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Radical empathy for judgmental grandmother

DEAR CAROLYN: My mom and I were never what I would call close, and things have been rocky, but in recent years we've both become more accepting of each other. It's hard for me, though, when she criticizes my siblings. And in every call lately, with everyone working from home, she complains about my brother's parenting. (His son is my mom's only grandchild.) Her criticism started almost as soon as my nephew was born: "They are just slaves to that baby, all he has to do is open his mouth and they are right there," etc. Now she says he's making things harder for himself by not just telling his 4-year-old to entertain himself while Mommy and Daddy work. The thing is, when my mom says they should "let him cry" or "tell him to go away," I think of all the times she did just let me cry or tell me to go away, and how profoundly lonely and unloved I felt as a child. I've been letting her vent a little bit, hoping that if she feels heard by me, she won't direct her criticisms at my brother as much. And I try to gently reframe things by saying, "They must be doing something right, nephew is a great kid," or, "Yeah, I can't even imagine how tough this is for them," which sometimes seems to work, but then the next phone call, she starts right back up. She says she would never tell my brother how to parent, but she is really good at nonverbal communication — except at controlling it. Should I be more direct with my mother? Tell her I don't want to talk about it? Or suck it up and keep letting her complain?


ANONYMOUS: I realize how easy this is for me to say.

But I really, really hope you ask your mother, gently, next time she blathers on about how they should (oh, my) "tell him to go away":

"Mom. Did your parents do that to you when you were little?"

You can either wait for her to answer, or continue: "If they did, then I'm sorry. It breaks my heart."

Radical empathy.

And then, regardless of how she responds — by doubling down, by softening, by ripping into you, with silence — stake out your own belief:

"I love how much love they show that baby. I hope every baby on Earth gets that kind of attention."

To make your point, you don't have to connect these dots directly from her methods to your profound loneliness as a child. That is, unless she invites you in a genuine effort to connect, which I wouldn't expect. That's a lot of difficult, self-incriminating emotional bridges to cross, especially for someone who still, by all appearances, would rather normalize her pain than admit there were more nurturing, but still effective, paths that her parents — and she herself — could have taken.

And then: "You raised [Brother] to be a good dad, who married a good mom. Take a victory lap." Show what support looks like.

Having taken this clear stand — and allowed any dust or muck or rancor you've churned up to settle — then you can deflect your mother's negativity using shorthand. Gently: "Take the win, mom. They're really great parents." All love, no traction. Good luck.

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