Welcome to Agreeable, a bimonthly advice column in which I will tell you, dear Reader, as to whether your planned course of action is “agreeable” or “hmph”. Direct your questions (max 200 words, please!) to the admin address (see ‘About’, above) with the subject line “Agreeable”.
I stopped attending church more than five years ago because of concerns over some doctrines and policy. I still consider myself “ethnically Mormon,” have fond memories of my Mormon upbringing, and have taken great pains to demonstrate to my family that I love them as much as ever and support their activity in the church. (i.e. attending baptisms, missionary farewells, participating in family prayer, etc.) My problem is that my mom is still grieving over my choice to the point that it consumes her life. Despite my own happiness, successful career, and generally good life choices, she considers me a tragedy and failure. Most recently, she has taken to trying to enlist my friends in a campaign to “soften” my “hard heart”–every single one of my Mormon friends, whether she knows them well or not. Whenever I leave the room, I hear her start up on them. My friends come to me and tell me about this and tell me it makes them uncomfortable. When I asked her to please stop because it hurts me and makes my friends uncomfortable, she acted like she didn’t know what I was talking about. I’m at my wits end. It’s starting to make me feel like an orphan because it feels like she thinks she has to choose between being my mother and being a Mormon, and she’s chosen being a Mormon. I’m considering saying something really rude about her in front of her friends or family and then later saying “how did you feel when I did that? can you see that I feel that way too?” I know this is rude, but I’ve just had it. What do you think?
Hmph. Most parents would be over the moon to have an adult child with a successful career and who is happy in her life. Your mother, however, thinks your inactivity in the church makes everything else you’ve achieved moot. Naturally you find this hurtful and now wonder if making your mother feel hurt or embarrassed she will back off. This isn’t a uniquely Mormon problem.
In my experience trying to provoke empathy by putting the shoe on the other foot rarely works. Your mother is likely to have a ready explanation as to why her behavior and yours are completely different. Instead you should recognize that just as your mother cannot control your convictions or behavior, you are unlikely to be able to convince your mother that she should think or act differently. If you hadn’t already approached her, I would advise you to sit your mother down and tell her in friendly but blunt terms that she is behaving badly and ask her to stop. Since this approach hasn’t been effective you need to decide to what extent you want to expose yourself to it.
You love your mother and presumably she played a role in making you the person you are today—for those reasons alone she is due honor. Also recognize that while your mother’s pain at your choices may be misguided, her pain is real. This may make it easier to make allowances. Still, when a child is an independent adult it is incumbent on a parent to allow them an adult life. That includes recognizing that a beloved child will make choices they disagree with. While your mother isn’t obligated to accept your choices, she ought to understand that the social lubricant that underpins family bonds requires that she muffle her differences. If she can’t or won’t understand that, then consider spending less time with her. Since this is a serious step check your feelings carefully. If you are limiting contact to punish your mother you are doing it wrong, but if to protect yourself, carry on.
BONUS ADVICE: One approach to difficult parents I’ve known to be effective is to mentally shift the parent/child framework from that of parents as caregivers of their children to that of children as caregivers to their parents. Disapproval and bad behavior are easier to endure if you can chalk them up to your parents’ dotage.