Ask Sherry: Am I an ungrateful child?
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Hi Sherry, long time reader, first time reaching out! I wanted to get your view on this. I recently booked a weekend holiday for my parents and my husband and I as a treat for father’s day.
My mother was initially very happy, and suggested a hotel she wanted to stay in. Unfortunately, that one was above our budget so I suggested other luxury hotels but with better pricing.We had chosen one, but last minute she suggested another hotel that her friends had been to.
I booked the room, and confirmed it had been booked. Her first response was, oh that’s good its cheaper for you (she thought she was doing us a favour as it was less expensive) but I heard that the rooms are small and its near the train station. I was annoyed, and replied that a simple thank you would be nice instead of commenting on the hotel.
She replied back saying that it was only a suggestion, she didn’t ask me to book it, and she was only reading the reviews of the hotel, she was actually happy that we were going.
A few minutes later, it became a long rant about how I have a big PROBLEM, that I am ungrateful, I had better change because I am always negative towards her. etc. This is a pattern of behaviour. Over time, I have become hesitant to share good news or do nice things because she is initially happy, and then switches to its not good enough, you could have done better.
I don’t react positively to this, so then it switches to me being negative towards her (victim mentality). She also likes to ask me to buy gifts for her friends as I work in the city, but then gets offended when I ask her for reimbursement, she got angry that my house wasn’t very nice (we bought a smaller house), that my husband doesn’t earn enough (he does, we are just simple people) etc.
I would like to continue a positive relationship with her, but I’m having trouble seeing what that looks like in a healthy way ( if its possible). My dad is very relaxed, I don’t want to shut him out just because of my mother. Insight would help! Especially from the Asian perspective. ( we are South East Asian background). Please feel free to edit my notes to make it blog friendly. 🙂
I am so sorry you are feeling this.
This is so tough. I mean, I read this, and felt pangs in my heart. It is never easy to have a parent act like this towards you, and deep down inside, whether we admit it or not, we are always looking for our parents’ approvals. I mean, I know I am. Everything I do, I especially look towards my mother for approval. My father, not so much. As a possibly unpopular opinion, I also find we tend to value or crave the approval of our mothers more than our fathers as well, but this is based on anecdotal experiences of myself and my friends.
You are normal. 100% normal in feeling this way. There is NOTHING (I hope you know this), wrong in what you have done. You are absolutely not an ingrate, you seem like a great daughter, and it is perfectly reasonable for instance, to ask for reimbursement over something she asked you to buy… and not even for her! FOR HER FRIENDS!
No one likes being told they’re terrible. You don’t react positively because she’s projecting her own ungratefulness back onto you. This is absolutely unacceptable in terms of common courtesy and manners, no matter who they are to you. It’s plain, rude. I would react in the same way.
That said, the perspective which I am sure you already know, but I will reiterate for those who are sort of new to all of this in terms of culture, is the whole idea of Filial Piety. I wrote about the breakdown of Filial Piety here for those who are unfamiliar with it.
Parents, think that their kids are basically there to make their lives easier. Of course, this is reciprocal, because presumably, your parents sacrificed everything, and therefore, expect to be taken care of in return. I get that to some extent, but some parents take it a little too far (like in this case).
What the reader’s mother is trying to drive at, is to be able to brag about her, and to show status / wealth / power. It’s this idea that you have to one up everyone else around you by having amazing children who are smart, beautiful, gifted, rich, bla bla bla bla. The comparison game NEVER ENDS. It goes on with your siblings, your cousins, your mothers’ friends.
A common refrain would be one of humble bragging such as: “Oh did you hear? My daughter got accepted into all the Ivy Leagues!“… or … “My son just bought us a brand new Mercedes!” THAT is what she wants to be able to say. She wants to be able to use her children’s money to brag, to say: “Oh don’t worry about the cost of that $100 box of tea, it’s nothing. My daughter went on the trip and wanted to be generous to us, but also to all of our friends.”
To not be able to brag, or show off your children’s accomplishments or wealth as your own, is for some, seen as shameful or that their children are being ingrates.
So, back to you, Reader.
She definitely is of the mindset that more is more is better. You already know this. Obviously, even if you had a mansion, 6 cars, and an airplane, she would ask why your airplane is smaller than your neighbour’s airplane, or why don’t you have a castle? The comparison is not about you at all, it is about being THE BEST, and being dissatisfied with everything so that it creates a vicious cycle of guilt and shame, which spurs some people on to make more money, or show off more, or buy more things.
On the one hand, I want to go all North American psychiatrist on you, and say to talk it out with your mother, to say things like: “We do make good money, but we have other priorities in life. We do not want or desire a huge home, expensive cars, or things. We are simple people and are happy and I hope you will respect that.“. I desperately want you to talk it out with her. Or each time she says something, to say: “Well, why do you say that? That’s really hurtful.” and to calmly call her out on her judgements.
…but on the other hand, based on my own anecdotal experiences, and of those of my friends’, you can’t really say anything that will solve this.
There is nothing you can say or do, that will change her mind about how things should be, because she has been brought up in this cultural mindset of what I described above, of being able to humblebrag and spend the family’s money (she probably, totally thinks of your money as hers in some way), and to show off how successful they have been as parents.
Unless she wants to change. Unless she is convinced, or made to see that it has to be a different kind of relationship or else she will end up driving you away, there is nothing much that can be done. She has to see that you do indeed do not have bottomless pockets, you have to work within a budget, you asked her what she wanted, and she was still not satisfied.
But here’s the thing:
She will never be satisfied, I reckon.
No matter what you do at this point, it isn’t good enough because her expectations are unrealistic and harmful for your sanity and well-being. Honestly, if I thought she would be open to it, I’d say she needs to go to therapy to figure out why she is acting like this, and to come to terms with why she is so negative towards you.
I can only suggest talking to your father and saying very frankly, what she has been saying and why it is hurtful. Maybe he can be your ally, or he can give you some insight into what her real core fear is about because it is never really about you and how “terrible” you are as a daughter”, remember, it is about her and the fears of things like not having enough, not being successful enough, or being considered a loser by her friends. Perhaps he will be able to talk to her, or get through to her in a way that no one else can (or maybe an aunt or uncle who is able to get to her?)
If that doesn’t work, I am sorry to say the only thing I have seen actually work, is to see less of her. It’s to not offer gifts, or trips outside of what is already your obligation (e.g. birthdays), and to just limit your contact with her. She will understandably notice this, and get upset, and you can only offer your simple explanation to her, which would be along the lines of: “You make me feel like a terrible daughter. Nothing I do is ever good enough for you, and I don’t accept your assessment of myself nor my husband or successes. I am amazing. I am kind. I do not need to have this kind of negativity in my life which is causing me more harm than good.” Trying not to blame her specifically of course, but the way she is ‘encouraging’ or ‘showing her love’ for you, which I know sounds crazy, but this is likely what she thinks she is doing.
I am sorry your father will have to also suffer, as I suspect if you only saw him, she would also get angry. Or if you spent the day with him, but then left when she came back / home, she would feel slighted. There is no easy way out. I am helpless with any other kind of advice. I can only offer what I have seen done, but it doesn’t always work with everyone. I really hope you are able to come to a compromise with her, to work it out, and that you end up with a healthy relationship.
I will tell you however, that I have an aunt who is just like this. She basically drove her daughters away, and now she SAYS she refuses to go see them and the kids, and my uncle goes alone to hang out with his grandchildren, but she is really just sad and bitter, deep down inside that her daughters don’t seem to love her as much as her husband. There is no easy answer to this, my cousins have simply just stopped talking to her or trying to limit their interactions with her because she makes them feel so terrible about themselves.
She complains to my mother of course, and I hear it through the grapevine, but she doesn’t see that she has done anything wrong because no one has told her so. My mother is in no position to say anything (she’s too polite) but she told me exactly what I told you — she drove her own daughters away and says she doesn’t even know why except that they’re just not good daughters, but if she is always complaining about them or scolding them, who wants to be around that negative ball of energy?!?