S1: There was one time where I drove her home. I was like 21, and she was having a severe attack, and I begged her to let me drive her to the emergency room and she just would not let me. And I drove that way, just fearful she was going to die in the car and there was nothing we could do about it.
S2: You’re listening to how to. I’m Amanda Ripley. Do you remember the first time you realized your parents were not perfect, just human? As a kid, that realization can be kind of shocking, right? Then, as we age, our parents do too, and they become even more human. Our listener this week who were calling Maggie thinks about this a lot. Maggie is from North Dakota and has an extremely full family life, including four kids a husband, a dog, siblings. Both of her parents are still around, but one of them is causing her a ton of worry.
S1: My mother has severe asthma and allergies, and growing up I would see her laying in bed for days, wheezing, barely able to talk, crawling around the house because her back was out of place. I’m just really suffering.
S2: Her mom is only in her mid 60s, but as you heard, her health is shaky and it doesn’t help that her last doctor’s visit was nearly 20 years ago.
S1: We all would say, Mom, can you please go to the doctor? Because right now, half the time my mom cannot talk to you on the telephone. She can only text or email because her breathing is so bad. She had COVID last year and I wanted her to go to the doctor and was very concerned she was going to get really sick from it and would she go to the hospital? And she even told me afterwards, she’s like, Maggie, you know, it was really close there, but you know, I drank some coffee and, you know, I stuck it out on the couch kind of thing. And so combined with that fear, I have anger at the potential that I may end up caring for her, and I’m upset that I would have to take care of her when she’s refused to help herself.
S2: The way Maggie’s mom copes with the asthma attacks and extreme sensitivity is to essentially isolate herself from the world and her loved ones, which is incredibly frustrating to Maggie.
S1: She’s really angry and unpleasant to be around, and so that limits my interaction with her, and it limits my desire for my children to have interactions with her. We live less than 10 miles apart, and my mom frequently misses my kids birthday parties. And so is there a way I can get my mom to go to the doctor? How can I do that? And if not, how can I make peace? Like, how do I keep her in my life?
S2: Here’s what makes Maggie situation so heartbreaking and so familiar to so many people who are caring for aging parents. You can hear the love and worry in Maggie’s voice and right behind it, the anger and resentment. What do you do when a full grown adult will not help herself and that person is your mom?
S1: Her responses are always very angry. Thank you for your concern, but I’m fine.
S2: So today on the show, we’re tackling the age old question Can you change your parents? And if you can’t, then what? We’re bringing on a nurse turned novelist who is intimately acquainted with family drama and recently wrote a whole book about her own perfectly imperfect parents. Don’t storm out the door. We’ll be right back.
S3: I just want to say that this is so hard, and I really admire you for staying with this struggle and trying to find. A solution. It comes from a place of caring.
S2: That’s Elizabeth Berg. She’s a former nurse and a bestselling novelist. In fact, you might have already read one of her 30 books like the Oprah Book Club Selection Open House. Most recently, she took some time away from fictional families and wrote about her parents as they aged for a memoir entitled I’ll Be Seeing You.
S3: Our situations are not identical, but certainly certain things overlap, having to do with the frustration that you feel as a daughter with your parents for not being on the same page as you. It can really get tangled up.
S2: Growing up, Elizabeth father was in the army, and she wrote that he was never quick with a smile. He yelled a lot and for many years was terrifying to her. They did eventually reconcile and grew to have a relationship that Elizabeth really cherished, which made it that much more heartbreaking when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
S3: They weren’t safe living in their house anymore. They really needed to get out, and it was push and pull and push and pull. Sometimes my mom would want to go, but my dad wouldn’t and so on. When they finally did move, my mother had been all for it. But then as soon as they moved, she was furious.
S2: Similar to Maggie’s mom, she became angry and difficult to be around and like Maggie herself, Elizabeth felt consumed with worry and frustration.
S3: I wanted so much to help, and I would try to think of all these different ways I might help. And it was my own daughter who told me, Mom, you have to let up and let her come to these things and her own time. And that was really good advice. It kind of hurt my feelings a little because here I was trying so hard and really for her own good, right? But I did need to back off. And the most effective thing I ever did during this, I guess it was a two year period. What’s to stop talking and start listening, which it sounds, Maggie, like you have done and that that’s so hard to do because we see things from our own sides, so it it feels as a former nurse, it seems clear to me that you’re there trying to get her to to to do the right thing. But I’m interested in how it looks from her side.
S2: So, Maggie, don’t you have a doctor in your family?
S1: Yes, my brother in law is a doctor, he’s actually my my dad’s doctor and is was my grandpa’s doctor and is my grandmother, and he’s super nice guy and she knows them, you know, I mean, but
S2: she’s not interested.
S1: Oh, it is kind of like an elephant in the room that occasionally we talk about and bring out into the open. But most of the time it’s just sitting there in the back of everyone’s minds. When she’s wheezing in the room where she’s hunched over because her back is out again or her hip is Howard. I mean, like, she can’t read newspapers because she’s allergic to the ink, and we never know what’s going to be a trigger for her. You know, like my dad bought an electric bike and was parking it in the garage and the smell from the tires was somehow seeping into the house and causing her to have an attack.
S2: It must be. Sounds like it must be hard on him.
S1: Yeah, he has to come home and strip all his clothes off in the garage and directly go to the shower.
S2: Elizabeth. As a nurse, you must have encountered people who really deeply distrusted the health care world. How did you handle that then?
S3: Well. It’s interesting that you asked that question, because what worked best in those situations where someone was really volatile or angry or fearful, what worked best was to say almost nothing to just sit there and let them vent and to be a sympathetic presence. And by the way, to learn something myself from being that sympathetic presence because maybe they had a point about this or about that, but you have to let that kind of anger out. And so if you listen to someone vent long enough, then they got it out. Then you could talk in a more measured way about, OK, I get it. I understand how you feel. So where should we go from here?
S2: So you’d make sure they felt heard first?
S3: Yeah, yeah. I mean, it certainly works for me, doesn’t it? You if you if you just need to see this stuff and you actually feel like the other person got it right? It’s such a really
S2: it’s such a relief.
S1: So I try to avoid conversations of mental health with her. But I can tell you that my parents have not had the most stable marriage and my dad filed for divorce many years ago. And I encouraged her to talk to somebody. In fact, I believe he even conditioned. Not divorcing on the fact that she would have to go talk to somebody about her issues and she never followed through, and we have asked her, we’ve encouraged her to seek a spiritual adviser. You know, maybe she would feel more comfortable receiving spiritual advice versus medical or, you know, professional advice. She’s been very resistant. She’s aware that I’ve had to well, I’ve chosen to get some of my kids some counseling, help to work through some anger issues. And I’ve I’ve talked to her about it. I’ve been like, Mom, it’s been super helpful. Like we were blaming, you know, our daughter for all this behavior and we realized like we had a role to play in it too. I just talked it up because I truly can’t understate the difference that talking to a counselor made for our family.
S2: I just want to pause to just note that you and your family have broken the cycle. You went and got help for your daughter. That’s a big deal. You know, cognitive behavioral therapy is highly effective at treating anxiety disorders like it is one of the most treatable things, and it’s going to have to be up to your mom if she wants to get that help. Right. You can’t make her do it as we know, right? But you can do something else for your own, for your own mental health, for your kids. And I just don’t want to understate this is this is progress.
S1: Thank you for saying that, Amanda.
S2: So here’s our first insight, and you knew this was coming. It is really hard to change other people. We’ve talked about this on earlier episodes, including a great one about how to manage family divisions over vaccines. And we’ll link to that one in the show notes. There are things you can try for sure. You can ask genuine questions getting curious instead of furious. Explain your point of view in a non-judgmental way and try to let the person come to their own conclusions in time. But what if you try all of those things and it doesn’t work? What then?
S3: I wonder what it would be like for you to think about, however, temporarily trying on the idea of this is the way she has chosen to be. Apparently, it’s the way she wants to be. I’m going to accept as much as I can about her. I’m going to try to enjoy with her the things we can share together and just sort of quit the job for a little while. Hmm. That’s really big. I know.
S2: How does that feel hearing that?
S1: It feels like something. Something I need to try and think about I like. It feels like these feelings will still reappear the next time we have a birthday party come up and my dad’s the only one pulling into the driveway or something like that. You know, I feel like maybe I’m more disappointed than my kids are. Sometimes I try not to. I have to say I have a lot of anger towards my mom. I have a lot of anger and not all of it is resolved. I have to draw a lot of boundaries. That’s what I’m thinking about. How do I draw these boundaries right and and think of myself?
S2: It’s almost like we want our parent to come to the birthday party and we don’t want them to come. We want a different parent to come. Yes.
S1: Yes, that’s exactly right.
S2: It’s like the parent we never had. We’re still hoping I do this. Do like we’re still hoping just subconsciously that the parent we wanted is going to come to the birthday party.
S1: You hit the nail on the head. I think that is really. Like, I can’t change her, but I keep wishing that some change would happen and how do I how do I see it for what it is and accept it for what it is?
S2: Hmm. It’s so funny. I think about how often as a parent, you know, the biggest mistake we can make, I think, is wanting our kids to be someone other than they are right? And then it’s almost like, we start doing it to our parents, right? It’s like it flips at song at some point and. And I want my parents to be different than they are. Elizabeth. I’m wondering if you have any thoughts about how to. How to interrupt that cycle of warning our parents to be different than they are?
S3: Well, I can tell you something that occurred with my mom. At the time when when they were adjusting to being in this new place and my sister and I were bending over backwards to do things to help her feel better, to make her anger go away too, you know, we’re really wracking our brains. And finally, one night we had a really terrible fight. The three of us, my sister and I, against my poor mother and everything came out and I felt horrible after I still feel guilty about it. But you know what? It cleared the air and things began to change after that.
S2: Now, it’s not that often that we get to recommend having a fight, but sometimes that is exactly what needs to happen. You just want to make sure you fight fair with the gloves on, which takes a little planning. We’ll hear how Elizabeth and her mother recovered from this blow up and what she would do differently, looking back on it today right after the break. We’re back with our listener, Maggie, and the author Elizabeth Berg, who’s telling us about a huge fight she and her sister had with her mother and why it wasn’t an entirely bad thing. So you had this really intense confrontation with your mom? Had you planned it with your sister? Like, we were like, No,
S3: no, no, no, no, no. She had been horrible to my sister. I was up there visiting, and she had prepared what she called a list of my faults, which she angrily displayed to me. And I said, Oh, mom, you know, we all have so many faults. And then it ended with, if this doesn’t change, I may choose to end it all. And I,
S2: she wrote that on the note.
S3: Yeah, I felt terrible that what I felt was not compassion, but anger. I saw it as manipulative. Mm-Hmm. And my sister arrived just at that moment. I went down to meet her and I showed her the list. And then when she came up, we started talking to my mother, and at one point my sister said, You wish that we would have to live the life that you’re living now. I wish you would have to live the life that I’m living now. So it really it really did escalate. But some hard truths came out and and I don’t know if that would be helpful for you or if it would be more helpful for you to just forgive yourself for not being able to do the thing you wish you could do.
S2: I’m wondering if both are required, you know what I mean? I mean, I wonder if you need one to have the other Elizabeth. Can you tell us more about how you felt afterwards?
S3: I felt like we were beating a puppy. It was awful, but it was after that conversation that my mother said, All right, I’ll try to do some of the things. That you’ve suggested, and it was as though that were of a turning point. I still feel guilty about it, but I do recognize that anger is going to going to come out one way or another. And I think it’s healthier to have it be a fight than to have it eat away at you and eat away at you and have. It’s as though you’re trying to work on something in the dark with someone else when you don’t really talk about what the issue is.
S2: And it comes out sideways. Yeah. Here’s our next insight. Well, actually, it’s a quote from the show Ted Lasso, which we try to quote as often as possible here at how to, but it really fits this time.
S3: Listen, VB problems, they like mushrooms yeh longer.
S4: You leave them in the dark because they get
S2: and that is so true about anger. The longer you bottle it up and keep it hidden, the bigger the future explosion. Maggie, I’m curious hearing about this showdown Elizabeth and her sister had, what do you think about that? Have you had a confrontation like that? And how did it go?
S1: Yeah, we’ve probably had a lot of conversations like that, but the one thing kind of I was wondering is if Elizabeth could go back. Would she do that same thing again? Or in retrospect, would she approach it in a different way? I just kind of curious.
S3: That’s a really interesting question. One thing led to the other that day it was over do. I. If I could do it again, I would do it in such a way that I was not trying to control things to understand that every person has a right to be themselves. Unless they’re, you know, murdering people. But if your mother has chosen to ignore her health for whatever reason it is, when you talk about having a conversation, maybe if it were done with love and honesty where you were able to say to her or something to the effect of, you know, you’re my mother, I love you, but I’m not going to worry about your health. I’m not going to try to force you to go to a doctor. You’re going to have to make those decisions for yourself. And just just unhitched from that.
S2: This is a really powerful idea. Consider quitting the job of fixing your parent. Turn in your badge and gun and just clock out, then see what happens. This is admittedly a really scary idea for most people because it feels like you’re giving up any control over the situation. But the truth is, you probably didn’t have any control to begin with.
S1: I like the way you phrase that Elizabeth, I’m not going to worry about your health anymore, and I’m not going to try to tell you what to do. And then internally, while I’m doing that, forgiving myself. For my own tendency to be critical and say, I wish I could have done that, I really want that need that to happen for my own personal reasons. Just forgive myself that I wasn’t able to make it happen. Accept and acknowledge that I can’t change my mom and open myself up to looking for the good wherever I can.
S3: Maggie, think I’ve got tears in my eyes. I think what you said is really beautiful and true and possible.
S1: I hope so. I’m so inspired. Given me so many chances to think and retool things that have just been torturing me for years.
S3: I kind of think of it as sometimes as you’re in a room where everything’s askew and it’s dark and it’s really unpleasant and you keep arranging and rearranging and trying to let more light in and doing this and doing that. And at some point you just have to get up and walk out of that room.
S2: I do want to make sure Maggie to ask you, you know, obviously your mom’s not on this call. Is there any good memory that you can share?
S1: I think there’s a moment when I was late in my college years and I was kind of pulling away from my family like trying to make my own path and and my mom would email, you know, she had discovered the joys of email and would send a lot of emails and wanted to know a lot of information. And I remember saying to my dad, I was like, Come on, dad, you know, like her, she just wants to know everything. Always asked me so many questions, that kind of stuff. And he said to me something I’ll probably never forget. He said, he said to me, Maggie, you kids are everything for your mom. You are her everything. And and with all they’ve said and all I’ve shared, I think that would be the overriding thing to me. She she really has framed her life in a way that it is about her family and and that’s where she she gives what she can, when she can. And maybe it’s not always exactly what we need or in the way that we need it. But but she truly does care for us and want to know about us and want the best for us. And I think if I more put that as my guiding star, it may be really helpful.
S2: Wow, so nice.
S3: That’s really beautiful in it, and it occurs to me that some version of that would be a lovely thing to say to in this conversation. That you have that memory and that you recognize how much she cares about you are.
S2: Thank you to Maggie for sharing her story with us. And to Elizabeth Berg for all of her wisdom and understanding. Be sure to look for her memoir. I’ll be seeing you and all of her other great books. And by the way, we got a wonderful update from Maggie.
S4: Hi, this is Maggie. Colin and I wanted to give an update after visiting with my mom this last weekend. We were talking and I asked her how she was feeling, and she was telling me how she thought she might have long COVID. And I said, You know, I know in the past I’ve encouraged you to go to the doctor and that’s not my job, and I understand you have feelings about those things. Then my 17-year-old was sitting right next to me and the way mom. You mean you recognize other people have feelings about things? And I said, Yeah, I Ingram his case. I respected grandma as an adult, and she can make these decisions for herself about her health and what she’s going to do. And I was really proud to do this in front of my kids and to let them see that because they have witnessed my frustration over the years and they have their own frustrations. So I am incredibly grateful for being given the tools and the courage to have that conversation.
S2: Thank you so much, Maggie. We were also glad to hear that message. Do you have a hard conversation you need to have? Send us a note at how to at Slate.com or leave us a voicemail at six four six four nine five four zero zero one. We’d love to have you on the show. And if you like what you heard today, you know what’s coming. Please give us a rating and a review and tell a friend that helps us help more people. How TOS Executive Producer Is Derek John Rosemary Belson produces the show. Our theme music is by Hannah Brown, remixed by Mariah Jacob, our technical director. Special thanks to Amber Smith. Charles Duhigg created this show. I Amanda Ripley. Thanks for listening.