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Dr. Robert,

My mother has been diagnosed with depression, probably 25 years ago. I need some advice on how to deal with her. (and she takes 2 anti-depressants, that obviously don't work)

When I had my first child, we lived with my parents for 4 years until I met and married my husband. I was 21, single Mother, living in a new town, no job and living with Mom & Dad. Don't get me wrong, I very much appreciate their help for my daughter and me but, after I got married, Mom pretty much "went off the deep end". It was bad enough that when we lived with her she told me how to raise my daughter, what my daughter needed to eat, drink, behave, etc.... And I didn't tell her "this is my child, I want her to do this...", I felt that would have shown disrespect. Even after I was married she still tried to tell me how to raise my daughter. If my daughter didn't get to spend the night at her house at least twice a week, I had to listen to the longest, most pitiful speech about how we don't love her anymore. And now it's 14 years later and I have another daughter, I still listen to the same speeches. For some reason, everyone has got to show my Mom she is loved unconditionally.

My daughters are 18 and 13 now and have a very busy,active life and have had for years. They are in choir, band, basketball, softball and rodeo. There is a practice of some kind, for some activity almost every day of the week and most weekends. I have tried to include Mom in the activities. I tell her when there is going to be a performance or ball game because she complains she doesn't get to see the girls but, guess what, half the time she makes up some lame excuse not to come. In the past I have made excuses for her, why she doesn't come watch the girls but now that the girls are older, they know there is no reason for her not to come. As long as everything is going like Mom wants it, things are great. If the girls could live with her, she would be absolutely in heaven. If things aren't going her way, she's like a little child. She throws the biggest temper tantrum you have ever seen a 62 year old have. In fact right now she's mad at me and my 18 year old because my daughter only stayed with her Friday night and Saturday last weekend instead of all weekend. Saturday night my daughter went out with friends and then came home later that night and was home Sunday. I suppose a lot of this is my fault because I didn't speak up years ago and say "these are my kids and this is how I want them raised".

I hoped she would get involved in church or find a hobby and not concentrate on my kids so much, but no such luck. I feel really bad when Mom gets down and depressed. She cries about the least little thing, says nobody loves her, wishes the good Lord would just call her to heaven because she has no purpose down here anymore, her girls just don't love her, etc. I talk to my Mom at least twice everyday to let her know how everyone is doing. We only live 30 miles from her but it's difficult to stop to see her every day when we have so much to do.

Now I am asking for help with her because my girls are getting to the point they don't want to be around her because she is so moody and depressed. Can you help me?


ask dr-robert


This situation is difficult because, as you mentioned, you did not take a stand earlier when you really needed to draw firm boundaries. In my view, you are far too close to your mom--far too emotionally enmeshed, as a psychologist would say—and I imagine this has been going on since you gave birth to a child while still emotionally a child yourself. In that situation, when you needed to live with and depend upon your mom for help, I imagine that your role as a young mother became somewhat infantilized as your own mom took over too much of the management of the situation, leaving you with an ambiguous identity: part mother, part child.

Your mother’s depression as well as her need for constant proof of your unconditional "love" for her are forms of emotional illness which are not your fault, which surely existed in one form or another before you were born, and which do not depend in any way whatsoever on what you do or don’t do. I know you feel for her suffering, but you must understand that you do not have the power to end it, or even make it less than it is. Your mother has the emotional problems she has, and those problems—not your behavior towards her, or that of your daughters--are the source of her suffering. Nothing you can do will heal those problems, or even make them less than they are.

Your mother's life is her life, not your life. Each of us must live our own life. I suggest that you begin to make some real distance between yourself and your mother, not so much by what you do or don't do externally (although twice a day telephone conversations to me seems pretty excessive), but internally, within yourself. It is time, I mean, to cut her loose in your own mind, to realize that she has her own emotional destiny which is not yours, and to begin to treat her as you would want your daughters to treat you—with respect, but with distance, if you know what I mean. If this does not seem possible, you should get some therapy for yourself.

Regarding your daughters: they should not have to spend so much time with their grandmother who is obviously a drag on them with her demanding ways which will never be satisfied. Let them decide how much time and attention they wish to give her. They do not owe her attendance to her emotional needs. Do not force them to do anything or make them feel guilty for wanting to live their own lives as they choose. In fact, you might begin making this change by sharing this letter with them.

Not everyone will agree with this advice, I know. Many American families are enmeshed in just this way, and consider that way of life to be normal and expected. Furthermore, many people feel a kind of guilt about the entire situation of being in a family, and that guilt, not love, drives a lot of their behavior towards other family members, particularly older ones. Probably to that kind of people my words will seem harsh and unfeeling. But you have sought my help, this is my point of view, and this is my advice, for better or for worse.

Be well.

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page last modified November 12, 2008

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