RBOC (cw: aging verbally abusive parent etc.)

  • My father has always been a jerk, but several years back he had a mild stroke and has become even more of a jerk.
  • Pre-stroke, every family visit would include him being a jerk and then blowing up in a huge tantrum for some imagined reason and then going on a long walk and behaving somewhat like a grown adult after.  “Being on his best behavior” we would call it, as if he was a toddler.  Prior to that would be tiptoeing around to try to prevent the inevitable blow-up.
  • After we had a second kid, and there was a spectacular Christmas blow-up that ended in us leaving my sister’s place to go to an airport hotel before our next day’s planned flight to the in-laws, we decided we didn’t have to put up with it anymore and just stopped.  Christmas has been a million times better ever since.
  • He has been getting worse since my mom retired.
  • About twice a month, he sends DH an email (since my email has long-since blocked him) telling DH that I’m a narcissist and my children are in danger because of me.  Once every few months he includes my mom as also a narcissist and a gas-lighter.  If my sister ever responds, then he includes her in the narcissist/gas-lighting list in his next email.  She’s stopped responding.
  • I had to cut off contact with my mother because he started using her email accounts and chat programs to pretend to be her (but not in any believable way).  She no longer has a work email, so I can’t use that.  I can’t even send thank you cards or Christmas presents anymore because I get a response saying that he must be included too.  I know she is also a victim, but she is an adult, and, according to my sister and aunts, still lucid, so I cannot make decisions for her.
  • Before I had to cut off contact with her, my mother was still very much in denial (and still is, according to my sister who has also given up).  She was doing therapy with him, but kept putting all the onus on the therapist.  Or on me to “help him feel included” etc.  She would blame all his bad behavior on his childhood, 70+ years ago.
  • He stopped doing therapy.
  • My mom asked if we could do family therapy with just her.  And we were like, just fly out to visit.  We have no problem with you.  But she refuses to come without him.
  • Back before the stroke, well over a decade ago, he once alienated all of her sisters by fighting a will and being a jerk about it, so she was cut off from her family for many years, basically until the city where the money was left went bankrupt and my grandma died so the subject of the lawsuit was completely moot.
  • My sister says my mom claims to be ok.  “But then, she always says she’s ok.”
  • Most recently he made my mother send my MIL a letter asking if my children are in danger and if she had any suggestions for how to reconcile with me.
  • My MIL then called DH and sympathized with him about aging problems.  She took care of her mom through Alzheimer’s (in conjunction with a nursing home) which was unpleasant.  She responded (also via mail) that DC1 and DC2 are doing great and she does not have any suggestions for reconciling because she is not involved.
  • Most recent update from my sister is that my mom can no longer hang laundry out to dry (outside on clotheslines in the summer, inside on clotheslines in the basement in the winter) so my sister is getting her a small drying rack because my father has always said dryers are bad for the environment.  When we lived in an apartment in Santa Barbara without my father for two years (for work reasons) and when she visited here or at my sister’s she used the dryer.  If he had to hang the laundry a dryer would suddenly be ok, I’m sure.  Though he might just stop doing laundry entirely.
  • Growing up I was always taught to be silent about family.  To keep problems hidden.  Never to make negative things public about my home life.  But I’m an adult now.  And heck, now my MIL knows my family secret.  (Though she did not ask DH any questions about it and accepted the aging-related reasoning.)
  • DH’s family is so even-keeled and normal.  It’s nice having a set of grandparents who are what one expects of grandparents, with no tiptoeing around or apologizing to waitstaff. I want that environment for my kids too.  And I think we’ve succeeded.
  • I often wonder how my sister and I both turned out so ok.  And then I sometimes wonder if we did turn out ok.  But… when I reflect on it more, I think we did.

Grumpy Nation, please do not include the words, “raw,” “brave,” or “honest” in your replies.  

33 Responses to “RBOC (cw: aging verbally abusive parent etc.)”

  1. First Gen American Says:

    My mom just started having mini-strokes a couple of weeks ago and they are now happening daily. She is mostly normal but there are periods of time daily where she either cries uncontrollably, is very mad and says mean things or is paranoid about imagined stuff that isn’t happening in the way she thinks it is. It is scary and sad because this is not her normal personality and I don’t want her to be remembered that way. Admittedly it’s more crying than being mean so I think the heightened emotion that she is feeling from her brain issues does amplify her normal self and right now she is scared and sad.

    My dad was horrible too. I was afraid of becoming him and I think it mainly taught me how not to be as documented by my negative role model post so many years ago. It felt good to write about it like I was telling someone else’s story and not my own. I had distanced myself from the trauma and now it’s just a story and not something actively happening to me anymore. I too was afraid of the genetics being passed down to me or my kids but far so good. .

    The best thing I ever did was cutoff contact with my toxic family members. I didn’t want it to affect my children or teach them that it was okay to be treated badly because “someone is family”. It could only teach them that being in an unhealthy relationship is normal and that is a bad lesson.

    You are a good mom and it’s good to let others know that it is possible to come out the other end relatively whole and not broken.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      That sounds really hard re: your mom.

      Dissociating and forgetting is a definite benefit of distance and aging.

      Agreed re: children and boundaries.

      Thank you for the compliment! You’re a good mom too!

  2. Breaker of generational curses Says:

    In middle age, I eventually had to block and go no contact with my abuser parent, and my putatively trauma-bonded parent, too. Setting and enforcing boundaries has brought so much relief and peace to our lives.

    Only a few “bUt TheY’rE yOuR pARenTs!” objectors over the years, though folks who had personally interacted with my abuser and saw firsthand their problematic behaviors (e.g. isolating the other parent; ruining Christmas, complete with relatives suddenly fleeing the scene) tended to GET IT.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      We haven’t had any “but they’re your parents” mainly because nobody knows. See above: silence about family. Except now my in-laws know, so…

      It is crazy the switch from holidays being anxious and fraught to peaceful. Where the only people having tantrums are overtired kids under the age of 3.

  3. Bev Says:

    I grew up with a father who would blow up at any moment and continued to brow-beat mercilessly until he had alienated just about everyone. I minimized contact for years, putting up with his awfulness just so I could spend time with Mom. Whenever I pushed back or tried to talk to him about things he had said or done in the past, he would always insist that it had never happened, that he would never say such a thing, so I must be misremembering. But he stayed angry and mean well into retirement.

    And then in his 70s and onward he mellowed considerably; in fact, when I visited him in January, he told me that he spends his days trying to bring some sunshine into the lives of everyone he meets. I wanted to say, “Who are you and what have you done with my father?” Yesterday as my brother and I cleaned out Dad’s room at his assisted living facility, every staff member came by to tell us how much everyone loved Dad and how he constantly encouraged everyone. I found this really disconcerting. On the one hand, I’m glad that he eventually found a way to care about other people, but on the other hand, I wish I had experienced some of that kindness when it would have done me some good.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I wonder what the change was.

      At the beginning of them doing therapy, when we thought it was just going to be a temporary break, they asked (via my sister) what we would need to see them again, and we said, a year without tantrums and no tantrums during visits. But he couldn’t last a year without sending an awful email. Therapy seemed to focus on past trauma and apologizing for past behavior (followed by an email reneging on that because everyone is gaslighting him into believing these things happened), when all we wanted was his current behavior to be as good as our children’s.

    • delagar Says:

      This happened with my father too! He was emotionally abusive and violent (towards us as children, not towards my mom) when I was growing up, making the entire house tiptoe around his moods. Now he has Alzheimer’s and has suddenly become a sweet-tempered, kind, and funny man (though also extremely confused).

  4. revanche @ a gai shan life Says:

    I think you did too, FWIW.

    I was thinking about how I worry that we’re terrible parents sometimes and last night it occurred to me that a lot more of us managed to not be as terrible as our parents despite the example they set so maybe the kids will do ok too. Doesn’t mean we stop trying but maybe I will eventually worry a little less.

    I spent so much time covering for my dad. If mom were still alive, I think I’d still be/feel like hostage to the family “secret” that’s really just the truth, if I even knew more of the truth. Probably I wouldn’t because I wouldn’t have been willing to see the reasons to cut him off when she was still here. Maybe she would have been willing to leave him under false pretenses (helping take care of grandkids) without actually saying she was leaving him. Who knows. I miss my mom a hell of a lot but I am also relieved to be spared that bit of guaranteed angst.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      The childhood my kids have is so much more peaceful than the one I had that I can’t help but thinking there’s a huge range for me to mess up and they’ll still be fine. I figure if we love them and support them they will figure out who they want to be on their own. Your kids will do great too!

  5. CG Says:

    Ugh, I’m so sorry you’re dealing with that level of bad behavior. You’ve clearly done a great job of setting boundaries, but that in itself takes up mental and emotional energy that you’d ideally use for something more fulfilling. Since my dad’s death, I have been a more frequent target of my mom’s anxiety-fueled lashing out (I assume that he absorbed this when he was alive and protected us from it). I asked DH if there was any possibility I was in the wrong in this most recent instance and he said no way. It’s so important to have stable, sane people in your life to give you a reality check when someone is acting crazy–it sounds like your MIL provided/provides that role for you (confirming that your kids are doing great, especially).

    Seeing some of my mom’s and some of my friends’ parents’ wacky behavior has really impressed upon me that when our kids become adults we will essentially be guests in their lives. So we had better be people they want to be around. And no matter how old we or our kids are, we should never hold them responsible for our happiness or emotional health. DH (who has his own brand of quirkiness) assures me that he will keep me in line. :)

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I’m sorry about your mom. :(

      My MIL just confirmed that to my parents—we already knew! It’s possible we would think they’re doing great even if they weren’t but not the other way around.

  6. Leigh Says:

    I’m sorry. I think you turned out okay. My relationship with my mother has really deteriorated since my dad retired. Right after he retired, he had a moderately severe accident (not driving) while drinking and stopped drinking. Once I was confident he was okay, I mostly stopped talking to them for a year other than in person because I had a lot of feelings why my sibling and I weren’t enough for him to stop drinking and my mom liked to say things like “I can’t be mad at him because we aren’t broke.” (The hospital visit for the accident wasn’t covered by their insurance because he was drunk. Now that dad is retired, I can never see my mom without my dad pretty much, which is really weird because I had a separate, close relationship with her before. Even if I call her he’s often there too! When I came out last year, my dad flat out refused to call me by the name I chose and my mom said “but we are family” when I hesitated about seeing them. He finally did this week so I guess there is room for change after all!!

    My husband and I have been married for a while at this point so my in laws do know a bunch of this stuff. My MIL thinks this is a sad reason to possibly lose a child and my parents should get their act together, lol. My family and my in laws are friendly though, so I didn’t want to lie to them when my parents, sometimes just talk about stuff and sometimes hide it- I don’t want them to have an unrealistic picture. Like my sibling and sibling-in-law hang out sometimes and my parents are going to visit my parents in law soon and stay with them. I still think that is a little weird, but I’m glad they made some friends I guess?

  7. Mike Nitabach Says:

    I’m so sorry you have this kind of birth-family situation & my own family history is very very similar. Nothing really to add except that my psychodemographic theory is that many boomer parents were grotesquely neglected and/or abused by their own parents, and spent their childhoods & earlier adulthood in a social environment that demanded complete denial. This ensured that when they had kids of their own, they recapitulated the entire mishegas. However, despite their own disastrous parenting practices, such boomers’ kids (mostly GenX) grew up in a broader social environment where denial was less of a requirement, thus enabling some of us to heal our ourselves to greater or lesser extents and stop the cycle of neglect, violence & abuse. Anyways, this is highly speculative & based solely on my own anecdotal observations of myself & others, altho I’m sure PhD theses could be (have been?) written.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      My dads not a boomer and did have actual trauma as a kid (great depression birth, occupied city war child, nazi sympathizer father fled to South America with his mistress and the family money then died mysteriously etc.). But… that doesn’t excuse his behavior. He was really enjoying therapy when it was about him being a victim (which yes, he undeniably had a bad childhood before moving to the US) but quit once it turned to him changing his behavior.

      One can understand but still have protective boundaries.

      • Michael N Nitabach Says:

        “One can understand but still have protective boundaries.”

        💯💯💯

  8. heybethpdx Says:

    That’s a crappy thing to have had to deal with your whole life and it sounds like you’ve made great choices – up to and including your choice of DH and his great parents! Is your sister doing okay being semi-entangled with your mom? I hope she is setting boundaries and that it doesn’t affect your sibling relationship.

    I think it’s good to share this sort of thing – let others see what all sorts of families of origin can be like, and that people can move on and raise themselves and have good lives. AND that setting boundaries is good and healthy.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      My sister keeps setting more and more boundaries herself. She was also really hurt when they decided not to spend Christmas with her if we weren’t also going to be there (at the last minute the first time), pre-pandemic.

      At first she did a lot of But Family stuff, but since he’s gotten worse, she’s stopped.

  9. Jenny F. Scientist Says:

    I am glad to hear your MIL put up a sensible boundary! Good for her. And for you, too, especially for protecting your kids from… all this.

    My mother had a truly terrible father (whom I’ve never met, he’s probably still alive but he’s the only living person I actively hope dies). She is not great at setting boundaries but she was and is a very good mom.

  10. FF Says:

    I’m sorry to hear about these experiences.

    I’ve had very little contact with my sister for the past 10 years due to her past behavior, and I believe she is likely a narcissist. I’ll be seeing her next month for the first time since 2012 for my niece’s engagement party, and she has been inflicting all sorts of drama on and attempting (unsuccessfully) to manipulate my niece (her elder daughter) that would sound unbelievably insane if I described them. I am looking forward to celebrating with my niece and meeting her fiancé, but I really dreading seeing my sister again. Holding out hope that she will be in publicly charming mode.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I knew a person like that in college and it just makes no sense to me. I just don’t understand that way of being. My BIL’s MIL is also a bit like that too.

      Good luck on the publicly charming!

  11. omdg Says:

    I am glad you’ve been able to make choices about the amount you interact with your parents that maximize your happiness. I don’t have exactly the same situation, but I feel there are parallels in the ways in which others urge me to spend more time with my parents, when the relationship I have with them — mostly over the phone with yearly visits — seems to work for us even if it’s not typical. I do think I should try to talk with my mother more, but post-craniotomy x3 it can be really challenging because she descends into non-sequiturs and then out of nowhere becomes hypercritical or will launch into a tirade. Anyway. Solidarity.

  12. Debbie M Says:

    I’m sorry your dad is abusive and that you don’t have good ways to stay in touch with your mom. (I’m fantasizing about secret email addresses or burner phones. And washers that are also (secretly) driers–except all the ones I’ve seen and heard about don’t work very well.) I’m sorry about cultural family loyalty silence and other stupid pro-abuser cultural expectations but am glad that you have found ways to escape some of the worst, especially for your children. I’m glad your MIL is an ally.

    Just writing in support and to wish for the best for you and yours.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Like, I just don’t think she should have to resort to secrecy about things. She should just be able to get a dryer.

      I suggested that to my sister when she was asking me about drying racks and my sister said that’ll never happen and I’m like why? And of course she doesn’t have an answer because it’s crazy, but when you’re living in it it seems obviously impossible.

      • Debbie M Says:

        I’m reminded of the time I was riding in a car with a friend. She was driving through a parking lot, and the car in front of her starting backing up. She just sat there as the car approached and later explained that she shouldn’t have had to back up. (Fortunately, the other car stopped before hitting us.)

        Ever since, I’ve had the philosophy that there are many things that we absolutely should not *have* to do, but that we *can* do, to make our lives better. I don’t know if a drier is one of those things, but that’s what’s going on in my brain.

        It’s too bad she’s in an alternate reality where things like driers seem impossible.

        I have a friend whose husband has very strong, even crazy, opinions about environmentalism and health. In her house, he does the laundry! She’s willing to live with much of the craziness because he is willing to manage many of the consequences. But obviously they have a healthier relationship. This one-sided stuff really stinks.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Because it’s not really about the environment, but about control.

  13. SP Says:

    You seem to have turned out even better than just ok!

    This makes me angry on your behalf. I’m glad you have been able to set and hold firm boundaries as an adult, and I’m sorry your mom is drug down by this.

    My mom has some mild verbally abusive tendencies at times, mostly directed at my dad. Since we live far away and don’t have a particularly close relationship, I don’t see it much, and visits are quite pleasant. But also, it prevents me from wanting a genuinely close relationship with her. I’ve been watchful of how she interacts with my kid, and she is fine. The only thing that she does that really bothers me is trying to use emotional manipulation to “help” get the kid to do something, like “don’t to X or you will make grandma sad!”, which I find to be a very inappropriate way to interact with a small kid. She bristled when I pointed it out and said to stop – but she did comply. She was also good with my niece & nephew, so I don’t have to be too concerned about drawing boundaries. She probably would respond well to therapy, but also probably will never go.

    My MIL is basically an angel. My FIL is a mess (Trumper, among other things), but we don’t really ever interact with him except rarely in person, where he is kind enough not to cause drama.

  14. xykademiqz Says:

    Oof. I am so sorry for you. My mom is the one that gives me grief and in the past I had to cut off contact for months of years. Most recently, I ended up blocking her number email and number on WhatsApp after she chewed my head off because I was apparently insufficiently grief-stricken over chat over yet another of her supposed health crises (it’s never anything; and even if it were, she lives across the ocean; there is nothing I can objectively do). She’s been like this all my life; supposedly all nice, and then, periodically, when she’s upset that her manipulation strategies do not yield the behavior outcomes that she expects from me, she goes ballistic and insults me like I am the worst piece of garbage (the desire to manipulate and control comes from her own mom, my grandma, who was actually much better at manipulating everyone and overall shockingly cool and calculated and also physically punitive toward her two daughters; my mom never rose to that level of cruelty or that level of success in being to manipulate people, which I suppose I should be grateful for). For example, I will never forget how she treated me after I got pregnant with my first kid in graduate school; it was a bit of a surprise and I was new to the US and what I needed was reassurance. Instead, she tore me a new asshole, basically calling me a gutter whore.

    Whenever I fail to behave or react as she’d like, she calls me cold and unfeeling (read: her feeble manipulation strategies didn’t work) and just my father (she hates his guts, and they’ve been divorced for 25+ years). She’s been calling me cold and unfeeling and just like my father since I was a kid.

    She’s never asked herself what she does to me or why I keep her at arm’s length. To her, it’s all stuff that is undeservedly happening to her, the victim. She has no concept of how hurtful she is being, how disruptive and plain destructive she is to my peace of mind and sanity. If you were to ever confront her about any of it, she would completely deny it.

    I feel like a horrible person for cutting my mother from my life, I feel guilty, but It’s been literally decades of me having to brace myself for every interaction, and after her latest shit barrage over WhatsApp, I am just done. Fuck that noise.

    My dad is no peach, either, but at least he is low maintenance and leaves me alone for the most part.

    So hugs and sympathies.

  15. Living in the time of pandemic: COVID-19 (103) « A Gai Shan Life Says:

    […] inappropriately involving other people in your interpersonal relationships is a sign of something. Nicole and Maggie’s post made me recall that, many years ago, an in-law with whom I didn’t get along (but still felt […]


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