S1: You’re produce your prudence here, prudence. You sit in your fruit here pretty. Do you think that I should contact him again? No. How? Thank you. Thank you.
S2: Hello and welcome to another mini episode of Dear Prudence. I am your host, Daniel Mallory Ortberg and this show is for you are plus subscribers this week. My guest is Dr Ghazali Seminary, who’s spent the last 15 years researching and advocating for women’s health and rights around the world. She is now working as an integral development coach. And now here’s our first letter. All right. Next letter is just like a nice, straightforward, yet complicated grandma situation. Feels like a little bit easier because you off to work with your grandma usually. Yeah. So the subject here is, do I have to get to know my biological grandmother if I don’t want to? Dear Prudence, my father is an adoptee with two wonderful parents, both of whom have now died. They were both kind, warm people who loved him and his children. My grandmother had also made it clear to my dad at least that she thought it was important that he make some kind of effort to find his biological parents someday. My dad had no real interest in this until after his mother died a few years ago. Recently, he’s reconnected with his birth mother through an organization that connects adoptees with interested parents. He calls her every week and this month went to visit her. My problem is that I’m definitely not interested in meeting her. He’s given me her information several times, always asking me when I’m going to call. She doesn’t have an e-mail address, apparently just a landline. He said that she’s grateful and comforted to know that I exist and that my dad was raised by good people. He says she’d like to hear from me, but from other details I’ve heard about their conversations. She doesn’t sound very comfortable with the intrusion on her, quote, quiet life. He’ll tell her he loves her and she responds with, OK. I love the grandparents that I knew. While I know that they supported this reconnection, the idea of having a relationship with this woman just makes me miss them more. Shall I tell my dad? I’m just not going to call her. Should I pretend to lose the number again, or should I call her and think of her like I would any other distant relative? Yeah, I think I can answer that second to last question, which is like I don’t think pretending to lose the number is gonna be a great strategy. Just because your dad has already given you the information several times like I do, if I thought that would work, if I thought your dad was like a highly avoidant person who would maybe encourage you to like, yeah, we’ll just like pretend you’re about to call her for the rest of your life and, you know, go with it. But I think if you pretended to lose the number, your dad would eventually say, like, hey, why don’t I call her for you right now and I can sit here and watch you talk to her.
S3: I know. I wish sometimes we were still in the days where we would write stuff down on pieces of paper, then that would totally fly. But there’s a digital record of everything that’s just happened. Yeah.
S4: So. I don’t know if I’m oversimplifying things in my mind, but it seems pretty clear to me that the letter writer. It’s their prerogative how they want to engage in this relationship. Is that is that too simple?
S5: No, I don’t think it’s too simple. I think the only thing that I would add to it is I think the letter writer might be slightly overcomplicating it for themself because there’s that bit about like I’m also a little skeptical of this woman’s interest in actually being around my dad. And and like, you might have to bring that up in order to say no to him. And I would say no, you do not have to. I don’t know her. Her like ongoing level of comfort around this relationship with your dad. But she did sign up for this organization. She did agree to call him. I think unless she like, goes out of her way to hang up on him or to say, never call me again. I don’t think you need to worry too much like I get it. She comes from a different generation. I don’t know the circumstances under which she. She gave up your father. But I can imagine why somebody would both be interested in reconnecting with the child they once gave up for adoption and also didn’t feel comfortable saying I love you, so I don’t want to go too far down the road of like she actually doesn’t really like you to have that much. And so I would just. Yeah, yep. I would say without going into any detail about what you think about her interest in spending time with him is I think to just say to your dad that I’m really glad that reconnecting with her has been meaningful to you. I’ve given this a lot of thought, and while I’m happy for you, I have no interest in establishing a relationship with this woman. And so I hope you can understand that this is something that belongs to you, but is not something that I share. And I don’t want to initiate contact with her knowing that I do not want to have a relationship. I think that that would be a bad idea.
S6: I mean, that’s perfectly put. I wouldn’t say another thing about it.
S5: Yeah. And hopefully your dad can respect that. I would also really understand if he was hurt by it and as hard as it might be, that’s kind of okay. It’s okay for you and your dad to have different feelings around the situation. It’s okay for you to make a choice that he doesn’t make. It’s okay for him to say I feel really tender about this and a new kind of relationship with this woman now that my other parents have had gone. And it’s just okay. I think sometimes to say I get it. I hear you. I love you. I’m sorry this hurts you. That doesn’t change my decision. I’m not going to invest in a relationship. I don’t feel just for your sake. Yeah. Agreed. Okay. Maybe we’ll fight on the next one. Who knows? I think it’s your turn to read it.
S3: OK. OK. So the subject is I don’t want to recoil from my estranged mother’s hugs. So what should I do to deal?
S4: Dear Prudence, I, like many others, have a complicated relationship with my mother. She’s a loving and caring person, but has years of unchecked emotional baggage that got put on my shoulders from my childhood to the present. I’m now in my 20s. She spent a lot of time projecting her broken relationship with her mother and her body image issues onto me, which have caused a significant breach of trust and comfort and has played a role in my lifelong struggles with mental health. I’m an adult now and have spent years in therapy working toward a better relationship with my mother, but I still find it incredibly difficult to be around her. I love her and I know she’s a complex person with her own struggles and I’m working toward forgiving the pain she caused me. But I can’t stand to be around her. I recoil from her hugs. I find myself extremely uncomfortable when we spend time together. I’m even annoyed by texts from her. I don’t want our relationship to be this way, but I’m struggling to separate the logical part of myself that knows that I should be able to like and forgive her with my feelings that seem to scream no. I feel like a terrible person, Prudy. What can I do? You want to take a crack at this?
S5: I mean, I feel like I took a big crack at the last one. So why don’t you go ahead and get us started on this?
S3: Oh, dang, mommy. Issues that I know a lot. Can’t say I don’t know a little something about mommy issues.
S4: So first of all, I just want to acknowledge the tremendous work that this letter writer has done on their own to deal with these issues. This sounds like even though. Yeah. Many other people’s you have problems with their mothers. This sounds kind of exceptional and the amount and duration of issues that this mother may have presented into the letter writers life. So I just want to commend you for doing the hard work of recognizing that this isn’t normal and seeking help through therapy and working not only to kind of heal your own wounds, but actually working towards the goal of having a relationship with your mother, which I think is super commendable. So that’s the first thing I want to say.
S7: The second thing I want to say is that moms are tough. Arto Moms, they’re tough, they’re really tough.
S6: I think it’s really easy to forget sometimes that moms were humans before they were our mothers and that they have all kinds of things that happen to them in their lifetime before, during and after we came into being. Let me inform the way that they relate to us. And oftentimes they haven’t had. I know in previous generations, especially the access, our wherewithal to deal with their, you know, emotional baggage, as this letter writer says. So that’s one aspect of it, is recognizing that they’re human. And I think that this person does recognize that in their mother, the other side of moms are tough for me, is being able to comfortably draw boundaries for yourself and create lines that you won’t let anybody cross, even if they’re your mother. And I think that’s kind of where I’m feeling the tension for this letter writers that they’ve recognized kind of the harm that the mother has done to them over the years, but still feels like this obligation.
S4: Right, to hang out with her, to forgive her, to hug her, to, you know, be in contact maybe constantly through text message.
S6: And I don’t know that that has to be the case. I don’t know that to be forgiving and understanding means that you have to be all in. I don’t think that to love and respect your mother means that you have to be like cuddling all the time. I think there’s many different ways that we can define our relationships with our loved ones, especially the more complex ones. And I just want to. In a way, I just want to give them permission to feel OK with these feelings that they’re having. Yeah, some moms just aren’t cuddly.
S3: You know what I’m saying?
S5: Yeah, I. The thing that I was the most curious about reading this was does your mom know about any of this? Like you say that you’re working on forgiving her, but it doesn’t based on the way that she interacts with you. Either you have tried to bring this up with her a lot and she just kind of steamrolls over it. As like, I don’t know what you’re talking about. Things are fabulous. Hug, hug, hug. Let’s get lunch. Or you have been in therapy talking about this a lot with your therapist and trying to offer her forgiveness for something she hasn’t apologized for, in which case, of course, you feel like you are losing your equilibrium whenever you see her because you are trying to forgive someone who has not asked for your forgiveness. And I don’t want to dismiss any kind of like forgiveness that a person might choose to embark on for their own sake. But I do think there’s a limit to how much healing you can do on your own while remaining in a relationship with somebody else who apparently doesn’t think they did anything wrong. So my question for you would be, does my mom have any idea how angry I am with her about some of the things that she has done to me? Does my mom have any idea of how much her own baggage from her relationship with her mom and her feelings about her body has affected me? And if she doesn’t, do I want to tell her a little bit? So I want to give you kind of two options. And I often do this. There’s a low conflict option and a high conflict option. I often encourage the high cost option because I frankly, even the high conflict option that I tend to give is still very like it’s still it’s still me. I’m not encouraging anyone to like, you know, scream and throw them right.
S3: The wind, not non-violent high conflict.
S5: Yeah. You know, like if you’re just like, nope. I truly, truly don’t think that my mom would be capable of hearing any of this. And I believe I wouldn’t be able to handle it if I said you did the following things. That really hurt me and I need some space from you. Like if she responded with anything less than, oh, my gosh, I’m sorry. I don’t think I could handle it. If you truly believe that to be the case and therapy has not gotten to you to a place where you feel like I can comfortably disagree with my mom and survive her anger, then yeah, you definitely have my permission to fake a cold. You know, like all my I’m sorry I can’t hug you today. I think I’m coming down with something, you know. Yeah. Be less available. Reschedule stuff. Just classic avoiding my mom, stuff that everybody does in like movies, you know? Absolutely. You can do that. You can even set her texts to do not disturb. And then you can decide like, OK, three times a week or once a month or whenever. That’s when I’m gonna go look at my text from her and respond and I’ll choose when that is rather than like just anytime she wants to ping me. I get this little sense of irritation of like she always sets the terms of our engagement. So that is one option. I can’t promise you, by the way, that she won’t still. Find ways to bother you, because my guess is there’s a part of her, even if she doesn’t intend to, that kind of needs to bother you like she needs you to be off your equilibrium.
S8: She needs you to be agitated. She needs you to be the recipient of all of her agitation or self loathing or insecurity so that she can feel alive, like sort of relieved myself of this burden. And now I can go back to my life knowing on some level I’ve set my kid off.
S4: That’s a really good point. And I think what’s underlying this for me as you’re talking is this sense of like permission that the letter writer, assuming all things equal, the letter writer gets to decide how they want to engage with this person. They’re doing the hard work. They’re doing the thinking. And let’s say they have talked to the mother and she’s still dealing with this. Or they have talked to the mother and there hasn’t been a satisfactory outcome to that still. You have permission to decide how you want to engage. And I think that’s you to not only solve the immediate problem of like icky hugs and annoying texts, but I think another really important part of mommy issues in general throughout life is growing into our adulthood and looking Face-To-Face at our parents as fellow adults and relating to them in that way. And I think an important part of doing that is giving yourself permission to determine the definitions and boundaries of your relationship with those people.
S8: And I think the kind of more important thing, if you consider the high conflict option, you know, you say you’re struggling to separate the logical part of yourself that knows I should be able to like and forgive my mom. Nothing about that sounds logical to me. I don’t know where you got the idea that that is a logical idea, but the part of you that’s upset with a woman who’s repeatedly transgressed your boundaries is somehow illogical. You have that backwards. The feelings where you’re like screaming No, no, no. Don’t let this woman get close to me. That’s logical. You are responding logically in that moment because this woman has repeatedly violated your boundaries, unloaded like her own issues with her mom onto you. Apparently set in dad’s super inappropriate stuff about your body. And it doesn’t sound like he’s ever apologized for it. It’s unclear to me if she has stopped it, but if she has stopped, it’s the kind of like I kind of knocked it off. But I never really acknowledged that I used to do it or apologized for it. That’s sort of like, well, I’m different now, but it’s like, are you different or like, did you just want to, like, wipe the slate clean without ever acknowledging that you hurt me? So the part of you that screams no when she is trying to get real close to you, despite not having earned your trust and intimacy. Super logical. The part of you that’s trying to say no, no, no, no matter what, you have to like your mother, no matter how she treats you. And it’s your job to forgive her, even if she hasn’t apologized or changed. That part of you is not logical. That part of you is putting an unnecessary burden on yourself and saying it is my job to love and forgive my mother because she had a harder childhood than I did. So she wins the compassion project. She’s the person who always gets the compassion, the understanding, the patience, the second chance. I never do. It is my job to swallow and smile and hug her. That is not logical. That is really, really hard and burdensome. So to that end. If you just want to kind of plan to have it out a little bit with your mom, even if it scares you, even if you’re terrified of the idea of her getting angry with you. I would encourage you to maybe, like plan it with your therapist and think like if I were to ever say to my mom, what are the things that I think I might need from you in order to have a relationship? And it would have to look like I would need you to respect my physical boundaries if I said I wasn’t comfortable hugging you. I would need you to agree that if I ask for space, whether that’s physical or like conversational, that I have a right to do so and that you cannot, like, harass me or follow me. After I say that or set that limit, I have a right to say I cannot talk to you about your body image issues and you cannot make comments about my body to me. And because you have hurt me in all of these ways in the past. And if your mom can’t agree to those terms than to say, I cannot answer your texts, I cannot meet you for lunch. I would love to do those things. I’m not setting up this boundary because I want to punish you or because I think you’re a bad person, but because this is this is a baseline for how everybody should be treated, including me. And so I think that would be a really good thing for you, I think. Even if the worst outcome of that happened, which is that your mom blew up and said, no, you actually don’t have any rights that I have to expect. I had a hard childhood. So I get to do and say whatever I want to you. There would at least be on the other side of that a sense of the gift of clarity and a sense of I don’t have to fix this for her. And the solution to any of her emotional problems is not I give up more and more of my own privacy agency, self-worth, whatever, until she feels whole again. So even the worst case situation there where you just take a lot of space, maybe for a couple of years, even possibly forever. I think is a little better than what you’ve got now because like what you’re doing right now isn’t actually helping your mother heal from any of the traumas that she’s gone through. And it’s making you feel like screaming inside.
S5: So. I think, you know, even the worst case scenario of the high conflict option, unless you are financially dependent on her, which I think you probably would have mentioned if that was a factor. I still think would be an improvement upon this. And there is a small chance that it could potentially lead to more meaningful forgiveness and reconciliation. That would start with her feeling genuine remorse for what she’s done.
S3: Oh, man, that’s the dream, isn’t it? A difficult mom, right? The difficult mom finally understands the difficult. But the last thing I wanna say about this is that no matter what the outcome, no matter what the approach, you’re not a terrible person.
S9: You’re just a person with a difficult mom. Yes. Oh, that’s really good. That’s a really good closer. Thank you.
S10: That’s aremany Appositive Dear Prudence for this week. Our producer is Phil Circus. Our theme music was composed by Robin Hilton. As always, if you want me to answer your question, call me and leave a message at 4 0 1 3 7 1, dear. That’s 3 3 2 7. And you might hear your answer on that episode of the show.
S9: You don’t have to use your real name or location, and at your request we can even alter the sound of your voice. Keep it short. 30 seconds a minute, tops. Thanks for listening.