Her abusive mother’s health is failing.

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Should she drop everything to be a caregiver for a parent that didn’t take care of her?

Dear Tori: “My mother and I have never had an easy relationship.

She constantly bullied me when I was growing up and she has long battled substance abuse issues that have impacted every major moment in my life. For example, when I got pregnant during the pandemic, she sent me hurtful messages over my decision not to have a baby shower despite the gathering restrictions of that time. She incessantly called me, hysterical over being left out, though there was nothing to be left out of as I did not have a celebration.

The examples of similar behavior are endless. All my memories of big moments like my college graduation involve shouting matches, and I long ago stopped spending holidays with her, realizing it was taking a toll on my mental health.

Over the past month, my mom’s health has rapidly declined after a fall. She is now in need of frequent care and has a litany of appointments and surgeries on the horizon. Though our communication had been less frequent over the past year, she reached out. Of course, she now wants my assistance and attention. I am torn. I do feel bad for her current health predicament and she is my mother. But I cut her out of my life for a reason. Her behavior takes a major toll on me and already I can tell nothing has changed. Her communication with me has been harsh and demanding and disrespectful. Do I drop everything and care for the woman who has been emotionally abusive to me my entire life?”

Dear Conflicted Caregiver, 

Caregiving can be complicated. Caregiving for an abusive parent, well… that can be cringe worthy.

It sounds like you have had to sacrifice your own comfort in order to make your mom comfortable for far too long. You have the opportunity to end that cycle now. You can nurture yourself in the way you needed when you were young. I don’t think the question has to be “should I care for my mother or not”. Instead, it becomes “how do I ensure my mother is cared for even if it’s not done by me”. Exploring services such as caregiving, transportation, home monitoring, meal delivery, or assisted living are all potential options provided you have the means to do so. This can offer peace of mind. She’s not unnecessarily suffering while also ensuring she’s not inflicting unnecessary suffering on you.

Her abusive mother's health is failing. Should she drop everything to be a caregiver for a parent that didn’t take care of her?

The truth is that we can set and uphold clear boundaries and have compassion for someone else at the same time.

Doing so without making anyone wrong in the process is important, and it also requires great self-awareness. Peter Crone says, “Life is always providing us with the people and circumstances to show us where we are not healed.” This could be life’s way of offering you a beautiful opportunity to heal the mother wound on a deeper level.

Our mothers were the primary person we looked to as children to meet our needs, however, many of us grow up in families where we were emotionally neglected. When this happens we can start to feel responsible for our mother’s feelings and are therefore parentified at a young age. (This can occur with father dynamics as well)  Parentification is when the parent-child role is reversed and the child becomes responsible for caring for the mental or emotional needs of the parent or siblings. 

Although I don’t know the extent of your mothers condition, watching the deterioration of any parent can bring up incredible grief.

Our inner child longed for emotional closeness with our parents. It’s faced with the feeling of still being alone, abandoned, or judged. I think that we all experience two deaths of a parent. The first being their physical death. The second being the death of who we wanted them to be for us but weren’t. Mother-daughter relationship dynamics are ripe for emotional wounding. When we receive direct or indirect messages that tell us that we should be good little girls, shouldn’t rock the boat, and shouldn’t bring attention to ourselves, we are conditioned to deny our own needs, distrust our instincts, and mute our voices in the name of being accepted.

Old school values tell us that the parent is always right and the child is always wrong. Children are indebted to their parents. They must endure all manners of abusive actions in order to be a good child. Refusing to comply with your mothers demands to care for her in the way she expects you to is a prime example. This could trigger toxic patterns so it’s important to create a plan for how you will handle this. By appeasing our abusers(and in turn the abusive experiences we’ve been through) we betray ourselves. We reinforce the narrative that we are not worthy of being cared for. In doing so, we continue to play out the pattern of putting others’ needs before our own. This is why it’s critical to set firm and clear boundaries. How can care be provided and what types of behavior will and won’t be tolerated?

It’s also important to be aware of how guilt can be weaponized in this difficult situation.

If you are judged for your choices you might feel guilty and believe that you did something bad or wrong. Guilt then, is the cause and the effect of guilt is always punishment. We will either punish ourselves or someone else.

If you decide to forgo being her personal caregiver, punishing yourself is not the answer.

If you decide to forgo being her personal caregiver, punishing yourself is not the answer. Punishing yourself doesn’t change the past and it certainly won’t make your mother any healthier. It will only make you sicker. In the same vein, withholding care to punish your mother for her abusive actions and words won’t heal the trauma. It continues it. It might feel easy to slip into thoughts that sound like, “If I don’t take care of her myself then I’m being a “bad” daughter”. These are the insidious ways we unconsciously hold on to shame.

Anytime we beat ourselves up for not doing more, we steal the peace that is available to us by simply allowing our best to be enough. In this instance we become the abusive, harsh mother to ourselves. Instead of judging yourself, I invite you to lovingly embrace the parts of you that felt like your feelings didn’t matter as a child.

Speak to yourself the way you wish your mother had spoken to you as a child now.

Unconsciously, we tend to parent ourselves the way we were parented. This will happen until we learn how to be more gracious and kind. This can feel hard at first (especially when you’ve never had an example of it). The more we practice empathy and compassion with ourselves the more we’re able to extend grace to those who don’t deserve it.

When we are able to see beyond ourselves, we can notice that those who need the most love often ask for it in the most unloving ways. The abuse inflicted on us as children by a mother is a byproduct of her own unresolved trauma or abusive past. This is the cycle of trauma. It gets passed down from generation to generation until someone in the family decides to put an end to it. This can be done by healing it within themselves at the deepest level. The path out of suffering always requires traveling through the things we would most like to avoid. 

Advice For You

Looking after an aging parent can be incredibly stressful. Here are a few suggestions for working through this challenging time.

  • Establish or recommit to a a nurturing self-care routine
  • Talk with a trauma-informed practitioner or therapist. Whether you have worked to resolve the past trauma or not, exploring and accepting your level of involvement in a supportive environment would be helpful.
  • If you choose to be her primary caregiver, intentionally surround yourself with a supportive community.
  • Remember that you always have agency and can change your mind regarding your level of involvement at any time.

For more advice, or to work with me, log on to https://torigordon.com/ . I hope to see you there.

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