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Suffocatingly "helpful" mother...

(57 Posts)
Lostfraggle Sun 11-May-14 15:22:15

Any advice on how to cope with my mother? I am in my mid 30s, married, 2 DC. Am finding my mother increasingly difficult to deal with, whilst feeling constant guilt that I should just be grateful as she is (a) trying to be helpful and (b) not as bad as some of the mothers / MILs I read about on the Relationships board and (c) all the things she does are in themselves really minor. But she has a stealth campaign of being incredibly "helpful". Some examples:

If you tell her you have any kind of plan (holiday, buy a new car, buy a new appliance) she will immediately start with questions like: isn't that going to be expensive, have you thought whether the weather there is any good at that time of year, will the youngest DC need a passport yet, do John Lewis even sell X item etc etc etc. My sister and I have just stopped telling her anything at all about our future plans, until it's a fait accompli. For example, my sister has decided to move house to a completely new town, and only told my mother when the new (rented) house was completely arranged. And my mother started with the "so it's unfurnished - are you going to need a new bed / sofa / table and chairs?". I feel like it's such a shame I can't share these things with her and get her support, because she just gets too overwhelming.

On even tiny things, she is just suffocatingly helpful. DH was struggling to put on his shoes this week, whilst holding something large, and as he was putting the large thing down she immediately leapt up and started fussing over his shoes, opening them wider so he wouldn't have to put the thing down. This sort of thing happens all the time when she is with us. If I am cooking, she starts fussing around me trying to tidy up, even when I ask her not to, and won't just sit down and relax. At a birthday party of one of the DC, without being asked, she started writing a list of who gave which present as the birthday child was opening the presents, which felt like an implicit criticism of me for not doing that. Fruit in the fruit bowl which is starting to go off is even known as "[Mum-nickname] fruit" in our extended family because she will specially choose that fruit to eat up, in order to be helpful.

She looks after the DC regularly (for which I am very grateful) and frequently decides to do some cleaning job, like cleaning the top of the oven extractor fan, or inside the cupboards, or the skirting, without being asked. Which winds me up no end, and makes me feel that she is criticising my housekeeping.

All these things sound by themselves very petty, but when she's with us, it feels pretty much like constant interfering and meddling. My dad had an affair when I was around 19, and they are now divorced (he married the OW) and she lives on her own - maybe she is doing this in order to feel wanted? (I think she still hasn't come to terms with him leaving). I have tried to ask her kindly not to do whatever the irritating thing is, but last time I did (yesterday), she literally huffed, stood up and stormed out of the room like a teenager saying very stroppily "can't a person even try to be a little bit helpful, I suppose if it's not even wanted..." in front of a bunch of other people!

How do I cope with all this? Has anyone else managed to communicate their frustration to their mother without her being massively offended? Are there any good books I could read? I am starting to feel on edge when she's with us and really need to find a way to change the way I deal with her, and with my own reaction to her behaviour.

CogitoErgoSometimes Sun 11-May-14 15:29:59

Of course she's doing it to feel wanted. She needs to feel useful and occupied - we all do. She wants to be part of something rather than sitting home alone. Does she have much of a social life outside the family? Have plenty of friends and hobbies? A job? If not, that might be something that you could help her develop.

outtheothersidefinally Sun 11-May-14 15:31:36

It's not "nothing" if you feel it. Her issues are her issues and you are allowed to feel suffocated/state boundaries.

Without knowing more about your/her background, try Melodie Beattie's books?

Cocolepew Sun 11-May-14 15:36:54

She sounds a bit anxious, needing to do something rather than sitting down and relaxing. As if you woukfd think she was lazy or something I worked with a woman like that and it was very wearing, it wasn't as if she thought I was doing things wrong, she just had to be doing something all the bloody time.

Lostfraggle Sun 11-May-14 15:48:40

Cogito - yes, she has loads of other activities she does (she is retired) - 90% of which involve volunteering for worthy causes: eg she is on the committee of an arts organisation in her town, she volunteers in all sorts of ways for the local branch of a big national charity, she goes out to the theatre and concerts, plays bridge. It's almost like she has an insatiable need to be helpful / be needed. With the volunteering, she is always taking on more than she should, even if it's inconvenient to her.

outttheothersidefinally - thanks for the reply. Have googled her - the description of "Co-dependent no more" sounds like she needs to read it! Is there a particular book you'd recommend for people to understand other's with co-dependent tendencies?

Haven't heard the term "co-dependent" before but from wikipedia's description it sounds a lot like my mum: eg "placing a lower priority on one's own needs, while being excessively preoccupied with the needs of others" - YES! "People who are codependent often take on the role of mother hen" - this is EXACTLY my mother - in fact she has told me her the nickname her colleagues called her in a job she had in her 30s (before I was born) was "Wing" because she acted as a mother hen to them. And she still does it now, in all sorts of settings (eg her voluntary work).

DIYtrainee Sun 11-May-14 15:59:30

There is no way of saying it without her getting offended.

You just have to get through that, tell her you love her, but that she has to 'let go'.

The sad thing is though, you're all she's got and she just doesn't know how to. It will be a painful process for her.

Lostfraggle Sun 11-May-14 16:02:05

Oh, this is interesting: she definitely ticks quite a few of the characteristics of this checklist of co-dependecy: giving unwanted advice, saying yes when she means know, takes things personally, worries, loses sleep (she often can't sleep because she is worrying about a situation), focuses all her energy on other people and their problem. She is also incredibly reluctant to offer an opinion on anything (eg a book you've both read!) - and if you disagree, even slightly, she immediately retracts her tentatively offered opinion. I have wondered if this is all part of the same pattern - she doesn't want to offend me by disagreeing, so even when discussing something as innocuous as a book, she's trying to anticipate what I think and therefore how to respond.

Atbeckandcall Sun 11-May-14 16:08:52

Gosh, I have a mum just like this. Feels rather overwhelming doesn't it?

I know some mums are "helpful" in a non criticising way too.

Not sure what I can say but you're doing the right thing by not divulging anything until it's set in stone. I am starting to try to ignore my mum when she does the fussing thing. It still happens but lasts 10 mins, not an hour.

It may validating her small offerings of opinions though?

CogitoErgoSometimes Sun 11-May-14 16:25:22

She never got a new partner? A lot of people feel at a loose end if they don't have a significant other to lavish TLC on...

ProfYaffle Sun 11-May-14 16:29:39

Wow, you could be describing my Mum to a T. I now live 250 miles away so it's not so overwhelming. When I was at home it was awful, I developed a kind of shield of competence to deflect the fussing. But, yy, the guilt is overwhelming.

When she comes to stay I've learned to manage by directing her energies quite firmly "Mum, could you play with the dc in the living room to keep them out of my hair while I cook dinner please? I've just realised I forgot to buy wine do you mind popping out to get some? I need curtains for the small room, can you keep your eye out for some?" etc etc Like in the dh/shoes example (that really struck a chord, my Mum does crazily over familiar stuff like that too) I'd say "actually could you just take the box?"

I make sure I take her out for a meal, just me and her, when she's here too. When it's just us and there are no tasks (and a bit of wine!) we get on well. It helps with the guilt too.

Lostfraggle Sun 11-May-14 16:51:35

This is very reassuring to hear that others have the same experience.

ProfYaffle and Atbeckandcall - have you ever tried broaching the issue with your mothers? Or are you just managing it?

ProfYaffle: I think your tactic of trying to direct her energies is a good one. I think I am just shutting off more and more, which is possibly just making her more and more desperate to be helpful, in some kind of mutually reinforcing vicious circle. Thank you for understanding the DH / shoe thing! By itself it just sounds silly, but it is just typical of what she does all the time.

Cogito - no, she has had no relationships at all since my dad left (probably about 14 years ago). I honestly don't think she's come to terms with it, and the betrayal of the affair. She still seems very touchy about anything to do with him - eg she seemed shocked that he sent her a birthday card for her 70th, rather than just thinking that it was a polite thing to do. I agree that it would almost certainly help if she had someone to focus her attentions on - although if she was so smothering to them too, that wouldn't be very healthy either!

Lostfraggle Sun 11-May-14 16:54:12

My main guilt is that she provides some regular childcare - for free - while DH and I are working, which the DC love, I love (because they are cared for in their own home, by their own granny who loves them) and she seems to love doing. So I feel terrible for feeling so irritated by her since she does us this massive favour...

Thenapoleonofcrime Sun 11-May-14 17:02:46

I have a relative like this, but I do see it more benignly, because they don't feel valued and important unless they are doing something. You are perhaps reinforcing this as you do indeed use (wrong word, you know what I mean) her for childcare, not just to see her for the sake of it, so she then feels her role is to be even more useful and do housework.

Some of the things you describe, I would not find annoying, these are things my mum does, like the making a list at a party or cleaning my house, I just find this very helpful, not remotely judgmental and I'm not sure how you can reconfigure it to be so and not irritating.

I'm guessing she doesn't listen much though, and I think that makes a big difference. So, she doesn't pick up the clues on what you want doing and when to sit down/not clean/help out- so perhaps be blunter.

I don't think this is badly motivated though, she is not trying to take over or judge you is she? She's trying to take an interest and help out, but it is coming over too overwhelming.

If she is really overwhelming you, perhaps stop the childcare so the boundaries between caring and visiting are much clearer. My guess is you won't want to do that, so to some extent you do have to suck up that you have deliberately blurred them to your advantage and the disadvantage is she stays in carer mode all the time.

BitterAndOnlySlightlyTwisted Sun 11-May-14 17:07:40

Kindness. It's a most forgiveable trait even when it's slightly irritating, isn't it?

She can pop round and clean out my cupboards any time. Any time at all.

doziedoozie Sun 11-May-14 17:12:10

Is there something in her childhood or upbringing which could account for this, was her mother the same, was her mother poorly?

If you can understand where it came from it is easier to be patient.

Ask her about her DM, was she as 'helpful' as she is?

The fact that she did it before she was married means she's always been this way, if she treated exDH like this she is probably nonplussed as to why he would leave her (such a devoted and 'helpful' wife!)

sonjadog Sun 11-May-14 17:15:51

My mother is exactly like yours. Annoying, isn't it? Yours doesn't happen to be a retired teacher too?

It does drive me insane, I have to admit. Like yesterday I mentioned I wanted to make a vegetable garden and she phoned me at 7am this morning to tell me in detail how to do it.

I realise that my mother wants to be needed and helpful and it isn't meant to annoy, and all the unwanted help and fussing is a way for her to express love. I do have to remind myself of that quite often when she is around.

What helps a bit is that before she comes to stay I think about what she could do, and then when she is fussing about I say I have something that it would be great if she could help me with. For example, I now have the world's most organized flowerpot collection. This keeps her away from me and means I can get on with stuff while she is busy.

The kitchen is a banned area for her when I am cooking. There is no compromise there. She used to sneak up behind me and adjust the heat on the stove whenever my back was turned.

But a lot of the time I suck it up because my mum is 72 and one day she won't be here anymore and I will miss her fussing around me.

ProfYaffle Sun 11-May-14 17:52:04

I've never broached it directly, she'd be devastated. I can't imagine where I'd even begin with it. There's some gentle teasing about the waifs and strays she 'adopts', I think she recognises something of her need to be needed. She's also not very good with direct communication about feelings etc so I just manage it really.

ProfYaffle Sun 11-May-14 17:54:15

Oh and, yyy, I recognise the vicious circle of pulling away and her pushing more. My late 20s were a particular nadir of that phase. This is why I make an effort to go out with her every now and then, I make a conscious effort to give her what she wants. Plus we e-mail a lot which works for me because it doesn't feel too intrusive.

BitterAndOnlySlightlyTwisted Sun 11-May-14 17:55:56

Sonjadog has it right in her last paragraph.

My Mam was exactly the same as the OP's, always wanting to help or be useful and doing it out of love and kindness. Maybe love and kindness is a habit impossible to shed, I dunno.

All the talk of narcs and histrionics around this joint, and this thread is the precise opposite. That's not a bad thing.

Lostfraggle Sun 11-May-14 18:03:50

Bitter and napoleon - yes, I know she is trying to be kind - and that's where the guilt comes in, and I know it sounds ridiculous to complain about someone being "helpful", but unless you have been of the kind of over-bearing, continuously helpful, constantly-predicting-what-you-need-before-you-need it, it does just seem like I'm whinging. But it's (s)mothering (!). I feel infantalised - she is literally sometimes treating me like a small child, or young teenager, not a completely independent, competent adult. Maybe it's easier to deal with if it's a relative, as you've had, napoleon, rather than your own mother? I do take what you are saying about the childcare.

dozie - with my amateur psychologist hat on, I think the main feature of her childhood was a father who she perceived as uncaring, and sometimes (emotionally) cruel, who favoured the oldest son (her brother) over her and her sister. Her sister (who is 66!) feels she only really flourished as a complete person once their father (my grandfather) died, about 11 years ago...I'm sure she did feel she was a very devoted wife, and I'm sure my father found it actually pretty wearing (not that that justifies the affair). His new wife is nothing like my mother, temperamentally.

sonjadog - my mum adjusts the heat on the stove while I am cooking too. Or stirs a pot when I've only just stirred. Etc etc etc. And would definitely phone me with a plan for a vegetable garden, should I mention I;m thinking of one. I totally agree with what you are saying; that she means well, that it is her way of showing her love, that I should treasure her while she is still here (she is 70). I have to find a way of not feeling immensely irritated / infantalised when it happens!

You and ProfYaffle definitely seem to have embraced it and have found ways of channelling and redirecting the helpfulness - I'm impressed. Have you ever talked to her about it?

Lostfraggle Sun 11-May-14 18:15:32

(cross-posted the post above with lots of others) Bitter - I truly do recognise how lucky I am. I am certain my mum loves me. I love her too. She is in many many ways a wonderful mum (and granny, and mother in law actually to DH). I count my blessings (in a non-religious way) every day (in fact my aunt died when my cousins were in their 20s - this has had a big affect on me: I am so grateful to even have a mother). This board has made me realise how others' relations with their mothers are far far worse. I honestly try my hardest to rise above the irritations I have described. Buuuuut, even though you know there are people worse off than you, it doesn't mean that you can't get frustrated with your own situation from time to time. I have only spoken about this with my DH and DSis (who feels the same as me!), not to anyone else, and it's quite nice to have a little corner of the anonymous internet to express these feelings too.

Thenapoleonofcrime Sun 11-May-14 18:36:30

Lost please don't think I'm trying to say its not irritating. Someone with a bit of a martyr complex will be irritating. The problem is that the boundaries in your house aren't really clear -sometimes she's welcome to care for the children and make decisions, and other times not. Perhaps she also cooks for them and you sometimes, other times not. I think these kind of negotiations have to be made with partners as well as mums.

I think being a bit more direct, even if she gets a bit upset could be ok. You wouldn't not say to a partner 'oh, I'm cooking, can you get out of my way please' would you? I think it's fine to sometimes be irritated by people if they are in your lives a lot and definitely if they are in your home. I don't think she will be psychic about when to help and when not though, so perhaps you need to be more direct- so 'now I'm here mum I'll do xy and z' would be fine. Redirecting her energy so she does genuinely helpful things is also good with too helpful people.

I guess what I am saying though is that it doesn't sound malicious or done to undermine you, but rather from an awful sense of inadequacy that if she isn't very very helpful to you, you may reject her even just by seeing less of her. My guess would be she felt inadequate in her childhood and rejected by your dad as well- she seems to spend all her time trying to please you with little success.

I don't think both caring for the children and doing parties and doing housework together can be achieved without the odd cross word or slight misunderstanding- I don't think you should feel bad about yesterday, these things happen. It must be ok for you to say something and for her to be a little upset- you could say to her 'I'm sorry I upset you mum, I meant XYZ but I do appreciate your help'.

I don't think you should distance yourself or start sighing or rolling eyes when she's around helping though- either accept her help, or just stop asking her for help and put her back in the 'guest' role, so no housework/childcare/helping at parties otherwise I think it's a little unfair.

Matildathecat Sun 11-May-14 18:50:40

Could you think up some projects for her? Researching stuff or sorting something specific? That way you are including her in your life but on your terms.

I completely understand about the housekeeping stuff. My mil was horrendous. When I was in hospital having ds1 she rearranged all my kitchen cupboards completely. When they babysat on our 10th wedding anniversary we got home all mellow and she lectured me for a good ten minutes on my bin and how she'd scrubbed it. It drove me nuts.

sonjadog Sun 11-May-14 20:46:17

I haven't talked to my mum directly about it because she would be very hurt and it isn't worth hurting her. It has gotten a lot more intense since my father died and my mother has been on her own, which I don't think is coincidental. The way she is is the way she was brought up to be. She has always been the one who gives way to other people's wishes, takes the bad option for herself, fetches and serves. I think she was brought up to believe that is her role and she feels comfortable and fulfilled in that role.

I deal with it by not telling her big news until everything is decided - because if I told her, then she would be organizing and pressurizing me to decide. It would be nice to discuss stuff with her sometimes, but I have other friends and family I can do that with.

I am very clear about certain things that she is not to do and does not get a say in. Sometimes she gets upset when I say no to her input, but I am absolutely firm about that. My mother has a tendency to cry and huff when she doesn't get her own way and I have been clear with her since I was in my late teens that emotional blackmail will not work on me.

Apart from that, it is finding little jobs for her to do that make her feel useful, and also spending time apart. I live abroad so when my mum comes it is for weeks at a time. We do lots of stuff together, but we also do things on our own and it is allowed for either of us to say that we want alone time and go take the dog for a walk.

justwondering72 Sun 11-May-14 21:23:17

Another one here, and yes she is a retired teacher!

I deal with it in the ways mentioned above. I give her specific projects and jobs to do, usually ones that involve looking after the DCs - they keep her so busy she can't find the time to butt in where not needed! And they adore her.

I live overseas so we only see her a few times a year. So I work on getting my own head straight, not taking her actions or comments as implied criticism, actively choosing to see her actions as inspired by love, not because she thinks I need the guidance or advice. As one if the pp's said, there are a lot worse traits around.

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