I have a confession: My relationship with my mother is not all sunshine and roses. Shocking, right? Family relationships can be challenging. Adding children to the mix may complicate it even more. Many of us have parents of our own that are involved in our lives in some capacity. They may be regular visitors to your home or only occasional visitors to your regular life. Perhaps they are your regular childcare providers or they take your kids on a yearly vacation. In our case, our parents live far away from us. Since we got married, we have lived between 1,000 and 6,500 miles away from all of them. Obviously, they have not been involved in our daily lives. There have been a handful of visits to us over the last 19 years and we make a summer pilgrimage to see them. Our regular relationship is primarily via the phone and Internet.
Probably because we live so far away and don’t spend much time together, my mother has not commented on our parenting too much. Don’t get me wrong, she has opinions about stuff we do. She clearly disagrees with some things, but it has not been a big deal. I have been able to brush things off and have not had to exercise any special communication skills much. She even compliments me sometimes.
Recently, however, something happened to cause a rift. I have already shared that I have a transgender child. Being a parent of a transgender child involves some hard decision-making in the medical arena as well as some big mental leaps. I have spent hundreds of hours reading and researching. I have interviewed professionals and talked with other parents in the same situation. I participate in support groups and go to conferences. I am as confident as I can be about the decisions we have made based on experts and evidence.
Our extended family has been very supportive of our child. Unintentionally, some people in our lives have voiced opinions that could be considered inappropriate, but I have been able to ignore those and just hear their concern. I say this because recently my mother told me she does not agree with the decisions we are making in supporting our transgender child. Needless to say, it did not go well. Actually, we got into a raging argument on the phone about these decisions. It ended with her hanging up on me and not returning any calls for weeks. It also involved some super poor communications skills on both of our parts.
Upfront, I do want to state that I don’t mind that she disagreed with me. This is a complicated issue for many people. What I mind is that she was trying to get me to change our path by guilting and bullying me. Despite my past efforts to provide her information, she was speaking from a clearly uninformed position. During our argument she actually told me, “Well, I will be dead when [s]he is an adult, so it will not be my problem.” She also referred to her granddaughter with the pronoun “he” and used M’s birth name (clearly a boy’s name which we no longer use) over and over again during conversation despite me gently correcting her. These are both big “no-no’s” in the transgender community. When we originally told my mother about M, she waved off information we offered and purported to know everything about the transgender community. If that is true, she should know these basic things.
When I tried to point out that there is easily accessible information on the Internet that supports our decisions and that I had sent her links in the past, she told me I had not and then to send it again. She is smart, Internet-savvy, and perfectly capable of finding it on her own. She pretty much refused to put any effort towards understanding why we are making these decisions. This, of course, made me angry. (Confession: I did resend her the links after the bad ending to the conversation as a peace offering.)
At the start of our exchange, I tried to be smart about it and told her I did not want to discuss this with her. Why? Because I knew deep inside the only reason she was bringing it up was because she has strong opinions about everything and I knew hers would not coincide with ours. However, because I do want to have a good relationship with my mother and I love her, I carried on the conversation. Eventually, the hang up happened.
Where did I go wrong? How could I have handled this better? What can you do to improve things when you and your parents do not agree on decisions you make about your kids?
I gave it some thought after The Argument. I do not agree with every one of my friends and how they parent. Why then should I expect to exactly agree with my parents on this topic? Adults and their parents do not always agree on many things. However, we think that once we reach a certain age, our parents are going to recognize our decision-making skills and respect the resolutions we reach. Apparently, that is not always the case. For many grandparents, we are always going to be their babies, incapable of coming to useful conclusions.
Another thing I thought about afterwards was how I handle it when my friends and I disagree. Sometime we have an amicable discussion. Sometimes I deflect. My favorite thing to do when anyone tells me something I disagree with, but want to avoid conflict, is to smile and nod. “That is interesting,” I say. Or if I am curious, “Why do you think that?” and just listen. Why can’t I apply these principles to my mother?
Now I realize my first mistake in this conversation with my mother. Most people set boundaries for themselves when dealing with others. As adults, we have to do this with our parents, too. Initially, I tried to set my boundary when I told her I did not want to share the information with her. But I allowed her to bully me into talking about it anyway. Why did I let her do this? Because not going over this with her was making her mad and I don’t like it when my mother is mad at me. I should have just let her be mad about refusing to discuss it. The rest of our awful conversation never would have occurred and I would not be thinking about all of the mean things she said to me.
If the boundaries have been crossed, you do not like what you parent is saying, and the deflective responses mentioned above do not work, what can you do? I can clearly tell you from personal experience the first thing you should do is stay calm. Whatever you do, do not blow up. How do I know this? I have lots of experience making the wrong choice with my mom. Getting angry almost never gets you anywhere, especially with a parent and even if you are well into adulthood.
According to the experts, you should be polite but honest while shrouding that honesty in warm fuzzies. The experts call this sandwiching: Start off with a positive. State the negative. Then end with another positive. You may have to pull that positive out of nowhere, but find it! I could have said something like, “Thanks mom, I know you love M so much. I have put a lot of research into our decision and am pretty comfortable with it. Please send me any research you have and I would love to read it.” This also acknowledges their concern, which is another expert-recommended technique. Trying to change her mind by saying, “I have put a lot of research into our decision and this is what we are doing,” got me nowhere. Instead it made it all about me and did not demonstrate that I understood she may be worried about her grandchild. How to remember to be this savvy in the middle of a discussion is definitely something I continue to work on.
Another thing to keep in mind: Some grandparents still think they are in charge of their adult children, so they confuse the roles. Interestingly, I think that is one of my mother’s issues. When I asked her why she thought she had a say in our decisions, she said, “Because I am your mother.” Whoa! I am 49 years old. She does not have a say in my decision making anymore. By the way, that is not an effective response when someone is angry with you.
Other cool things I was reminded of when working on this post:
- Just because your parent is offering advice or information, it does not mean they are necessarily criticizing what you are doing. A grandparent could just be giving advice because it makes them feel more involved. The experts say you should say something like “I appreciate your experience, but the latest research says something different.” Or, “That is one way to look at it. We are going to try this first.” Or, “Thanks so much. I will keep that in mind.”
- Sometimes adult children call their parents and appear to ask for advice, but actually may be venting. It is good just to be honest with yourself and your parents about why you are calling them. If they know you are just looking for an open ear, they will probably offer you that.
- Ask for advice for the little things that may not matter to you so much. Then no one can say you never listen to them. 😉
- Listen to what they have to say. It might be worthwhile. You never know. They have been there, done that. But you can also not do what they suggest. Just say “thanks” and move on.
What is your overarching goal? A good relationship with your parent(s)? Great grandparent-grandchild time? A support network? Keeping your parent(s) out of your business? Keep this goal in mind. My goal is to be friends with my mom. Family is important. When she is not trying to boss me around, she is actually an amazing person. Growing up, I loved her creativity, joie de vivre, and intelligence, and I love those things about her today. We often have fun together. I do not depend on her for childcare nor do I see her every day. Others have different needs in their relationship with their parents. And, just in case you were wondering, this argument with my mom was a big one and we are still working it out.