Living with Difficult Adult Children: The Story of Helen

Helen has three adult daughters. Aged in their 30’s, they act more like adolescents than adults, regarding their ability to plan and take responsibility for their lives. These women do not have psychiatric disorders but they have failed to mature as normally expected. So instead of being able to relax and enjoy her space from active mothering, Helen is basically “on call” for every minor trauma or circumstance that happens in these girls lives. And the word “girl” is intentional, because in no way are any of these three daughters “women”.

All three have had university educations – there is no intellectual delay with Helen’s children. They did suffer the breakdown of their parents’ marriage when they were in high school, and Helen, who was a stay-at-home mother, was forced to go back into the workplace to put food on the table.

Helen worked long hours but had a flexible job so she was always home when the girls came home form school. Their father was in full employment but only marginally supported his daughters financially. The full responsibility for their physical, financial and emotional welfare fell on Helen.

Hence, these three girls grew up in an environment where they saw their mother take on the role of both mother and father. Helen lost the assistance of her in-laws after the divorce, so the girls did not have the additional support of their paternal grandparents.

Despite observing the positive role model that was presented to them in their formative years, that is, of a strong woman who, despite her own hardships put her daughters’ wellbeing first, these adult children have grown up to be self-indulgent, self-absorbed, takers rather than givers, and basically treat their mother as a doormat.

The eldest daughter has three children and lives in a city about two hours drive from Helen. Helen must catch two trains to get to her daughter’s residence so that she can baby-sit two days a week, She then has to catch a bus, a train and then the longer distance train back home and then pick up her car in the station carpark and drive for another forty minutes to get home. She usually arrives home at about 11pm at night after looking after three children under six for two days straight.

Helen hates this. While she loves her daughter and her grandchildren, this weekly journey is wearing Helen out. Her daughter knows this but turns a blind eye to her mother’s exhaustion, as it doesn’t suit her to change her own lifestyle. Helen’s daughter and son-in-law both work full-time but don’t want to pay for child care five days a week, so this charade goes on every week. The son-in-law who arrives home first doesn’t even offer to drive Helen to the main railway station, but leaves her with the additional effort of walking to a bus stop and catching a bus to the station to take a train to the central station that is the terminal for the intercity train she must catch home. If it sounds complicated and tiring, it is.

But despite Helen telling her daughter she can’t keep this up, nothing ever changes. Helen is too frightened to speak out because this eldest daughter is quite capable of banning Helen form seeing her grandchildren and Helen knows it. So she allows the situation to continue, while becoming increasingly frustrated and tired. Helen has no life of her own.

But Helen has a second daughter. Again in her 30s, her long term relationship is in trouble and when that happens, the second daughter starts to unravel mentally. She then calls Helen who leaps to the rescue and starts cooking and offering to take her shopping. This daughter waits till her mother is at the first daughter’s house and then moves into Helen’s empty flat to get away form her husband, but leaves when she knows Helen is on her way home. She also asks Helen to mind her dog when the daughter wants to “get away for a few days”. Helen is not allowed to have pets where she lives so this puts added strain onto this already frazzled mother. No-one notices that Helen might need a break.

The youngest daughter, also in her 30s, decided on a whim to move a two-day drive north of her hometown where Helen lives. However, when things get hectic, she asks her mother to come up to help her out. Helen then drives the two-day drive, staying overnight in a hotel. Helen is now on a pension and struggles to pay the petrol and accommodation costs. Her daughter never offers to help out with the costs, even though she is in full employment as is her new husband. Although Helen enjoys the “holiday” she does not enjoy the way all her daughters seem to think her role is to be at their beck and call.

But again, Helen is afraid to say anything because she is afraid of losing her daughters.

What a sad situation. Instead of being grateful for the fact that their mother didn’t just walk out as their father did, they treat her like their own personal slave. They are still in contact with their father on public holidays and do not come to visit Helen at Easter and Christmas. Helen spends Christmas alone. The girls used to sleep at their father’s on Christmas Eve and stay most of Christmas Day. Helen would spend the lead up to Christmas cooking for her three daughters, their children and husbands. Stuffed with food from the father they saw twice a year, they would turn up at Helen’s around mid-afternoon on Christmas Day and promptly fall asleep. No-one really wanted the food Helen had labored over. No-one had the energy to talk to Helen, or be “Christmassy”. The young children were napping. Helen was essentially alone.

Helen came for counseling suffering from depression. Her story is a common one and comes from not setting age-related achievement milestones for your children, and continuing to treat them like children, because they are, in fact, still children. Helen commented that she wasn’t enjoying her grandparent role and still felt like a mother. This was because her children were not stepping up to the role of being adult and responsible parents. Every time there was sickness or a work problem or, in fact, any problem, these adult children expected their mother to put her life on hold and “fix” their problem.

In therapy, Helen came to realize that, in her case, she put her life on hold when her husband left her and devoted herself to the wellbeing of the children. While this was an important part of her parenting role, she unfortunately began to live through her children. As they became teenagers, she carried on with responsibilities that should have been progressively handed over to the girls, such as household chores, etc. She was their mother, but she acted more like their maid.

This is a common yet understandable mistake because divorces often bring loneliness and guilt, along with the desire to do the best for your children. This was Helen’s goal, but unfortunately the end result of years of catering to daughters who should be able to offer Helen a reciprocal relationship was one of depression, fear of abandonment and exhaustion.

In further articles, we will look at how Helen got out of this situation and went on to live life on her terms, while forging new, but different relationships with her daughters.

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