I don't like my mother, but I love her. Is there anything I can do to improve our relationship?

A fellow caregiver asked...

My step-dad passed away last summer, after he and my mother were married for 36 years. Throughout their marriage, my mom controlled virtually every aspect of his life, including what he could say, what he should eat, what he should wear, who he could be friends with -- the list goes on and on. She did the same to me throughout my childhood; at one point I had a brush with anorexia, because eating seemed to be the only thing in my life I could control. She attempted to control me throughout my entire adult life.

Now she is at it again. I have a cell phone, so she calls me many times a day to find out where I am, who I am with, what we are doing -- and to reprimand me on my behavior. I have a loving husband, five grown children and 4 grandchildren. I am 58 years old. I quit my job to help care for my dad and now I help my mom every day, with almost every aspect of her life. She continues to criticize and reprimand. She also constantly attempts to change my appearance, my hygiene, my speech -- whatever grabs her at the moment. There is no one else who will take care of her, and she has no friends.

I will never put her into a nursing home. I have always yearned for a normal relationship with my mother and now especially I want us to enjoy our "last times" together. I love and respect her very much, but I am ashamed to say, I don't like my mother. Does anyone else have this problem and if so, how do you deal with it?

Expert Answer

Jonathan Rosenfeld is a psychotherapist in private practice in San Francisco.

It sounds like your mother has succeeded in getting her needs met while mistreating first you and then your step-dad. To the extent the two of you have sanctioned her behavior by ignoring the mistreatment and doing her bidding, she has had no motivation to change.

Unfortunately the problem you describe, in one form or another, is very common. The good news is that parents are trainable. Human nature leads people to do what they percieve to be in their best interest. Most people realize, to some degree or another, that it is in their best interest to nurture meaningful relationships and to treat others with appropriate levels of respect and concern. For example, most of us understand that if one wants good service from a waiter or clerk, one needs to treat them with respect, which can be as simple as saying please and thank you. It sounds like this is a life lesson your mother has never had to learn because you and your step father have put up with her rudeness and abuse.

You say that "now especially I want us to enjoy our 'last times' together," This may be an unrealistic expectation, but certainly you should try and see if you can turn the relationship around. You feel obligated to take care of your mother and keep her out of a nursing home, but this does not mean that you should put up with abusive behavior.

For example, you do not need to answer the phone when she calls. You do not need to defend your self when she critiques you. You can say, "Mother, I love you and I'm going to take care of you, but I'm not going to talk with you or spend a single extra moment in your house if you speak to me this way." If she acts as if she has no idea what you're talking about, be specific, for example, you can say something like, "I don't want your opinion about my appearance." If she doesn't stop her belittling behavior, follow through by limiting your phone conversations and other contact with her.

If you find it impossible to stand up to your mother and demand that she treat you with the kindness and respect you deserve, it might be a good idea to see a counselor or therapist and explore your willingness to tolerate such disrespectful behavior.