My mother’s super-paranoid; she has always been overprotective and anxious ever since my father passed away. When I was younger I wasn’t even allowed to go biking with my friends. Now, with the quarantine, it is so much worse. I know it’s not just her, but she takes it to a whole new level. For example, she is retired and is spending hundreds of dollars online buying wipes, Purell, and other disinfecting products for my siblings and me even though she can’t afford it. Also, if I tell her I’m going to go out to the supermarket, she won’t let me, and she will make me feel guilty and will end up ordering food for me.
I can go on, but I think you get the point. I’m a responsible person living on my own and I can make my own decisions. I know she is trying to keep me safe because she loves me, but like I said, I’m a grown adult and I can care for myself. If I point out what I’m thinking and I tell her what’s on my mind, I fear I’m going to hurt her feelings and I don’t want to do that to her after all she’s been through. Should I keep letting her control me and waste her money, or should I tell her it’s not needed?
Dear Overly Protected,
You sound like a sensitive, caring young lady who has good insight into your mother’s behavior, and though you suspect that there is something over-the-top about her behavior, you don’t want to risk hurting her feelings in any way.
Everyone is handling our present crisis differently and we all figure out for ourselves what constitutes safe behavior and what does not. Some people literally have not been out of their homes for almost two months now and can’t imagine ever going beyond their front doors, accepting the idea that from here on in, they will basically live in quarantine. Other people are quite bold in their choices, for better or for worse. Most of us make calculated decisions about the level of deprivation we are willing to accept and what we are not, deciding that we can, in fact, go grocery shopping, masks and all, go walking or maybe bike riding, and even socialize in a socially distant manner. The point is, as a responsible adult, which you certainly sound like you are, one should be able to make his or her own risk assessment and quality-of-life decisions, and go from there.
Your mother clearly errs on the side of extreme caution. No one should judge her or anyone else. We all have to do what feels right and comfortable to us. We all have our reasons, as she certainly does. However, as a responsible adult living on your own, you should be able to make decisions for yourself regarding the pandemic and, let’s face it, in your life in general. Listening to a mother’s advice is not a bad thing, and often a mother knows best, but there comes a time in one’s life when a healthy separation needs to take place between mother and child, allowing the child to spread her wings and soar on her own. Doing one’s own critical thinking, even when that thinking does not necessarily mirror the thinking of one’s parent, is simply a fact of life.
The real question is how, during this stressful time, you should interact with your mother in a way that does not add to her stress level. If you have to run out for a carton of milk, or anything else, for that matter, why do you feel the need to report to your mother? It will only cause her alarm and will lead to the behavior you describe, whereby she disagrees with your plan and tries to stop it by ordering and paying for stuff for you that she really can’t afford. I never encourage lying or subterfuge, but sometimes it’s helpful and appropriate to not necessarily report every action taken if that causes the other person worry or fear.
Finally, you describe your mother’s controlling behavior and wonder whether you should continue allowing your mother to control you to avoid hurting her feelings. My guess is that this control that you feel from your mother existed way before anyone ever heard the word “pandemic,” and without being checked it will continue for the rest of your lives. When we move past this crazy time, G-d willing, your mother will no doubt find many other areas in which to control your life. And that is the greater issue that needs to be dealt with.
Being your own person doesn’t mean you are disrespectful and shouldn’t be taken as hurtful behavior. We all understand where your mother’s issues come from. Clearly, she’s been through a lot and has experienced her world in a chaotic way and is trying to hold on to anything that she believes she can still control. We all have a lot less control over our lives and others’ lives than we would like to believe, and the sooner we can comfortably accept that reality, the better.
You will need to find your respectful yet adult voice at some point. Now is not a bad time to try it on for size. Not in a way that will add to your mother’s anxiety, but in a mature way that lets her know that you are responsible and she can relax in knowing that you make solid, wise decisions and that she can rest assured that you would never step into harm’s way. If part of this change in how you interact with her means not reporting every little fact of your life and every thought that you have, sparing her from additional faulty thinking about your level of safety, there’s nothing wrong with that.
It will take a bit of trial and error to find just the right balance regarding what is necessary to share with her and what is not. There’s nothing wrong with purchasing your own disinfectant products and letting her know that, so that she can save her money. For now, since it’s all new behavior for you, you will need to think carefully before you speak, anticipating what your words can predictably lead to. Change the dance that presently exists between the two of you, and enjoy the healthier results that it will certainly bring your way.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals and couples. Together with Jennifer Mann, she also runs the “Navidaters.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.