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My Mother Still Tries to Parent My Daughter (and me)

QUESTION: I had my daughter at age 15, my mother was always very controlling. My parents adopted her for "insurance purposes", but they held it over my head that if I didn't straighten up, I would never regain custody. I was always her mommy and my mom was always Grandma.

I met a man after I graduated H.S. and we fell in love. My mother made me feel like I had to chose between the two. I felt I could have both, a family of my own. So, I moved out with him and consulted lawyers on the subject to no avail. I always visited my daughter although I was never allowed to take her out of our small town.

Eventually, I married this man and we were allowed to have her over for an occasional weekend although we were still never allowed to punish her or take her out of town. She eventually moved in with us when we rented a house in the country. We bought a dog and were finally a family and my parents were even talking about letting us adopt her back. Then, my mom started dictating what I had to do....quit work, volunteer, and buy my daughter more things.

My husband never liked my parents and vise versa. They were always butting heads about everything. I played the middle man and tried to make everyone happy. One day, about 2 weeks before Christmas, my parents came and had my daughter pack her bags and took her back to their house. My husband was at work. My heart was broken, I had quit my job and tried to do everything that was expected of me. Again, we consulted lawyers, to no avail. She was in kindergarten at this point.

After a lot of fighting and talking, my daughter moved back in the summer going into 1st grade. We adopted her a month later...while my parents were still consenting. Ever since, my mother has tried to step in and take control of every situation that she deems needs her attention. My husband is against everything that has to do with them and I feel the same sometimes too. Every decision me and my husband makes gets looked down upon by my mother. She feels that either it isn't good enough, or the punishment is too harsh. She even told us that it was child abuse to stand my daughter in the corner.

My daughter hears all of this because my mother doesn't have the decency to question us in private. My daughter has become practically uncontrollable. She decides to do what she wants to do and if I don't let her, she'll tell my mother on the phone, or the next time she visits and I have to answer to my mother for it. I feel like a fish in an aquarium. My husband and I both work full time and it's hard enough to deal with normal daily problems of finances and behavior with out throwing in a controlling parent in the picture.

I feel like I'm at my wits end and don't want to make a rash decision like relocating my family to another state just to get away from her. I've tried talking to her and she gets very defensive and tells me that I'm wrong and she has a special bond with my daughter that I can't ignore. I know that....but I feel she takes it too far, and I can't talk to her to explain that. She says that I'm pointing blame at her for everything and I can't even get her to work with me for my daughter's benefit.

What should I do?????

ANSWER: Though the road has been a stormy one between your mother and yourself, you have finally succeeded in clarifying your parental role through adoption. Yet, though progress has taken place, the dynamics of your relationship with your mother continue to be based on her distrust of your decisions to parent your child. Her refusal to respect your authority at this point is problematic. And her undermining of your parental role may prove more damaging to your child than anything you do that she dislikes!

Perhaps you could approach your mother through a letter explaining your dilemma. Acknowledge the precipitousness of your motherhood as a teenager as well as your gratitude for her help in raising your daughter. Reflect the difficulties your decision to have a baby at age 15 must have meant for her, and commend her on her extension of herself as a grandmother in nurturing your daughter. But let her know that though you respect her relationship with your daughter, her arguments with you about parenting in front of your child must stop!

Clarify your need for her cooperation in accepting you as a parental authority for your daughter's sake. It is true that your daughter's acting out stems, at least in part if not wholly, from conflicting messages she is hearing about what is in her best interest. It is a common and natural result for children to act out conflicting messages. In this way, your daughter is being torn apart by a sense of split loyalty between you and her grandmother that is harmful. Your mother does need to relinquish her authoritative position and take a back seat to you and your husband, whether she agrees with you or not. If you feel strong enough, it is OK to listen to your mother's ideas about parenting, if she brings such things to you privately, and if she does so in a respectful manner which offers positive suggestions rather than judgment and criticisms. But it would be best for her to wait until you ask her for her opinions rather than give unsolicited advice.

Appeal to your mother to shift her role from "primary parenting" to grandparenting. Thank her for her love and caring when you did need her to step in and let her know you do appreciate the loving bond she has with her granddaughter. And, if you feel safe doing so, allow her to know the pain you must feel about your inability to parent your child independently when you were younger. Accept that it is difficult for her to let go of protecting your child, as this has been a primary focus in her life for the past several years. But let her know that you need her help in changing the roles you have played in your daughter's life. Ask for her support in transferring authority to you for your daughter's welfare.

If you are able to make headway with this letter and any dialogue that results, you might benefit from constructing a family ritual in which this transfer of authority, as well as acknowledgment of your mother's primary role in your daughter's past is acknowledged. It is probable that your relationship with your mother is stuck in adolescence. Your mother has never fully let go of mothering, and you have never really been completely accepted as an adult in the family.

It is likely that your mother experienced some difficulty with resolving the period of adolescence in her own childhood. Loss in her adolescence, or an overly distant or too close relationship with her own mother could have made it difficult for her to navigate your teenage years. And when you became a mother at 15, your own adolescent development became complicated. Becoming a teenage parent increased your dependency on your mother at a time when your own development was calling out for separation and independence.

If your mother can recognize that she needs to support rather than hinder your relationship with your daughter, it is possible that marking this awareness with a family ritual could help the two of you resolve your adolescence. Seek counseling for assisting you, if necessary, to reach an understanding of all you have been through together. But with a clear goal of clarifying the boundaries between parent and grandparent at this time. Solidify the transition through adolescence with a mutually created ritual that marks the event.

Research has shown rituals to be powerful facilitators of change in family roles and relationships during periods of transition. Perhaps a gathering where you review your daughter's birth and the positive ways she has always been cared for by all of those who love her in different ways at different times could be planned. In some way, this process could also include your mother passing the "baton" or "crowning" you as mother, or some other symbolic representation that she is placing authority and control of your daughter squarely in your hands. Some way of honoring her in a new grandmother role could also be created. A celebration like this can help confirm the reality that people are different and live life by different rules, and now that your daughter has been fully and legally adopted by you and your husband, your rules will guide her and keep her safe.

Naturally, a ritual will not create change, but it can concretize it so that relapses into power struggles with your mother are less likely. Clearly she has trusted your authority enough to legalize your motherhood. It is now critical that she follow through on letting go of primary caretaking responsibilities. Establish guidelines with your mother that respect your parental authority. Failure to do so will result in passing the power struggle between mother and daughter down to the next generation!

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Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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