Questions about love and sex in the Iowa City-Cedar Rapids area can be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org, or anonymously using this form. Questions may be edited for clarity and length, and may appear either in print or online.
I’m a teenage girl who is living with her single mom. My parents went through a rough divorce a few years ago and my dad refuses to pay for anything and basically has nothing to do with me. In a nutshell, he’s a deadbeat. My mom and I are actually pretty close; we do a lot of stuff together, more like close friends than mother and daughter at times. But lately my mom seems to be kind of manic-depressive. If we watch a really good TV show or if we go out for lunch or shopping, she’s super cheerful and fun to be around, but at home, she has become extra-irritable, and it happens so fast. She seems to be in a terrible mood more often than not, and I’m never sure if it’s something I’ve done or not. For example, if she has to drop me off at school one morning, she’s in a terrible mood and gets really mad and yells at me because I can’t get my frozen car door open. The other night, I was in the bathroom brushing my hair and she walked by and gave me a total side-eye glare. Like the kind you get from a mean girl in high school. I asked her why she did it, and long story short, she screamed at me about how she’s had a really long day and she does not need to be accused of doing something she didn’t do from a brat like me. We did not speak for days. It seems to turn on and off at really strange times, and she’s become kind of unpredictable: I’m always wary of what her mood is going to be when I get home from school, and I’m always afraid that I’ve done something wrong or that her mood is my fault. She gets mad whenever I try to explain my feelings, and tells me that I’m accusing and blaming her unfairly. What can I do to end this? It’s exhausting and killing my mental health. Thank you so much.
There are any number of things that could be happening here, honestly, and it will be hard to hear and harder to accept, but very, very few of the possibilities have to do with you (think: anything from menopause to a failed romantic relationship she didn’t feel comfortable telling you about to problems at work that she doesn’t want to burden you with to simply the overwhelming stress that many people are feeling in pandemic year two). Does that make your relationship and communication easier? Heck no! It makes both infinitely harder, and I’m so sorry that you’re experiencing this situation. I bet life would be peachy if I could just tell you, “Hey, you’re doing X, Y, Z wrong,” and then you could fix it and get back to “normal,” hunh? Hard times are that much harder to endure when all you can offer someone you care about is patience.
But I hope my answer can be a balm, too. Because when two people live alone together (you don’t mention any siblings or roommates), one of the hardest things to bear is the weight of being everything to one another. The closer your relationship, the trickier it is to allow yourself to let go of that expectation. But you must, for the sake of your relationship with each other and both of your relationships with others in the future. You’re not your mother’s sole source of joy or support, no matter how valuable you are to her—and you aren’t at fault when she’s not joyful or she’s feeling unsupported, either.
One thing you can do to move forward in this situation, Dearest, is to request that you see a family therapist together and/or you each start seeing someone individually. I know that isn’t always an option in all circumstances, whether due to money or time, but a lot of youth support orgs (like UAY in Iowa City, AbbeHealth Services in Cedar Rapids, Scott County Kids in the Quad Cities and Children & Families of Iowa across the central part of the state) offer such services at reduced or sliding rates. Bringing in a third party can serve as a buffer for your frustrations and help you give each other grace again.
Regardless if that is a possibility or not, challenge yourself to be as patient with yourself as you are with her. The parent-child dynamic can complicate things, but at the end of the day you’re both just people. You don’t need to be perfect in order to make things easier for her. Just cherish the good times, apologize sincerely when you’re wrong and make sure you practice the precept of “show, don’t tell” when it comes to love. I hope your rough patch will be brief.
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 302.