionate musical likes/dislikes since the age of 5 months), and screams when she doesn’t get her way. She is always “on,” and she is a mix of clever and lacking common sense—such as when she sneaked off and gave herself a bath just after her first birthday. Her language skills are fine.

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I know you must be thinking, “Yup, sounds like a toddler,” but I don’t remember my other kids being so difficult! One was moodier than this one, but overall my usual techniques (clear boundaries, setting the child up for success, positive reinforcement, getting the kid to “help,” giving positive rather than negative directions, etc.) just aren’t very effective with her so far. I don’t see anything that screams “sensory processing disorder” or “autism” or any other developmental disorder, but of course I am no expert. (I mean, she prefers being naked to wearing clothes, but most kids do, and she doesn’t evince any special discomfort when we make her put clothes on.) Any advice for me besides “Well, tincture of time solves a lot of problems”? I do get her outside every day and we go to the library a good deal, and hiking when I’m able.

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—Feeling Incompetent as a Parent

Dear Feeling,

I’m no expert either—I mean, I’m an advice columnist, not a pediatric neurologist, psychiatrist, or psychologist—but since you’re asking me, I’m glad to tell you what I think.

I don’t think you have a problem—I think you just have a child. Your other kids were not so “difficult”? Well, they weren’t her. She’s more intense because … some people are more intense than others. It must indeed feel strange to have had other kids before this one who were relatively “easy.” I can imagine you would feel a bit out of your depth this time around. But you’re not incompetent. And I am not going to suggest that time will solve this “problem” (see above: not a problem). I am going to suggest that you reframe what concerns you. Instead of seeking advice to help tone down her intensity and make her—and life with her—more manageable for you, can you take a breath and let yourself appreciate your daughter for exactly who she is? Stop comparing her to her siblings (or anybody else). If she exhausts you (I’m guessing that she does, and that’s why you’re writing), enlist the help of others, paid or otherwise, to spend time with her and give yourself a break. If her personality perplexes you more than it exhausts you—or even if it both mystifies and wearies you—let yourself get to know and understand her better. I can tell you from experience that it will be worth the effort that this takes.

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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 6-year-old daughter goes to an IB primary school that has 19 different countries represented. She has people from all different countries in her class, and she’s very interested in where they come from. We also live in a majority-South Asian community. The issue (if it’s an issue?) is that she tries to say her friends’ names the way the kids say them, with their accents. So she’ll mimic an Indian accent saying an Indian name, a Russian accent saying a Russian name, etc. I asked her about this and she said she wants to respect them by saying their names exactly as they say them. But it sounds … I don’t know, kind of racist? I’ve told her she doesn’t have to imitate the way they say their own names, that just pronouncing them correctly is fine, and that some people may misinterpret what she’s doing as mocking them. She is persisting, however. Should I be cracking down on this? What more should I say?

—I Mean, Her Heart’s in the Right Place

Dear IMHHitRP,

By “correctly,” I assume you mean the way such names are pronounced in English? That’s not “correct,” it’s only familiar, commonplace, and regularly practiced by other primarily English-speakers. Your daughter is pronouncing her friends’ names precisely the way they are pronounced. Let her be. You ought to be proud of her.

—Michelle

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