Ask An Adult: Why Don’t I Get On Better With My Mum Now I’m An Adult?

We all assumed that once we became adults, all those teenage problems we had with our mums would melt away. So why are they still hanging around? Illustration by Assa Ariyoshi


by Daisy Buchanan |
Published on

My mother has always made it very, very clear that she’s not one of those mums that wants to be my best mate. She’s there to be my mum. She meant it when I was nine, and she still means it now that I’m 'grown up'.

I love my mum, and I know she loves me. And I really appreciate the relationship that we have with each other, which is better than it has ever been. But it’s still not perfect. We can go to the pub and have a lovely time telling each other rude jokes over beers, and then get home and have a tiff in the kitchen as I make myself a snack and she ‘explains’ how to use a knife. (‘Oh, I’ll show you how I use a knife, mother.’) We’ll be chatting about telly, and she’ll suddenly segue into her favourite speech, which is entitled It’s A Real Shame You Don’t Go To Church Anymore. The guilt is so stinging and permanent that I’d prefer it if she were to chuck a beaker of hydrochloric acid into my face. Repeatedly. This is a woman whose favourite shaggy dog story involves a one-eyed sex worker, but who makes my boyfriend and I sleep in separate rooms when we come to stay, even though we have lived together for two years.

Families are quite tribal, and no matter how old we are, our roles stay pretty clearly defined.

My friend Janie, 28, has similar complains. ‘I love my mum SO MUCH. When something goes wrong, she’s the first person I want to call. But she doesn’t always say what I want to hear, even when I have good news. When my first book came out last year, she said “But it’s only an ebook, darling. It’s not a proper book, is it?” When I get feature in a magazine or newspaper, everyone tells me that she must be really proud, but she tells me, fairly frequently, that she wishes I’d do something a bit less precarious, like working for the council.’

It would be nice if adulthood meant all existing tensions and parental problems suddenly dissolved, but sadly, being older does not necessarily equip you with all the answers. If that was the case, our mums would be far too mature to antagonise us. Family behavioural expert Henry Stanton explains: ‘Families are quite tribal, and no matter how old we are, our roles stay pretty clearly defined. So you might feel like an adult woman in all other areas of your life, but when you’re with your mother, she can only treat you as a daughter.’

We all desperately want our mothers to be proud of us, but it’s not always as straightforward as it should be

The PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi tells a story illustrating just this. When she was about to tell her mother that she had been appointed to the Board, she got this reply. 'Let me explain something to you. You might be president of PepsiCo. You might be on the board of directors. But when you enter this house, you're the wife, you're the daughter, you're the daughter-in-law, you're the mother. You're all of that. Nobody else can take that place. So leave that damned crown in the garage. And don't bring it into the house.'

We all desperately want our mothers to be proud of us, but it’s not always as straightforward as it should be. Most of our Mums have probably experienced more sexism in the workplace than we ever will, and been forced to make sacrifices in order to have a family. It’s sad, but your successes might be reminding them of all the opportunities they weren’t able to pursue.

Stanton adds: ’It’s hard for a mother to relinquish control. You’re understandably resentful of that treatment, and that makes you guarded, defensive, and potentially liable to misinterpret your mother’s more neutral behaviour. The good news is that if you take responsibility for improving the relationship and act mindfully, you can ensure that you both start to relate to each other as adults.’

It sounds tough, but here is how it’s done:

If you want her to accept you on your own terms, you’re going to have to accept her on hers

When I was about 12, I was briefly but intensely obsessed with Audrey Hepburn. This passed after about three months, but my mum still buys me every item of Audrey merch she can lay her hands on. Obviously it’s very generous, and I don’t have the heart to tell her to stop. But it does bother me that she thinks I like the same things that I was into before I went through puberty. Henry says: ‘This is really common, and to some extent it is a way of asserting control. Your mum wants to show you she loves you, but she also wants to recreate an era where she saw you every day, and always knew where you were! But you have to be really honest, and ask yourself whether you’ve thought about your mum’s tastes, interests and hobbies, and how they have evolved over time. Have you been buying her the same perfume for Christmas for the last 10 years? If so, sit down and ask her what she’s been doing for fun lately. If you start seeing her as a person as well as a mum, she’s more likely to do the same for you.

Be a giver

Harriet, 26 admits: ‘My relationship with my mum changed totally when I stopped expecting her to pay for everything. It’s not that I have much money to throw around, but when I started to get her the odd meal out or cup of coffee, she seemed to respect he much more. It’s a small but significant sign that I am a grown-up, and I feel that she no longer thinks I’m living in a state of chaos just because I’m single and living in a houseshare. Henry agrees: ‘The headlines are always announcing that parents of 20-somethings are going to be funding their children forever, and that’s going to make any mother feel like a permanent caretaker. Demonstrating generosity and financial responsibility is a great way to prove your maturity.’

Don’t say anything to your mum that you wouldn’t say to a colleague

Stacey, 25 reveals: ‘I had a breakthrough when I realised just how rude I can be to my mum when we argue. You feel like it’s OK to say anything you like to your family, because they’re not going to go anywhere, but I’ve realised that the fights are hurting our relationship. I have a senior colleague who is about my mum’s age, and I’m really impressed by her and respectful of her. I found myself wishing my mum was more like her – and then I realised that if I talked to my mum with the same levels of respect, I’d see her in that light too. Henry adds: ‘This is a difficult one, because if your mum is critical or awkward, you’ll keep having the same fight. But if she expects you to scream back, take a deep breath and reason. She won’t expect it, and if you keep going, she’ll be as measured as you are.’ Just keep asking yourself this question: If I talked to my mum like this in a boardroom, would I get fired?

She’s proud of you – even if you are the last to know

I recently had a chat with my sister where we confessed our deepest fears – that Mum is secretly judging and hating our choices of flat, job, partner and shower gel brand. ‘Whenever I tell her that I’m tweeting about the Kardashians for work, I know she’s looking at me and thinking, “Your Grandad did not fight in a war for this,”' I grumbled. But my sister told me I had it all wrong. ‘She never stops going on about how well you’re doing, and how bloody proud she is. I caught her telling a woman in Sainsbury’s about your last Guardian piece the other day,’ she revealed. Our mums are saying everything we want and need to hear. Just not to us. Henry explains: ‘We’re conditioned to look to our mothers for validation, but it’s quite hard to get it directly from them. Giving and receiving compliments is difficult. If you stop waiting to hear praise, it takes the pressure off the situation. It’s usually safe to assume that your mum is showing off on your behalf.’ Of course I want my mum to be proud of me, but I want her to treat me as an adult, I can’t endlessly seek her approval. I need to show her that I’m proud of myself.

Follow Daisy on Twitter @NotRollerGirl

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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