Navigating the Sandwich
Just Say No to Your Aging Mother
Setting boundaries with your mom is no small task. But it can save your sanity -- and your relationship
I’m pretty sure I’ll be relieved when my mother dies. Not because she’s enduring a painful terminal disease (she’s healthy) but because she drives me crazy and I’m sick and tired of showing up for her. The way she treats me gets me so mad. I’m even mad at her for my upbringing and dammit, I know I’m supposed to be grateful.
Shocking? Not to at least 71 of you. That’s how many CoveyClub readers commented on the first piece I wrote on why I hate caring for my aging mother. Some readers expressed relief at having an outlet for saying, “Me, too, I hate it!” Many poignant comments revealed even stronger feelings of anger, shame and despair than my own — testament to just what a hot-button this subject is.
There’s hope, though, and it doesn’t involve waiting ’til your parent dies to get your life back. The hope lies in fortifying your boundaries and empowering yourself to use the word “no.” It turns out my looking forward to Mom, 95, making her final exit reveals my lack of boundaries, my sense of powerlessness, while she lives, to really be myself without shame, to stand up for my values and beliefs.
If parenting required getting a license, my mother wouldn’t have passed the test. I was well into adulthood before I figured this out. It was kind of a relief to say to myself at last, “Oh, that’s why I’m so fucked up.” It took me until my fifties to recognize my mother’s paranoia and narcissism as a thing. A thing with a label. Separate from me. Until then, thanks to the power of our family story and its unspoken rules about worshipping the matriarch, I believed she was just eccentric, colorful, and forceful. Gradually, I came to see that she is self-absorbed, judgmental, petty, manipulative, and controlling. And spiteful, and—
But it’s not about what’s wrong with Mom. It’s about what’s wrong with me.
Except “wrong” is the wrong word, says Master Certified Life Coach Karen C.L. Anderson, author of Difficult Mothers, Adult Daughters: A Guide For Separation, Liberation & Inspiration. She objects to the either/or-ness of right and wrong. As a specialist in mother/daughter relationships and boundaries, her take is far more compassionate and nuanced. Instead, she says, “It’s about what you have the capacity for and the opportunity to learn in order to establish healthy boundaries that will protect you from her and have you respecting yourself.”
Still, I really enjoyed this sentence in one of Anderson’s blog posts: “There are some shitty people in this world, and some of them just happen to be mothers.”
Finding Solace in Hindsight
I learned two lessons from the mountain of heart-wrenching comments on that first story: First, I have it pretty good. Many of you spend more time caregiving your aging parent than I do mine. Several of you wrote about deciding to have your mother come live with you, and that this was the “worst decision of my life.” I could have told you that. I’d never do that — not in a million years. My heart goes out to you.
And second, many of you are bearing the burden of elder-care yourselves, which sounds insanely hard. My mother has been able to afford a tag-team of at-home caregivers. Again, I’m fortunate. Nevertheless, being with her, listening to her complaints and nasty, paranoid gossip drives me batshit crazy. And I have two sisters who help! One handles Mom’s finances; the other manages home repairs. Because I live closest, I serve as boots on the ground. And I handle medical stuff — finding doctors, firing doctors at Mom’s whim, attending appointments, rushing to the ER after she’s called 911 because she’s constipated. The many hours I spend every week on phone calls and emails takes a big chunk out of my workday most days.
By now, it’s probably occurring to you that what brings on my frustration and anger — the kind many of you referred to in your comments as “blinding rage” or “white-hot anger” — has to do with the emotional and psychological burdens layered on top of the practical ones. After all, as adult-children, our psyches are dealing with a mess of unresolved feelings, past hurts and resentment. Thus, even those with resources to pay for caregivers or a facility suffer from the emotional burdens of caring for their parent, and even those without resources to hire care can benefit from setting healthier boundaries — the kind that don’t cost money.
Anderson encourages taking a look at ourselves, because that’s what we can change — we can’t change our parents. First, she says, take a step back. “We didn’t get here by mistake. This [situation] has evolved in the context of a culture that doesn’t value women equally, the context of institutionalized misogyny and patriarchal conditioning.”
For generations, women have been raised to be people-pleasers and caretakers. By definition, a people-pleaser measures her own worth by how others see her. No wonder we resist disappointing others, rocking the boat. We’d rather sacrifice our needs and comfort. That’s what seems to keep us safe within our tribe. And that’s what keeps us feeling stuck as caregivers for our aging parents.
But saying “no” is your crucial lifeline. Or, think of it as the most essential tool in the toolbox with which you can build healthy boundaries that will enable you to transform your nightmare, your white-hot anger, into something more manageable, less draining, and more livable. Set a boundary and you’re bound to offend someone, especially family. So be ready!
Defining Your Terms
Here’s what boundaries are not:
“They’re not about keeping people out,” says Anderson. “Most people think of boundaries as punishment for when someone’s been bad.” Instead, she suggests a mindset-shift. “Boundaries are clarity about who you are. Think of a boundary as ‘This is how I protect — and respect — myself.’ Not, ‘This is how I control someone else.’”
Anonymous-in-New York, who commented on my first piece, managed admirably well. “The most important boundaries I set for myself were emotional ones. I’d been emotionally abused by my mother as a child and young adult. So, when she was in assisted living and wanted me to call her every night, I did not. I protected myself. I felt sorry, but it was too toxic for me to get sucked back into her orbit. My brother was okay with calling her every night. I did what had to be done to see that she was well taken care of, what I felt I owed her for raising me, but I prioritized myself emotionally. I limited my visits to twice per month, unless there [was] an emergency. I did the housing arrangements, the finances and half the doctor appointments — all this while working full time. I was so fortunate to have my brother and even my husband be willing to take care of her emotional needs.”
How to set a boundary without feeling like a heel? It’s a three-fold process, according to Anderson. Making a request; taking an action; reaping a benefit. She offers this “simplistic example: ‘Mom, please don’t call me every day. If you continue, I won’t answer the phone. I prefer you call me once a week. That way, I can give you my undivided attention for a full half-hour.’”
The action: You let calls go to voicemail.
The benefit: You protect your time and she enjoys a conversation in which you are more present to her in a way she probably doesn’t experience you now. Another benefit is that you feel better about yourself.
“Work toward changing your perspective from ‘She shouldn’t be acting this way’ to ‘This is who she is.’” When you hear yourself saying, “But she doesn’t respect my boundaries,” remember Anderson’s response: “That’s because you’re not clear about them. Be clear about what you will do. In the beginning, it feels awkward and scary. Keep practicing. When YOU respect your boundaries, eventually she will as well.”
In her book, Anderson writes, “What I wish for most for you is the ability to take yourself onto your own lap and ease your own pain.” To that end, she teaches somatic practices that involve tuning in, becoming aware of your inner weather, breathing and chanting to stimulate and tone the emotion-regulating vagus nerve. “The relationship dynamic can be traumatic. Not big-T trauma, like, say, with a car accident or war experience. This kind may be more subtle, low-grade and chronic. It’s still trauma.”
The essence of trauma is being disconnected from how our bodies feel. The mind-body connection gets interrupted. Whether you’re the fight/flight type or the freeze type (like a mouse in a field who can’t outrun a hawk), these practices are regulating. Devote some time to them every day, and eventually, you’ll notice they’ve helped expand your nervous system’s capacity so you’re not always yo-yoing between rage and total collapse.
Let’s say you’re with your parent. It’s been a rough day, she’s being incredibly demanding or annoying, and you feel that blinding rage response coming. Anderson recommends picturing a mama bear.
“Her cubs are playing in a field. There’s no predator about. She’s resting, not worried. If a predator comes, she’ll ramp up her predator energy. But if a cub wanders too far, she doesn’t overreact. She brings the level of energy that’s needed to call the cub back.”
Translation: we’re human animals. We’re imperfect. The beautiful part is we have the capacity to adapt. To notice when we’re overreacting and learn to react more appropriately to the moment, like the mama bear. Perhaps the moment doesn’t call for full blown rage, but simply a little inner growl. Only what’s necessary to show your respect for your own boundary. “I’d love to hear your complaints another time, Mom, but right now, I feel too drained. I prefer to listen after a good night’s sleep.”
My friend Judith G was at the point of burnout when she determined it was time to make some changes around her father’s care. He had moved to an assisted living facility near her in North Carolina. “It had gotten so hard, the complaining and lack of expressed gratitude for all I was doing. I was the one person he could call no matter what, and he called a lot. I felt so guilty for not inviting him to my house more than once a week. On top of that, his sudden physical proximity brought up all the old wounds of our relationship…”
Often enough, says Anderson, “a small change can make us feel so much better. When we are in integrity with ourselves, that’s what counts.” Judith’s father was in the habit of asking her to mend his old, ragged shirts that he refused to throw away. Talk about patriarchal conditioning! “After a time,” says Judith, “I just said no.”
And the world didn’t end. She made bigger changes as well. “Too late, I got this advice, which would have helped me: Before you take on a caregiving role, think about what you are going to need from your siblings and ask them to commit. Get these commitments in writing. Finances permitting, hire a care manager and assign them the task of inviting your parent to download all complaints with them daily. Enlist companions to spend time doing fun things that will help your parent lead a happier life — taking walks, sitting outside listening to the birds, enjoying gardens, growing plants, reading aloud, writing to family and friends. And schedule regular vacations for yourself!”
For those whose family’s budget doesn’t allow for paid care and vacations, keep in mind that companions can be found among friends and neighbors; and you can coordinate them online. (Try: https://lotsahelpinghands.com ) Also, check with your state government; it may offer a mandated Senior Care program for which your parent signs up and is accorded a certain number of free hours per week.
Judith’s father had the resources that ultimately allowed his children to be paid an hourly wage for the work they did for him. That wouldn’t fly in my family, but it worked wonders for Judith’s peace of mind. She also stressed the importance of taking regular breaks when you are not on call. And having a plan for dealing with that critical issue that will no doubt arise the day before you leave on vacation.
Recently, I shared with Judith my “dirty little secret” — that I was relieved when COVID protocol limited my visits with my mother to half an hour twice a week, with me sitting just outside her porch door, masked and distant. Judith suggested keeping up that same schedule post-vaccinations, “because that’s what works for you.” Hearing that advice from a veteran suddenly made me feel in my core the reality of giving myself permission to keep that beautiful boundary in place.
Often, adult-children feel trapped in their caregiving situations and believe they don’t have any choice but to sacrifice and suffer. But you do have choices, Anderson insists. Are you bogged down (as I’ve been) in your own self-story so you can’t see choices?
Lynn Forrest, a renowned personal growth mentor and coach, devised a psychology model called Victim Consciousness in which there’s this upside-down Drama Triangle. At the bottom point is the Victim. On the two upper points, the Rescuer and the Persecutor. According to Forrest, people in relationships can play any and all of these roles at different times. “Anytime we refuse to take responsibility for ourselves, we’re opting into victim-hood.” Surprisingly but somehow reassuringly, she says that most of us unconsciously react to life as victims, see ourselves as at the mercy of life circumstances. Wait. Don’t click off the page just yet. It gets better. Now, invert the triangle and the Victim is on top and becomes the Observer — a more neutral, untethered, functional role. Likewise, the Rescuer becomes the Nurturer, ready to empower the other rather than enable; and the Persecutor becomes the Asserter.
Anderson uses Forrest’s triangle in her coaching, and she stresses that this isn’t about victim-blaming, but simply shining light on the dynamics. To get unstuck and become the Observer, she suggests bringing a “compassionate curiosity” to your difficult situation. “Ah, that’s what triggers my daft mother!” Or “Oh, boy, there I go again, having that same thought…” Put your hand on your heart and feel how human you are. Go further. “It’s helpful to understand your mother’s childhood,” says Anderson, “and to tease out what might have been traumatic to her.”
Expect to be uncomfortable at first when you disrupt family patterns. It takes time. Don’t expect immediate results.
But, you protest, you can’t say “no” to a helpless, elderly, infirm parent. You can’t? Take RRussell’s comment on my first piece — about Mother calling last minute to ask RRussell to drop everything and pick up medication at CVS, which closes in 15 minutes. Most of us might think we have no choice, can’t deprive our parent of an essential medication. Grrrr.
Of course you can say no. “Of course she manipulates you,” says Anderson. “She doesn’t know another way to get her needs met. And of course you’re frustrated and angry. She hasn’t learned. And you haven’t learned a way to like and respect yourself that feels good.” So, try doing what’s right for you. Try saying, “I’d be happy to pick up your medication some time when I’m not cooking dinner. I need you to give me more advance notice.” So, she misses one pill, one set of eye drops.
Your choices are plentiful. Get the meds tomorrow; arrange for someone else to pick them up; make a chart of all your mother’s prescriptions and create calendar alerts for renewals well in advance; find out if her CVS delivers…Your action will show self-respect and you’ll begin to feel a whole lot better about who you are when you do show up — with the meds or without.
Your Self-Care To-Do List
Sixty percent of caregivers show signs of clinical depression. Many skip their own doctor appointments, put off exercising, and let their own nutrition slide. The antidote? Your self-care to-do list:
- Stop with the self-sacrifice unless your parent is in an emergency situation.
- Use community resources (see suggestions below) for support.
- Make a point of talking with family, friends, a professional counselor and support groups.
- Rely on prayer, meditation, and/or somatic practices to stay in balance.
- Say “yes” to offers of help, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.
- Take walks, read a book, eat an ice-cream sundae spur of the moment. Do what makes you happy as often as you can (but easy on the ice cream).
- Book a yoga class, gym session, or tennis lesson and don’t cancel it.
- Turn off your phone and take a ten-minute nap.
- When you’re on duty, seize the opportunity to take 15 minutes to sit quietly, do breath exercises, observe your setting, get outside and look around, journal.
Recommended Resources and Required Reading
Elder-Care and Caregiving Support
- National Alliance for Caregiving
- Family Caregiver Alliance’s Tips on Caregiver Health
- Aging Parents and Elder Care
- FDA’s Caregiver Resources
- AARP Caregiving Resources
- Caregiving Advocacy by State
- Caregiver Assistance Network (through Catholic Charities)
- Elayne Forgie, Coaching for Caregivers
Elayne offers a free 15-minute consult, but for those not looking to spend money, check out her blog.
National Suicide prevention hotline: 800 273 8255
Blogs, Podcasts, and Instagram Accounts
- Karen Anderson on Difficult Mothers
- Am I a Terrible Daughter for Leaving My Mother?
- Christa Tippett on our nervous systems after this COVID year
- Nedra Glover Tawwab, licensed therapist specializing in boundaries
- Difficult Mothers, Adult Daughters; A Guide for Separation, Liberation & Inspiration, by Karen C.L. Anderson
- The Difficult Mother-Daughter Relationship Journal, by Karen C.L. Anderson
- Guiding Principles (Beyond Victim Consciousness), by Lynne Forrest
- Stop Caretaking the Borderline or Narcissist; How to End the Drama and Get on with Life, by Margalis Fjelstad
- Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A Guide to Reclaiming Yourself, by Nedra Glover Tawwab