I act like a petulant child when I’m with my busy, uninterested mum

The question I am a 43-year-old woman. I have a happy marriage and amazing kids. During lockdown my 76-year-old mother, who is a widow, has coped well, launching herself into reading, gardening and clearing out stuff in the house, with never a word of self-pity.

Now that things have opened up and we can visit again, the distance requires that we stay over. My problem is that, on returning to my childhood home, I revert to being a teenager.

I never felt that either parent was interested in me. My mother talks over me constantly, does not listen and launches herself into projects while we are there, thereby subconsciously ensuring that she does not have to engage with me or my family. At the same time, she waxes lyrical about how she loves having us there. I get angrier and angrier with her. I come over as a petulant, impatient and angry child. She still does not want to know about me as a person. However, she hangs on my husband’s every word, with smitten eyes, listening intently.

I missed her during lockdown and am so disappointed in myself that I can’t be an adult about it. There is no point in trying to assertively deal with the not listening, as the hurt and ensuing atmosphere result in my retracting what I have said and apologising. The guilt following any visit is considerable.

Philippa’s answer Your mum does sound like someone who finds feelings difficult to tolerate so she distracts herself from them by keeping busy. If you were growing up in the 1980s, her parents may have been growing up during the Second World War when keeping busy and not dwelling on feelings were the coping mechanisms du jour and she seems to have inherited them. They held her in good stead while the pandemic was on.

Rather than being curious about her own feelings when she is with you, she’s more likely to distract from them by starting a new project. That’s how she copes. It’s who she is. And I know however exasperating you find such habits, you love her, that’s why you missed her.

I have no doubt she does love you, she shows her love for you through her love for your husband. She gave birth to you and perhaps has difficulty thinking of you as a separate person from her. She’s not listening to you any more than she is listening to one of her arms. But she would miss one of her arms were she to lose it.

She has been alone during widowhood and then the pandemic. Then, a whole weekend of contact all at once may be overwhelming, but she may not have the language to talk about this. I’m sure she does love the idea of being with you, but her body might not have caught up with the idea of being in the middle of her family again.

I have worked with several adults who have had this phenomenon of reverting to their teenage selves when they visit their parents. The following exercises helped.

Sit in a chair how your mum would and try and imagine yourself in her body. How does it feel to sit like your mum and imagine you, her daughter, sitting with you? It can help to get into role by saying “I am [your mum’s name], I’m sitting with [your name], how do I experience my body when I am around my daughter?

Your next exercise is to sit in your chair as your adult self. Be aware of how you do this in your body. Memorise how you hold your head, spine, legs, hands and how you are breathing. Now slide into you as the petulant child. How do you use your body to do that? Practise going from one to the other. Remember these postures so you can recognise how you organise your body when you are with your mother. A way of interrupting your usual process is purposely stopping yourself sliding into this teenage body. This is easier said than done, but role play will help. Get your husband to act like your mum while you practise staying adult.

For your next meeting maybe have a weekend halfway between your homes at a hotel or other neutral territory. This will mean she can’t be as busy with her projects and your body won’t be triggered by your childhood home. You’ll have to do things like walking, visiting historic houses, or sitting by the sea. As she doesn’t listen to you, that will give your husband time to act as your intermediary (as she will listen to him). He can say things like, “X would love to hear it from you that you are proud of her” (or whatever it is you do want from her).

To feed your petulance you have been evidence-gathering as to why she is bad and you are a victim. To feed your inner adult, imagine what it is like being her, having had her life and her upbringing and appreciating the things she has made from that – including yourself. And remember it is easier to be angry than sad about what you could not get from your mother. What can you get from her while she is still alive?