03/28/2008 02:48 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Caring For Impossible Parents

Q: I am a 56 year old woman with a family and a career. Needless to say I am busy. But lately I have to also take care of my mother. My father died five years ago and since then my mother has been a pain in the ass. I had never really focused on how much my dad took care of her so that we, his children, could live our own lives. Now she calls all the time and demands my attention but she ignores everything I have to say about her health, her care or her activities. A relationship with her is a real one-way street.

What really makes me feel bad though is that I watch my friends take care of their mothers and they don't seem to be angry at all about the added burden in their lives. They are concerned about their mom, they talk lovingly about their mothers' issues and they enjoy spending time with them. In fact, I often see them make the choice to be with their mother rather than with their friends or their own family. I, on the other hand, would rather be with my family or friends, especially devoting myself to my children. I enjoy giving whatever I can to everyone, especially my family. Nothing gives me more pleasure than watching my kids -I have three -- become strong in their own lives and careers. I resent the time my mother takes away from the very people who ask so little of me -and give me so much in return. And I fear that I will be a burden to my own kids the way my mother is to me.

You've probably detected by now that I didn't have a great relationship with my mother. I always felt that she put her own needs before my own. And when I had my own children I was actually surprised how, with great joy, I did just the opposite: they came first, always front and center for me.

How did I become that sort of parent after having the mother I did?

A: You sound like the product of pretty good therapy. You were quite clear in explaining your situation. You weren't afraid to expose your anger as well as your confusion in dealing with a wide range of emotions concerning your mother -- all of them appropriate, by the way. And you distilled your question down to a basic issue: Why are you different than your mother?

The process you went through to ask that question was the most important and the most intriguing part of your thinking. You allowed yourself to feel anger and you began to realize that your emotions cannot be either ignored or pushed away. By distinguishing yourself from your mother, you found your strengths - you found the direction of your life.

In reality, you are not your mother. You don't parent like her. You don't have a similar relationship with your own children. And if you want to know why that's the case, consider for a moment the one overriding lesson your mother taught: take care of others.

In your mother's case, that other was no other than she. Your mother sounds to me like a classic narcissist. In order to feel better about herself, she had to make sure that her inner emptiness was filled up with your attention. Only then could her uncertainty about her own worth be resolved.

You, on the hand, may have other issues -we all do, after all -but the one thing you are not is a narcissist. On the contrary, you not only enjoy that your loved ones have a strong sense of self, you were instrumental in developing it. Having learned very early on to be the caregiver to your mother, you easily and cheerfully transferred those lessons to your friends and family.

So, you may not have had an idealized mother-daughter relationship, but your mother certainly -and inadvertently - trained you for your relationship with your own children. You became the mother you are because of the mother you had. Thank her. She won't listen anyway.

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