“Am I My Mother’s Keeper?”

Dear Dr. Hurd, I was wondering if you could provide some advice as to my dilemma:

I’m a 25-year-old adult who is still living with his mother, but contrary to most young adults out there, I’m not depending on her in any way; rather, she depends on me.

She relies on me (most of the time) for financial support, and if it wasn’t for me still sticking around, she’d likely become homeless since she’s so irresponsible when it comes to money (we rent). While I had a good childhood, and though I still love her, she’s made a lot of bad mistakes in her life, and she never learns from them because she continues to make the same mistakes.

My dad left us 3 years ago due to our dire financial situation back then (they were both very irresponsible financially, and I was always there to save them money-wise), and she’s only become worse financially, and emotionally.

I know part of the blame rests on me, where I’ve always come in to “save the day,” whether it was emptying my savings account, or paying to have the car fixed; whatever it was, I was always there to sort it out. On top of all this, I only have a part-time job since I’m at college. She also hasn’t had a stable job in over 3 years, and whatever work she does find usually lasts a few months.

When my parents were still together, and when they both had full-time work, there were many instances where they literally emptied their entire pay into the casino, and no matter how many times I told them I wouldn’t help them, I always did.

I’ve told her that I intend on moving out this year, and that she needs to find a cheaper place to rent, but whenever I bring this up, she doesn’t seem to acknowledge it, and just goes on assuming that I’ll always be there for her.

I can’t help but to be resentful towards her because I want to be independent, to solely focus on myself, and not have to always worry about her problems. At times it feels like I’m a parent, and I don’t want to let these years go by in stress, where I put my own life on hold. I need to develop myself as an adult, but it feels like I can’t do that while she’s attached to me in this way. Thank you for your consideration.

Dr. Hurd’s reply:

What you’re really asking here is, “Am I my mother’s keeper?”

My answer is “no.” I can’t answer that for you, however. You have to do so yourself.

When helping someone out, there are generally three questions to consider. One, do you have the help to offer? Two, is the person in need of help through no fault of his or her own? And three, is the person of enough importance to you to warrant the help, whether you have it to offer, or not?

Normally a mother would fall in the “yes” category. Most people’s mothers deserve consideration for the fact that they gave birth to them, raised them, and did the best they possibly could to raise you properly.

But it doesn’t sound like your mother deserves much credit in that department. In fact, it’s not clear she (or your father) deserve much of any credit at all. Regardless, she and your father are in this position because of their own negligence about spending, gambling and mismanagement of money. A lot of mental health professionals will claim that your parents suffer from an illness, and it’s no fault of their own. But if that’s true, why don’t they try to obtain professional help for that illness? Or even free help, from Gamblers Anonymous and the like? It’s interesting how people use this disease metaphor, but don’t take it all the way.

If someone had cancer or heart disease, and refused to even consider medical help for these illnesses, then wouldn’t you hold them responsible for the consequences of refusing to attain help? Of course, it virtually never happens in those situations, while it happens with the supposed diseases of gambling, alcohol abuse, drug abuse and so forth all the time. I find that interesting.

Your mother’s problems are due to her own negligence and evasion. To make it worse, she uses you as a means for that evasion. I base this on your observation that she simply ignores you when you point out she has to find a cheaper place to rent, etc. You’re basically telling her that it’s her job to ensure her own survival, and she’s choosing to ignore you.

What’s holding you back here is the fact you love your mother. You feel like it would be mean and unloving of you to take better care of yourself, even at the expense of no longer supporting her refusal to give up gambling. However, you’re literally sacrificing your own life in the process, by continuing to foster her dependence on you.

The general principle here is to wean her off you. Right now, she doesn’t take you seriously. I suspect she feels entitled to have you take care of her, perhaps something easy to rationalize since she’s your mother. But she’s in this position because of her own choices and inaction, not because of you. She’s not going to take you seriously until you start to take steps which prove you’re beginning the weaning off process. Simply stop helping her, in stages. Warn her ahead of time, but back all your words up with actions — or don’t say them at all.

I suggest weaning off rather than simply walking away from your support of her for your own sake, not for hers. She has already received more of a free ride than she deserves, and you’re free to stop at any time. The fact that you love her will make it very difficult to cut off all your support at once. If you do, then you’ll probably feel badly and go back to supporting her fully again. In fact, I bet that’s the cycle you’ve been stuck in for years now. Weaning her off you in a systematic way will provide you an opportunity to be firm and consistent with her, one step at a time. It acknowledges the fact that you helped create this mess, if only by enabling it. If possible, I suggest some professional help for yourself with a therapist here — who agrees with me, and some will — to coach you along in this process.

It will perhaps be just as stressful for yourself as it will be for her to disengage from fostering all this dependence. Nevertheless, that’s what you have to do, if you’re going to have a life for yourself. If you don’t care enough about yourself to make this transition, then you’ll both be wallowing in misery for the rest of your lives. How is that a good thing for anyone?

What will your mother do? You mentioned homelessness. She might do better than you think. It takes perseverance and focus — of an odd kind — to manipulate people into taking care of you, and keeping that manipulation going. In a best-case scenario, she’ll discover her own inner strengths and manage to survive better on her own than either of you thought she could. A more likely scenario? She’ll find others to manipulate or lean on. My bet is on the welfare system of the government.

Your mother’s expectation of help fails on all three criteria I mentioned. One, you don’t have the ability to support her for the rest of your life. As you said, you’re only a college student now. Two, she’s responsible for her problems because of her own negligence, something she counts on you to enable. And three, her status as your mother does not give her an unlimited or unconditional claim on your life. Put bluntly, you are not her slave because she gave birth to you.

We’re all told that doing the right thing consists of sacrificing ourselves to others. Yet this is exactly sort of the ugliness to which such a horribly erroneous moral principle leads. Don’t fall for it! And don’t let it ruin your life.


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