By Esther Mann, LCSW
I’m 15 years old and I read your column all the time. I hope that you’re able to advise me for a situation that I’ve been dealing with forever. The older I get, the harder it is for me to deal with.
My mother is a snoop. She’s always been, as far back as I can remember. Yes, I know that mothers want to know what is happening with their children and make sure that they are doing the right thing. But with my mother, it goes much deeper.
I remember even as a little girl, she would grill me about everything. She wanted to know everything about my day at school. If I went to play by a friend, she’d ask me a million questions. Besides what we did and ate for lunch (who cares?), she’d ask me questions about my friend’s mother. “What was she wearing? How did she spend her time?” I mean, really silly and even personal questions.
When I was young, I suppose I thought that was what all friends’ mothers did. But at some point, I started to realize that there was something really over the top with my mother’s questioning. A while ago I started thinking to myself, “Get a life!”
But I never said that or anything else that is disrespectful toward my mother. I wouldn’t dare. I’ve always been a good girl and never gave her any reason to worry about me. But that hasn’t stopped her from snooping around my room, going on my computer and reading my e-mails, and I’m pretty certain she even listens in to my phone calls. Thank goodness for cell phones—but she’s not crazy about me using it. I guess it’s pretty obvious why. And when she overhears or discovers something I’ve said that she is in disagreement about, and I’m not talking about anything particularly important in terms of safety, she’ll badger me until I say that I agree with her way of thinking.
Now that I’m older and I like to have private time with my friends, we’ve taken to going into my bedroom to talk. With younger siblings, I feel I have to close the door to get any privacy. But my mother started knocking on my door and coyly and politely asking if she could come in. Then she just sits herself down on my bed with us, and prepares to be part of our conversations. She doesn’t notice my friends rolling their eyes at me or the sudden change of conversation. Let’s face it, at this stage of my life, I’m not going to talk to my friends about anything that really matters in front of my mother. Not happening. And then I feel sorry for her.
I’m feeling kind of disloyal even writing to you about this. But it’s becoming a real problem for me. I’m afraid that one day I’ll just blow and really give her a piece of my mind. I’m not writing to you to ask if her behavior is normal. I see how my friends’ mothers behave and realize that my situation is totally not normal. Often I just go along with her to avoid a fight. But it sometimes leaves me feeling confused and uncertain about whether I’m the wrong party. In my head I’m pretty sure I know what’s right, but in my heart I start feeling guilty.
I just don’t know what to say, how to say it, and if she doesn’t change, what I can possibly do to feel as though I’m living a normal teenage life and not like someone living in Russia, always feeling spied on.
What do you think?
It sounds as though, from a young age, your head has told you that you have the right to expect your mother to make room for your own space and privacy, as it relates to your mother’s own needs and expectations. Even more important, you’ve probably also rightfully suspected that your mother’s extreme invasive behavior and questioning ultimately had the potential of getting in the way of you having your own feelings, ideas, thoughts, opinions, desires, and even dreams. Without the opportunity to sometimes self-rely and self-reflect, how can anyone be expected to grow up to be an independent, successful individual? Put another way, when the boundary between being a caring mother and being a controlling, overprotective, and invasive mother becomes blurred, the invitation to be yourself also becomes blurred.
As a result, your mother has created a stifling, unhealthy environment. I’m glad you’ve always been able to appreciate the fact that a certain amount of supervision and guidance is necessary for any mother trying to raise a child. The specific lengths to which mothers go in this pursuit varies, according to the specific mother and child and what kind of dynamic exists. Some mothers may feel it is necessary to remain heavily involved in checking out their child’s computer, staying vigilant regarding knowing which websites their child is visiting, and who they are connected to on Facebook or other such social media opportunities that have the potential to steer a person in the wrong direction. Often, it’s the responsible thing for a parent to do. But as with most things, any well intentioned behavior can sometimes go overboard.
From what you say, you haven’t given your mother any reason to be reading your e-mails or snooping around your room. Certainly, listening in to your phone calls is never a good thing. Perhaps you are on to something meaningful, when the random thought of “Get a life” pops into your head. It’s possible that your mother doesn’t have enough going on in her own life to distract her from trying to live yours. Her behavior may be coming from a place of personal unfulfillment, boredom, and an underdeveloped sense of self. Sadly, some parents define themselves by and through their children, which puts a burden on their children and certainly compromises their own journey.
I encourage you to tell your mother what you are feeling and thinking, even when you are feeling most frustrated and angry and feel like you might possibly even explode. It’s always better to say something before you come to that point in time when a major blowup is beyond the point of no return, in order to hopefully avoid it altogether. You sound like a strong young woman who can manage this task. Even so, you may need some help and support in order to feel safe in getting these feelings out. I’m curious to know where your father stands in this regard. Can he provide the support you deserve so that he can encourage you to feel O.K. with your reactions and even validate you when you are feeling invaded upon? I hope that he, or some other loving family member, can have your back, so that you can move forward with your mother.
Finally, I hope that your mother is able to hear what you are feeling without her own defensive feelings coming to the surface. She too may need help with that. But the sooner she is able to get a reality check that some of her mothering techniques are not appropriate or acceptable, the sooner she can hopefully start looking at her behaviors more critically and begin the process of repairing the damage she has already done while setting the stage for a healthier relationship with you right now and for the future.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.