Dear Carolyn: I am a generally happy, young teenage boy. I have recently been upset with my mother, because I feel she has been unfriendly. Whenever I ask her if I can do something, she replies that I have to mow the lawn first, or pull weeds out of the garden. I make simple requests, but it seems that I can’t have any fun unless she gets some benefit out of it.
I have a good relationship with the rest of my family, and I get good grades. My mother doesn’t give me any allowance, and I have to do the dishes twice a week.
I am fine with this arrangement, but she seems to want much more out of me. I am willing to change my actions, and I think she is too, but neither of us will budge until it seems logical to.
Right now I am not doing what she wants, and I am sitting around the house watching television (which isn’t normally my favorite thing to do). I don’t want to keep this up longer, but I am not sure if I am being too demanding of her, or if she is being too demanding of me.
— Wondering Teen
Watching TV in protest! You’ve really shown her.
Your mother wants your contribution to the household to grow as you do. At birth, you relied on your parents to do everything for you. As soon as possible after you complete your formal education, you want to rely on your parents to do nothing for you — besides root for you, be happy to see you and offer occasional, asked-for advice.
To get there, I suppose in theory you can stretch the infancy arrangement (minus diaper changes, please) to your graduation day and then take over your own housing, food, laundry and bills from there. But launches into adulthood go a lot better if you start the independence process at toddlerhood, and build your skills from there: for example, from putting your own clothes in the hamper to putting clean ones away to folding them to washing them to handling the whole family’s laundry when it’s your turn to.
As in, grasping on your own that family dynamics are ... dynamic. The top-down, parents-help-kids structure goes through a roughly two-decade evolution into a vehicle for all members to support each other. Your mom’s message, whether you like its tone or not, is a great one: Your give-to-take ratio is too heavy on the take, so don’t expect much taking till you fix that.
You’re quite capable, I imagine, not just of mowing lawns, but also of noticing leggy grass and mowing it before you can be asked to. Or doing dishes one night beyond your contractually dictated two, just because. Or just saying thanks, and meaning it, for something Mom does that you’ve come to take for granted. If you’ve been conditioned not to notice, then train yourself to notice. When you see chores in progress, start asking, “Can I help?”
And if you’re not so inclined, why not? Mom didn’t ask you nicely enough?
I obviously don’t know her, but I suspect that if you take some initiative instead of fuming at the flat screen, then she’ll stop forcing you to jump through chore hoops whenever you want something. Another great, incremental step toward maturity: Learn that if you don’t like being bossed around, then you can either pout, or take step by possible step toward independence. I recommend Door No. 2.
Dear Carolyn: My sister, who lives far away, is estranged from our mother, who lives near me. When my sister comes to visit me, she does not contact our mother, and I am put in an awkward and heartbreaking position. Do I tell my mother that my sister is visiting? Or do I lie about what I am doing when I would normally be visiting my mother myself? Either way, a bind for me.
I want to maintain a relationship with both of them, but after 20-plus years I am tired of the stress of covering for my sister. Normally I would say it is not my business, but I feel she has made her issues my business.
Her visits are your business, yes, but her issues are still not. Stop covering for her, and also stop taking on the management of your mother’s feelings as your responsibility.
Don’t tell when your sister visits unless and until it affects plans you have with your mother. “Hey, Ma, I’ll miss my usual visit this week because Sister will be in town.”
Will this be heartbreaking for your mother? Of course. But this is a bucket’s worth of heartbreak in the Olympic pool of 20 years of estrangement.
You’ve made your choice not to let each woman’s behavior affect your loyalties. If you remain confident this is the right choice, then neither flaunt it nor hide it. It’s simply a matter of fact.