Dear Family Advisor

Since Mom moved in, she's been trying to take over as the "woman of the house"

Last updated: Apr 20, 2009

My mom, who has diabetes, moved in with my family because she can no longer walk -- her leg was amputated -- has trouble with her eyesight, and can no longer drive.

I'm glad to have her here, and we've given her a bedroom, a den, and her own bathroom. The problem is, she's trying to take over. She criticizes me at every turn, telling me I should clean out my fridge, when it's time to take the trash out at night, and even how to parent my child. I'm 45 and have somehow managed to run my own life for quite some time. I know she needs more to do, and we're trying to get her involved in activities, but how do I establish that while I value her input, I am the "woman of the house"?

Your mom is trying to be the "woman of the house" because that's who she's always been. It's so hard to be respected and needed all your life, to have kids and a spouse to care for, perhaps a job -- and then have all those responsibilities to stripped away one by one.

Having your mom pick at everything you do is undoubtedly tiresome and frustrating. She may not even realize she's barging in and taking over. But as irritating as our mothers can be at times, they teach us so much -- especially when they push us to stand up for ourselves and figure out who we are.

Start by recognizing that the older we grow, the more set in our ways we are, so don't think you can "fix" your mom entirely. She'll probably always be somewhat bossy. Also step back and consider both of your histories. Is there something about your past relationship that contributes to why you're feeling so vexed? Old patterns or even clashes can repeat themselves when you spend so much time together. It also helps to remember that mothers and daughters typically have complicated relationships even when they're not living under the same roof.

Think about how she needs to feel like a valuable member of the household and slowly, gently help her find her place. Can she pitch in and be of help to you? Let her! Would she like to be in charge of lunch or washing all the towels? Even if she's in a wheelchair, she can still contribute -- and she should.

After that, the first step is to pick your battles. Either choose one area that drives you crazy or one where you think you might be able to make some headway. Then make a plan for how to get her to change her behavior regarding that issue. Do you need to have a heart-to-heart talk? Ask her if she would stop saying or doing this one thing that really bugs you?

The second step is to be firm and consistent. When your mom really pushes your buttons, do you need to walk out of the room or stop talking so she'll get the message that you won't participate in this negative pattern? If so, do it. Whatever your plan of action is, give it about three months to work -- and stay consistent. Remember Maya Angelou's words: "We teach people how to treat us."

Once you commit to your own self-respect, you'll find that you start to gain a new perspective. You feel a quiet strength. You can let some of what used to bother you roll off your back. You begin to cultivate little techniques for staying in your own space when you need to, whether it's putting on headphones or thinking about something you learned or read recently. If your mom can't get a rise out of you, she'll probably stop, because it's not nearly as satisfying for her if she doesn't get a reaction.

Be patient, with your mom and yourself. Change is hard, especially when we have so much on our plates already. Chances are, your mom will settle down after she's been in your home a while and it starts to feel like her home, too. Your plan to involve her in the community is an excellent one; as she begins to make friends at activities or perhaps at adult daycare, she'll feel less threatened and more engaged in her own affairs, too, which means yours won't be nearly as fascinating as they are now.