Living Columns & Blogs

Carolyn Hax

DEAR CAROLYN: Is it typical for moms to complain about no one helping them with housework, then, when someone does do something, to chase them off and/or criticize how they do it?

Mom’s been doing this for years. She’ll complain no one helps her, but God forbid anyone tries. Then it’s, “I’ll do it!” or “You did this all wrong” – even though we got the job done just as well if not better, we just didn’t do it her way. No amount of telling her how discouraging this is gets through to her.

Have to Ask

DEAR ASK: When you’re mystified by someone’s behavior, it can help to look at what the person achieves with it. Your mother cries for help but then does things to ensure she doesn’t get any. On the surface it makes no sense.

Dig deeper, though. She apparently doesn’t want help, or else she’d accept it gratefully. Right? Nor is she trying to get everything done exactly her way, because she could achieve that more effectively by guiding her helpers – or by doing everything herself from the beginning, bypassing the whole charade.

So what does her behavior bring her? She gains attention; behold her starring role in a drama where she’s the can-do gal in a family of slackers.

It may seem counterintuitive, but one way to avoid feeding her narrative is to give her what she wants. It’s like steering into a skid: “You’re right, Mom, you do so much for us. Thank you.” Yes, sarcasm-free. You can even pre-empt her: “I’d love to take over (chore), Mom, but even my best work won’t be as good as yours – would you like my help anyway?”

This is a purposeful choice allows you a measure of control – ideally in a way that pre-empts a counteroffensive of criticism from her.

If it comes anyway, you deflect calmly: “You asked my help, I gave it, I won’t argue with you.”

Use the nature of your mother’s neediness to guide your actions from here. If she’s a loving sort with a childlike relish for approval, then snuggle in and approve away.

If instead your mother builds her sense of self from the rubble of everyone else’s – which I fear is the case – then I’ll add to my advice a caveat to offer those you’re-right-Moms from the end of an emotional 10-foot pole. Mom (or anyone else) can’t meet your needs when her every word and deed is rigged toward feeding her own needs. Hoping or expecting otherwise from such self-focused people is the source of so much pain.

It’s sad for all involved when this happens, a missed opportunity for the kind of baseline mutual support that family at its best can supply. Your closest confidants, your work or interests, your cherished places or causes all can be shaped into a healthier version of home.

Email Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com.

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