“I honestly thought that taking care of her when she was ill and dying would right things, somehow. She was awful to me, always, but I thought that by doing it right, taking care of her and not walking away, I would feel better. Well, not. The abuse is non-stop and I have finally decided that I can’t see this through. Even my therapist agrees that I can’t do this anymore.”
I hear often from daughters whose abusive mothers now need care, and the crisis is real. This can be a cusp moment in a daughter’s life but it mostly remains in shadows and undiscussed; there is often deep shame associated with the moment. The assumption is that we will take care of our parent or parents because they “took care” of us. It’s arguable that a volitional act like having a baby doesn’t quite have its equivalent when it comes to being an adult child who feels obligated to repay a parent for a choice that parent made.
The culture is loaded with reminders of our filial duty, especially to the one who, as the phrase goes, “gave us life.” That cultural pressure never really lets up and all of us have internalized the idea that we owe a great deal to our parent or parents, and that this debt is sufficiently large that abuse or mistreatment should be forgiven or at least ignored in a time of emergency. This message is stored in our heads and has a very loud speaker system; there’s no question that an ailing toxic parent provokes a very real internal crisis in almost everyone.
What I call the core conflict in my book Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life plays a role in the crisis.The core conflict is the tug-of-war between the daughter’s recognition of how she’s been wounded (and who wounded her) and her hopefulness that issues can be resolved and that she can somehow get her mother to love her. Healing remains elusive as long as the conflict remains active.
Resolving the core conflict has a topography of its own, full of peaks and valleys, as the daughter struggles to make sense of it, works to set boundaries, manages her feelings, and tries to find ways of making it less difficult and painful. There’s no easy solution and the results are often more cobbled together than not. Some opt for distance, moving a state away or hundreds or thousands of miles away from where they grew up; some put an ocean between themselves and their families of origin. They go low-contact by default, which is more like being in exile than not. Others stay in contact for reasons both simple and complicated: They range from not being willing to give up on the possibility of reconciliation, fear of disrupting important family ties, or the decision to make sure their child or children have grandparents. Some daughters, after years of struggle, decide that they can no longer brook the toxicity of the connection, and go no contact. In doing so, they often lose most, if not all, of their other family connections as well.
But nothing is more poignant than the crisis posed by the toxic mother who is in need. According to a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center, one-quarter of Americans with a living parent over 65 provide assistance to a parent; that number jumps to one-third for adults with a parent over 75—and one-third say they provide financial assistance. While 88 percent of those helping elderly parents report the experience as “rewarding,” not surprisingly, 53 percent also say that it’s stressful. It should surprise no one that daughters do the lion’s share of hands-on caretaking. Mind you, these are overall statistics and don’t take the quality of the mother-daughter relationship into account.
But what about the mother who has belittled you all of your life or dismissed and ignored you, or still tries to control you but who, nonetheless, gave you life? It’s hard to overstate the cultural pressures pertaining to filial duty—backed up by one of the Ten Commandments, no less—and additionally, the daughter’s own sense of herself as a caring and empathic person. And then there’s the cultural opprobrium: While I was never asked to take care of my late mother—we had been estranged for 13 years when she became ill—I have seen people reassess me when they learn that I did not visit her before she died. I go from being seen as one kind of woman to another in an instant because, in our culture, it’s always the daughter who’s on trial. After all, what kind of a daughter doesn’t honor the mother who gave her life, the culture asks? I have an answer to that: The kind of daughter who is finally able to acknowledge mistreatment and honor herself. But, for the moment at least, my answer is that of an outlier.
Dealing with emotional confusion in crisis
For many daughters who have settled on how to deal with their unloving mothers, their parents’ sudden neediness or illness throws them into a state of emotional confusion. They worry about what precisely their duty to their mother is, and what other people will think of them. They may feel enormous guilt and angst, or pressure from siblings and other family members to “do the right thing.” They may also be afraid of how they will feel in the future if they do not
It’s a situation which has no easy answers or pat solutions.
It’s difficult to overstate the complexity of emotions and motivation. “I take care of my mother because it’s the right thing to do,” one woman in her late forties told me. “It’s crazy-making, painful, but I am a mother myself. It’s the right thing to do. I believe in doing the right thing in life and I’m not going to make an exception for my mother although, God knows, it would be warranted.” Not surprisingly, self-definition contributes to both the decision to hang in and the decision to stay away.
Women talk of their faith and religious beliefs, their sense of themselves as honest and true, and, tellingly, of wanting to show the world that they are better than their mothers were, and capable of better behavior—even if “the world” doesn’t know their mothers failed them. That was the reasoning Beth adduced: “I took great care of my mother because she took terrible care of me. I’m not saying she didn’t feed or clothe me, because she did. But she put me down, never heard or saw me as who I was, and was bitterly disappointed that I wasn’t who she wanted me to me. I treated her well when she was sick, and that was what I needed to do to prove to myself, for once for all, that how she treated me had nothing to do with who I was.” But, realistically, some daughters begin with those intentions and then discover that they just can’t. That was the case for Rose, 44, whose siblings had long since cut bait on their 75-year-old mother and who found herself unable to go forward:
“I divorced my mother (no contact) about a year ago. I did everything for her, until the day I said ‘Enough,’ and ended it cold turkey. I know she is ill, she is lonely, and I wish she was a mother I could be there for, but she quite simply is not. I tried my whole life to make her happy, and it was never enough, I was never enough. I feel like the weight of the world has been lifted off my shoulders! I am happier than I have been in my entire life. Of course, I have occasional pangs of Catholic guilt—that was a staple of my childhood—but my sister and husband help me work through it. It’s still a dirty little secret, and only those very close to me know that I have gone no contact. I’ve been shamed by other women who are now caring for their own loving parents and don’t understand the pain I endured my entire life from an alcoholic, narcissistic, just plain hateful mother.”
For many unloved daughters, the feeling of shame and isolation absolutely co-exists with the recognition that she has done what she needed to for herself and, quite literally, her own preservation. I have heard from daughters who took care of their mothers and bitterly regretted the decision, and the toll it took on them, their spouses, and others. I have heard from others who felt that by being loving to someone unloving, they’d done the right thing. Processing the cost (and benefit) of caretaking is extremely hard and a personal decision.
If you are at this watershed moment—no matter the status of your relationship to your mother or what you decide—please seek help and support, especially if you’re experiencing great emotional confusion. As you know, I’m neither a therapist nor a psychologist but this is a defining moment: Don’t do it alone if you are suffering. This is a personal decision in every sense and it is yours to make.
This piece is adapted from my book, The Daughter Detox Question & Answer Book: A GPS for Navigating Your Way Out of a Toxic Childhood. Copyright © Peg Streep 2019. All rights reserved.
Photograph by Ben White. Copyright free. Unsplash.com