Dear Family Advisor

I feel like I'm married to my mom! How do I help her get a life -- and butt out of mine?

Last updated:

January 11, 2011

My mom moved in with me a little over a year ago. She has no outside interests and is always home. I am a single mom with two young children, and she helps with the kids. We really get on each other's nerves -- she favors one child over another, fusses at all of us about the smallest messes, and, worst of all, never gives me a moment to myself. She barges into my room at all hours of the day and night and won't let me and the kids be together alone, even after she's had them all day and complains about them.

I appreciate her help and I'm glad I can care for her, but I feel smothered. How do I tell her that she's got to back off and give me some space?

First, take a deep breath. You might not solve all your issues, but with patience, understanding, and diligence, you and your mom can live together in relative peace and appreciation. Let's start with you, because you can't begin to care for your household until you invest in your own emotional bank account.

Get a lock for your bedroom door. It's time to create some true boundaries so you can be a private woman, away from your mom and your kids. It's not cruel. It's healthy. Have regular "alone times" with yourself, and even if you want to come out, don't. Teach everyone (including yourself) to respect your quiet time and work hours. You should also reserve some time to spend with girlfriends or go on dates.

Now that you've thought about ways to nurture yourself, let's look at your mom. See her as a woman, not just as your mother. She's been uprooted, and you're the only person she knows. She's clinging to you, and it's going to take some time and effort for her to find new connections. Can you think of an activity to share with her once or twice a month? If you attend church, perhaps she could begin to connect with people her own age through church clubs or classes. Maybe you can find a local class in ballroom dancing or photography -- some place where there are people her age. Try one with her and insist that she go at least seven times. Studies show that people don't tend to trust that they're part of a group until they hit that mark. You may eventually be able to bow out yourself, but give it some time first.

As for the frustrations of living together (cleanliness and so on), try not to let them bother you. Focus on other, achievable goals. Refuse to argue. Put on headphones or walk out of the room if you have to. Remind all of your family members that this arrangement is a good thing, and that everyone needs to figure out how to be pleasant and respectful, even if they're faking it!

And if you haven't thanked your mom yet, do so. Having help with the kids is a big deal. If you haven't thanked your kids for living with their grandmother and making all these adjustments, thank them. Build on the positive. Your mom can really be an asset to your kid's lives, if you can shift the focus to working together.

Create a gratitude board and insist that, every day, everyone write on the board something they're thankful for. And at the end of each day, stand in front of your bathroom mirror and tell yourself what a great job you did: You didn't pull anyone's hair out, you laughed at something that used to infuriate you, you wrote something on the gratitude board.

Yes, your life is crazy right now, and it might stay like that for a while. So create solid boundaries, insist on pleasantness and respect -- and when things get really bad, go out to your car, lock the doors, and have a short scream-fest! Once in a while, that can help, too.