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My mother became a widow less than a year ago. She married my dad right out of high school and he was 10 years older than her. So, in a way, she went from dependence on her parents to dependence on her husband. I found their relationship to be frustrating as she served him hand and foot with him rarely showing appreciation for her sacrifices. His life choices of health were lacking and he expected her to just deal with it. Toward the end of his life, he asked if my husband and I could move in to be a support to my mom as his health declined. After a year of consideration, we agreed to do this and I’m grateful for this time I had with my dad, but my main purpose was to be an emotional and financial support to my mom.
Now, things have changed. We still live with my mom and she makes no effort to take care of her health. And, after years of obligation and commitment to dad, she has no desire to be committed to anything at all. I also feel she isn’t really appreciative of us helping her financially. She also becomes annoyed by any encouragement to exercise or eat better. She resents our “nagging”. And I find any attempt for myself to eat better or exercise is two times harder because of her negative influence to buy food that I shouldn’t eat and requests to do things other than exercise. I feel like a recovering alcoholic trying to stay sober with a raging drunk.
As we look to move on with our life and go back to being on our own, she plans on selling her house and following us, but I feel watching her self-sabotage is creating resentment in me. Yet, I don’t want her to feel abandoned. I understand she is grieving, but I also think she expects me to do for her as she did for my dad, and I just don’t think I’m that big of a person.
How can I show love and support to someone who is self-destructing and making it difficult for me to go back to healthier choices for myself? At the rate she’s going I know she’ll need to be cared for, but she’s making no effort to improve her bad health or create an environment for independence. And I’m torn in the middle of a resolve to be a charitable daughter and hold healthy boundaries for my marriage and myself. I also know, after the loss of my dad, she won’t be around forever and don’t want to regret having lost time with her.
You and your mother appear to have different goals. She wants to stay dependent on you while you are hoping she’ll take charge of her life and become more independent. Even though you’re okay with her relying on you as her health fades, you don’t believe that time is now. My guess is that you were better able to enjoy your time with your dad because your mom was shouldering the bulk of his needs, which allowed you more time to enjoy the relationship. Your situation with your mother is different because you’re trying to balance her needs and your needs.
Because your mother organized around your father’s needs from the start of their relationship, she likely never knew herself. Now that she’s faced with understanding herself and how to care for herself physically, emotionally, and relationally. This must be terribly overwhelming to her, if she even understands it at all.
First, you don’t need to perpetuate the cycle of treating someone like they’re helpless. Even the Savior asked those he healed to do things for themselves to maintain their personal dignity.[i] Just because your mother only knows this pattern of relating to others doesn’t mean that she can’t adapt to a healthier way of living. Plus, if you’re going to be the one primarily caring for her now and in the future, you need to set it up in a way that allows you to go the distance without burning out.
When we have healthy boundaries with others, it frees us up to truly experience compassion and love for them. If you’re constantly compromising your eating habits, your schedule, or your finances in the name of service to your mom, it will be nearly impossible to experience any authentic charitable feelings. On the other hand, if you’re honest with your own limits and give to your mother in ways that make sense to your schedule and resources, you’ll experience more joy and connection with her.
Even though it’s impossible for you to be in charge of your mother’s self-awareness, your healthy boundaries will allow you to see her in new ways. In fact, you might even get a glimpse of her true self that has been buried under years of meeting the ungrateful demands of others. If your boundaries are in tact and allow you to have adequate emotional and physical energy when you’re with her, then you can offer her the gift of your full attention and interest. It appears she’s never had anyone take a genuine interest in her and support her personal development as a woman. Your father wasn’t able to provide this type of nurturing environment, but as you get to know her better and allow her to take responsibility for her own life, she may say, as President Hinckley’s wife said to him, “You have…given me wings to fly, and I [love] you for it.”[ii]
Decide what you can do and not do for her and stick with it. You might benefit from some personal counseling to help you work through the reflexive emotions that surface as you begin relating to her in a new way. Your family rules and patterns of enabling others run deep and will surface some surprisingly difficult emotions. You want to be in a position to maintain a relationship with her in a way that leaves you both feeling respected and connected. Even though she may feel you’re uncaring and abandoning her as you begin to set limits with her, she’ll hopefully see that when you show up to be with her, you’re emotionally stable and present.
She has year of self-neglect to overcome, but you don’t have to buy into this pattern of self-neglect. Take care of your body, emotions, and relationships. She may never change her eating habits, take care of her body, or find meaningful ways to spend her time. However, if you keep yourself healthy during these coming years, you’ll be better positioned to support her need for independence even as she becomes more physically dependent.
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.geoffsteurer.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.
[i] See John 5:8