How can I help my mother?

Our agony aunt, Mary Fenwick, offers a new perspective on whatever is troubling you


How can I help my mother?

Q. My gran has always favoured her two sons (my uncles) over my mother. Mum was pushed out when my grandad died a few years ago – she was asked to leave his care home, only to receive a blunt phonecall afterwards saying he’d passed away. My uncle then buried the ashes, along with my gran, leaving my mother out.

My gran invites my uncles and their families to dinner – not myself and my sister. She takes an interest in their lives, yet not ours. She is rude, nasty and spiteful to my mum on a daily basis. Mum is upset frequently, but still seems to want the love and attention that she has never received. My gran has said, at times mid-argument, that she doesn’t love my mother.

I have hit my limit of watching Mum being torn apart emotionally. We have suggested counselling, but she says she doesn’t like the thought that her own mother has driven her to take that action. Name supplied

A. Your letter falls into a category I think of as ‘remote control’, and I find them the most challenging. My relationship with anyone who writes to me is already detached, and sometimes that will be part of the value in my perspective. However, when it gets stretched to a third party, I fear that value could be spread quite thin.

My number-one concern is how much you let this affect your own life. This is hard stuff, to do with identity and our patterns of unconscious attachment, as well as the stories we tell ourselves. A story like ‘my mother doesn’t love me’ is incredibly tough to assimilate.

One positive we could take from your story is that the pattern is shifting over the generations. You are close to your sister in a way that your mum has not experienced with her siblings.

I get the impression that counselling is seen as a dramatic option. Seeking help would be a step towards acknowledging the pain and making it more real. The hurt part of your mum is saying, ‘Why should I do the work, when she’s in the wrong?’ We can’t change others, we can only change ourselves – and sometimes other people change in response to that.

In the meantime, a management tactic might be to make specific plans to deal with the predictable slights. If each contact is going to be hurtful, aim for less often and a shorter duration. Help your mum to practise the words to say if she feels the need to withdraw, and have an agreement about how and with whom to ‘debrief’ afterwards.

Even if she shies away from talking to a professional, there would be value in you doing so. I also suggest that you do research into family constellations workshops. The amazing thing – which I’ve experienced in family therapy – is that a change in one person ripples through all those they’re attached to.

Mary Fenwick is a business coach, journalist, fundraiser, mother, divorcée and widow. Follow Mary on Twitter @MJFenwick. Got a question for Mary? Email, with ‘MARY’ in the subject line.

Photograph: iStock

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