I’m going to start out by saying, “Mom, I am not talking to you or about you.” I just need to make that disclaimer. You can imagine having a therapist in the family makes people a little edgy sometimes. But the truth is, I’m not analyzing my loved ones or trying to “therapize” them. What I am noticing, however, is a trend of emotional manipulation or sensitivity in moms. In the last few weeks, a theme arose in my therapy sessions. Moms and mother-in-laws who cry.
I am definitely a cryer. When clients apologize to me for crying in session, I reassure them. Crying in therapy is normal and healthy. Crying is like sweating for my eyeballs. Most of the time I would like you to pay no attention to it. One of the reasons we apologize for crying is that we fear that our tears and red face detract from the meaning of our words. I’m afraid you won’t take me seriously if I cry when I’m giving you an important message. (I’m also an angry cryer.)
But what if the tears are not a distraction from the message, but actually a manipulation of the listener? Sometimes it’s hard to tell. First, let’s give moms the benefit of the doubt. Today, I’d like to consider the possibilities about why it’s sometimes difficult to communicate with moms who cry. Disclaimer: I’m not a mom of grown children. Give me 10 years or so and I might have different thoughts about this topic.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been having conversations with women in therapy who have areas of growth or boundaries that they would like to discuss. They need to have conversations with their moms or mother-in-laws, but they are afraid it won’t go well. These women experience their matriarchs crying and shutting down conversations. Sometimes the issues my clients bring up are met with negative self-talk. “I’ve been a terrible mother.” “I’m just never good enough.” “You don’t understand what it’s been like for me.” “I’m not smart enough to do what you’re asking.”
While my clients are getting better and better at acknowledging negative self-talk and automatic negative thoughts, their moms are not. My clients want to bring up issues and have real conversations that produce solutions. Sometimes they need to work on their delivery and timing. But over all, they don’t believe that they can have productive conversations with their moms about things that need to change. They don’t need their moms to jump to “I’ve been a bad mother” every time there is an issue.
Social and Emotional Explanations
When I started noticing the trend, my mind started searching for explanations or patterns. Most of the moms in question are white women in their 50s and 60s, with both Christian and non-Christian backgrounds. It made me wonder about how these women were socialized growing up. What were the expectations of mothers and wives when they were children? And how did that change over the past few decades? For the most part, many of our grandmothers managed home and childcare, whereas our mothers were part of the generation that expected women to be able to work outside the home. Our mothers were some of the first to face the impossible challenge of being a great wife and mother and a motivated career person. I expect that women currently in their 50s and 60s have always questioned whether they did the right thing by staying home or working.
My mom has always told me that your children feel like an extension of yourself. I’m starting to get that now that my oldest has the opportunity to do things like school band. (It meant a lot to me at her age.) Many women feel like their children are basically a part of them that functions outside their bodies. It’s easy to see why women take their children’s difficulties and personalize them. If your child struggles with mental health, for example, you might wonder whether you gave her bad genes, if you didn’t provide enough nurture or structure, if you could have intervened differently.
When I explained to my mom that I was writing this article, she had some things to say. If your children have issues, you don’t want to blame them because you love them so much. So moms take the blame on to themselves for things that don’t go right. Unfortunately, the blame game is a zero sum game. Some hard things in life are just life, and not anyone’s fault. Moms can empathize with the difficult situations in their grown kids’ lives without accepting fault for them.
Physical and Cognitive Explanations
When I entered my 30s, I started realizing that it wouldn’t really be that long until I needed to know about menopause. At the same time, I was working with clients experiencing the “change of life.” I realized that I didn’t actually know much about it. Our culture really doesn’t talk much about it outside of hot flashes and no more periods. When I started listening to women around me, I noticed that it’s much more. There are cognitive and emotional changes, as well as the physical changes. My clients told me: “I always was such a nice person, and now I’m so irritable!” (They actually used a different word besides irritable, but I’m trying to keep it clean here!) My clients and other women shared how difficult it was to manage emotions that used to be no sweat. Tears seemed a lot closer to the surface. Many women try out antidepressants for depression and anxiety, when that had never been an issue before.
Another change for some women comes in their cognitive ability. Some of the quickness and flexibility that was present when raising young kids has started to slow down as she ages. While this is a “normal” aspect of aging, it’s not a pleasant change for most people. For women, the drop in estrogen actually contributes to cognitive decline. For some, the difference is imperceptible. But if you are a younger person wondering why your post-menopausal mom seems to have difficulty with mental flexibility, this could be why.
The Benefit of the Doubt
Unfortunately, I do talk to a lot of people who were raised by moms who do not have high levels of emotional intelligence. It’s possible that some moms are actually trying to manipulate the situations. However, I first like to give people the benefit of the doubt. Our moms actually have been through a lot of hard things. They probably really did do their best. Before assuming that they are using emotions to manipulate you, let’s rule out other explanations.
Think through some of the cultural and societal pressures, as well as the physical, emotional, and cognitive changes that have impacted your mom. If you can empathize with these factors, you’re on your way to showing compassion, even when you’re the one who needs it. Next week in Part 2, we’ll be looking at when the crying and shutting down is not innocent and natural. We’ll investigate when it is actually self-serving and manipulative. In the meantime, drop me a line and tell me what you notice about moms of a certain age.