Asking for a Friend: I’ve Grown Up, But Not Apart

Dear Olive, 

I’m trying to set boundaries with my mother. She’s caring, supportive, and my best friend, yet her meddling has become too invasive as I transition into my adult years. She micro-manages every aspect of my life — for example, she still looks at my bank statements and has tried to have the final say regarding where I will go to grad school next year. I am temporarily moving back to my hometown in a few months for a work assignment; how can I keep our relationship healthy yet at an appropriate distance? 

-More Like Smothered

Dear Smothered,

First things first: have your bank statements sent to an address whose mail your mother doesn’t check.

Building and then defending your boundaries will require a whole lot more than changing an address, but start where the starting is simple. Request emailed statements. Change your passwords. Set up two-factor authentication, if you haven’t yet. (That’s not about you or your mom; that’s just sensible internet security.) Get the mechanics of your affairs in order: know where your own documents are, know who has access to them, and know how to change either of those things when necessary.

This isn’t just about your mom’s snooping, though that’s likely to abate at least a little if it’s harder to carry out. This is about the satisfaction of inking in the outlines of your domain. These are things we don’t learn in school; instead, we learn by necessity. And for you, it seems necessity has struck.

Figure out how to be self-reliant in the basics of adult responsibilities, if you haven’t yet. If you don’t know how to do something, ask someone other than your mother; chances are, your friends are also learning how to file their taxes on time, apply for grad school loans, or buy car insurance. Find the pleasure in having your act together.

Next, of course, will be the much harder part of airing out your changing relationship with your mom. You don’t mention whether you two have talked about these habits yet, or how she might have responded. Maybe this will blow over in one heart-to-heart. Maybe she’ll gracefully offer advice instead of micro-management.

But it sounds like that’s unlikely. Your mother has made clear by her actions, if not her words, that she believes herself still to be responsible for your well-being the way she was when you were a child. Disabusing a parent of that notion is never fun, and it’s rarely easy. It’s all the harder because the meddling comes not from malevolence but from love, which we are routinely taught excuses all sins.

But love is about intent; behavior is about impact. The impact of your mother’s expressions of affection, as we might generously assume them to be, is that you feel stifled, restrained, watched. Infantilized. You’re considering grad school — which would put you in your 20s at the youngest — but still refer to yourself as “transitioning” to adulthood.

I have news for you, my friend. You’re not transitioning; you are a full-blown adult. Transitions continue, of course, and you’ll keep growing, but this, right here, is what adulthood looks like. You are it. It’s not eventually, one day, maybe with the mortgage and dependents on your tax return; it’s this. A little messy, still unclear, full of potential but also pitfalls. Whether you’re living with four roommates in a basement or in your childhood bedroom or in a swanky downtown loft on your six-figure salary, you’re an adult.

Your mom doesn’t see you that way yet — and maybe never will completely — but the first step to getting her to recognize it is to get comfortable in the label yourself. Put it on like a sharp blazer. Square your shoulders. Own it. Call things what they are. See them more clearly.

Consider the words you use here, too. You write that your mother is supportive, but that word doesn’t mean much without specifics. Does your mom cheer on your choices? Push you to reach for more? Celebrate your confidence? Or does your description mean simply that she wants the best for you?

The latter is almost certainly true. But your mom’s behavior sounds less like she’s supporting you — as the capable, employed, ambitious adult you are — and more like she’s keeping you tethered to a past in which “support” meant ensuring your safety and making most of your choices for you. Guiding you into her idea of adulthood keeps you from risk, but it also keeps you from figuring out your own version. That can be a comfort to both of you; childhood nostalgia is potent for a reason. But don’t confuse that comfort with support.

As necessary a transition as it is, as universal, it is painful on all sides to strain against the bonds that have defined your lifelong relationship, more painful still to break them. But for the healthy relationship you want to cultivate, you have to be willing to sacrifice some important parts of the relationship you had.

It’s going to take some very difficult — and very direct — conversations. This is a good time for “I” statements. Treat this relationship like what it is: evolving, elastic, sturdy enough to support you both as you look clear-eyed at its patterns and snags. It isn’t static, and it isn’t fragile. You won’t break each other by asking for what you need.

We’re so used to reading advice about how to do just that in romantic partnerships that it seems almost weird to treat a familial connection that way. But if you want your close relationship to grow with you, instead of crumbling as you grow out of it, you have to tend it.

Remember intent as you wade into these uncertain depths. You and your mom love each other. The conflicts you mention have to do with your finances and your future, two areas fraught with anxiety and uncertainty. Your mom wants assurance that you’ll make it through whole and happy, and you want the freedom to make it through yourself. She has been trying to live your life for you, while you have been letting your bank statements go to her mailbox. Both of these things need to stop.

Your mom needs to hear that her discomfort doesn’t get to supersede your independence. You need to remember that it’s not your job to assuage her fears about you. If your mother wants to be supportive — truly supportive, not an enervating facsimile of it — she’ll recognize that she needs to trust you now, not tend you.

The language of boundaries slips so easily into defensiveness, into violence. That’s scary, but it doesn’t have to be bad. Violence doesn’t just mean destruction; it means change, too. Let this necessary destruction smolder and burn through the familiar underbrush that’s keeping your relationship from growing into something new. Give it space and time to clear away what’s no longer vital. See what new green shoots poke out of the soil when you give them — and yourself — just a little more room to breathe.

Love,
Olive

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