Are You My Mother?

Dear Sibyl,

Recently my grandmother got ill, and my mom went across the country to care for her.  I know this is the right thing for my mom to do, but I’m feeling abandoned and upset.  My mom recently retired and was so excited about all the ways she could spend time with her grandkids (my children) and help us out.  I know this sounds incredibly selfish, but my mom also has 5 siblings that live near my grandmother, and I’m just dumbfounded that she dropped us.  Any words of wisdom?

Distraught Daughter

Dear DD,

We never know when our mothers will leave us.  For some it is early, from a death or an emotional detachment.  For others, it is much later, unfortunately often at the time we feel we need them most.  Either way, it is always painful, and always a reason to mourn and find a way to move on.

So many of the problems in relationships, particularly with family, stem from expectations.  You expected that your mom would be there for you, to help you raise her grandchildren.  This was not an unreasonable expectation, since she has been helping you thus far, but now that you are having to shift your way of thinking about her role, it’s leaving you feeling abandoned.

Your mother has her own life.  She’s an adult, and she can do anything she wants with her retirement—she’s earned it.  So, I’m wondering, how did she tell you that she was leaving town, and letting go of her commitments to you?  If she left without notice, and without you getting a chance to tell her how much you’ll miss her, and how sad it is that your kids will lose their close relationship with her, then what you need to do is tell her how you’re feeling, and that she could have handled the communication of the change differently.

The other piece that stands out to me from your letter is that you feel that her siblings could be stepping up to the plate and helping your grandmother so your mother could stay with you.  Well, that’s an awkward situation to be in.  I’m not sure you want to take on your entire family system, and get involved in their complicated maneuvering of this caregiving issue.  So, you’ll have to adjust your expectations for them as well as your mom.

Here’s the tricky part.  You need to change what role you are giving your mother in your life (and your kids’ lives), without losing the emotional connection to her.  This means you can’t just totally detach and say, “Well, I guess she doesn’t care about me or her grandchildren!”  You prevent this by being honest about your feelings (stop judging them as selfish and let yourself have them), with yourself and with her, and by accepting what offers she can give at this time.  That way, you’re keeping the door open for a closer connection with your mom when she has the space and energy for it again.

You might find this change in roles means you are able to support your mom a bit, too.  I bet it is hard taking care of your grandmother, and perhaps you will get closer to her in this time by offering your ear to her, to listen to her struggles.  In order to do that, you’ll have to forgive her for bailing on you.  It won’t be easy, but if what you ultimately desire is more closeness with your mother, you’ll find it a beautifully strange process.

Love,
Sibyl

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