Thursday, October 8, 2015

Mothers of mothers in medicine

Hi mommas- I've really struggled to write about an issue that has been a gray cloud hovering over us these past few months. We talk so much about our relationships with our significant others and medicine and how they change once little people enter the picture, but what about our relationships with the rest of our families? How has your relationship with your own mother changed after becoming a mother? Have you had to deal with tension and seemingly irreconcilable differences between your own family and your significant other?

A blog post can't begin to succinctly describe the history and multi-dimensionality of a mother-daughter relationship in a nutshell. To those of you familiar with the Tiger Mom stereotype, this is a good starting picture to have in mind (well... maybe highly risk-averse and conservative Korean Tiger Mom on steroids haha... although this really does do her injustice, as all stereotypes do). Rather than try to paint a picture of our relationship and events, I will ask: how did your parents respond when you told them you were starting a family?

We decided to start our family in my 3rd year of medical school. I should preface this by summarizing that I am the eldest of three and always dreamed of going to medical school, however, mostly beginning in college, my mom deeply disapproved of all my decisions, which in her eyes were obstacles to finishing medical school. First, she disapproved of my significant other (now husband), especially when I decided to move overseas with him to work in a start-up company straight out of college rather than go directly to medical school. During medical school, I did research for 2 years, which in my parents' minds, was a distraction while my husband finished his PhD. When I told my parents we were expecting, I knew they wouldn't be happy, but I did not expect that they wouldn't speak to me for 2 months. When my mom finally called, there was extensive lecturing over mainly the financial aspect- how irresponsible were we to bring a child into the world on a post-doc salary while paying medical school tuition? How could we pay for day care when we were already net negative? (Valid point). How could we deal with the exhaustion when I was entering residency? (Another valid point). Did I have any idea how much of the burden a woman carries when children come into the picture? (Umm) How could we know what we were getting ourselves into? (Who does??) And how in the world could we expect her to be happy for us? Why did we have to do this under these circumstances and why couldn't we have waited? 

She came around of course as my due date came closer. But ironically, after my daughter was born, after years of a tumultuous relationship, I felt like I could finally begin to understand from where her fierceness and seemingly extreme irrationality arose. And shockingly, for the first time in my life, I felt like she was the only person who understood me. Like her, we had no outside family help when my daughter was born and it was just so so hard (with my dad in the military, we were living out of the country when my brothers and I were born). I felt like she was the only person to whom I could really express my feelings of utter exasperation and exhaustion- I entered the newborn period after a 50+ hour labor, needing to basically to be left alone and sleep for 2 weeks straight to recover- frustrations dealing with the sudden extreme gender inequity that having boobs and a vagina lead to, and struggles being at home and navigating a new identity as a mom. Despite always adoring kids and feeling very maternal, I really did struggle with having a newborn and it took me several months to settle into becoming a mom. My mom was the only person I could really speak with about these feelings openly when I felt like all I could hear was "enjoy every precious moment!" at every turn.

Fast forward a year. Moved cross-country for residency to be an hour away from my parents and on the same coast as my husband's family. My parents are an enormous support to us and we love seeing our daughter spend so much time with them, we see them every week or every couple of weeks. My husband, for the first time in our ten year relationship, feels genuinely accepted by them. But then we decide to expand our family and I get pregnant. This time, though I still tell them with trepidation, I expect that the reaction will be different from my parents- however, no such luck. A complete repeat of the previous episode with silence for weeks followed by yelling about financial irresponsibility, exhaustion, being unable to handle two, etc etc. However, there is also, why couldn't you "find someone" who can provide for you? (my husband is a PI in academia) This devastates and infuriates my husband, understandably, who by now has been made to believe that the disapproval drama was a thing of the past.

I had a miscarriage. But serious damage had been done. It's been maybe 6-7 months since then. I made amends with my parents a few months ago so that I feel comfortable visiting them on my own, in large part for my daughter. No, they are not perfect, but missed them and love them and grateful that they are close by and healthy. And I have been through these episodes so many times with them, I don't really take it personally. But my husband is different. These are not his parents, he does not have the loyalty I feel towards them. He feels like he never wants to see them again, that enough is enough. They have made no effort to apologize to him, because they feel like they have nothing to apologize for. It is like a Cold War and I am stuck in the middle. Again, number two is on its way, and I still haven't been able to bring myself to tell my parents... I keep hoping somehow things will be resolved between my parents and my husband before then. I am now solidly into the second trimester and won't be able to hide it much longer. I want to be optimistic but I do dread sharing the news. Isn't that unfortunate? I know it's not a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but I really wonder what it would feel like to not have these life events overshadowed by negativity. Any advice/thoughts/sharing of your own experiences are welcome.


  1. Why are you letting this negativity into your life? You're an adult. Your mother's opinions aren't your problem. If she says things like that, hang up, walk away and don't come back until she's ready to behave. If she cuts you out, focus on the people who really love you. Your mother is emotionally abusing you and you're letting her.

    1. I feel badly about how I phrased the last line. You're the victim in this, and I don't want to blame you. Parents are difficult, and parents that give unpredictable intermittent rewards and can some times be loving are the most difficult. My point was to empower you that there are things you can do to cut down on the negativity, rather than to blame.

    2. Hi- please don't apologize. Perhaps it is blunt but it's true and something I really believe- there are two people in any relationship, so yes, I have played a role in allowing this pattern to continue. Several years ago there was drama around our decision to make things official, and in the aftermath of that I read this self-help book called "Emotional Blackmail: When the People in Your Life Use Fear, Obligation, and Guilt to Manipulate You." The title sounds dramatic but it's actually a very insightful book... it made me come to the realization that what had been going on for years is actually a form of emotional/verbal abuse, which is a scary term that I had always been reluctant to use. And the book taught me that I may not be able to change her, but I can change how I respond. That really helped. After "making amends" several months ago, I really tried to set boundaries and let her know that her behavior is unacceptable... the problem is that she denies that anything ever happened and turns it around on me. She is a historical revisionist- emotional blackmail at it's finest haha.

      What I am really struggling with is, assuming that things will never change, do I estrange myself from my parents who do love and support me and have a wonderful relationship with my daughter? Do I ask/force my husband to "suck it up" during holidays so we can all be together? The truth is that after all this time, I don't think my mom has the self-awareness or insight to change because she explains situations away to just blame others- she is infallible because, in her words, she does everything "out of love." Maybe this is not an optimistic outlook, but this what I have to accept as a real possibility. But- God forbid if anything happened to them, I would have real regrets about shutting them out... although they created the situation.

      One thing I also failed to mention in my posting is that in the decade plus my husband and I have been together, literally the only issue of contention has been drama surrounding my mom/parents. We are crazy about each other and are very low-key and easy going people, and unfortunately this is the one very big stressor on our relationship.

      Thank you everyone for your comments and insights. I regretted instantly when I finally made the posting, but really appreciate hearing from you.

  2. Your mother, like mine, is emotionally abusing you. I have recently realized this in my own relationship with my Mother. I sympathize with you, and I do agree with the above poster that we need to identify and call it for what it is - abuse. And seek ways to set healthy boundaries.

  3. Your mother, like mine, is emotionally abusing you. I have recently realized this in my own relationship with my Mother. I sympathize with you, and I do agree with the above poster that we need to identify and call it for what it is - abuse. And seek ways to set healthy boundaries.

  4. For a number of reasons, my husband and I no longer have any contact with my family of origin. For us, this decision was the healthiest one for our family. Refusing to allow them to be negative (which, for us, meant going no-contact, but could just mean establishing firm boundaries, depending on your parents) was a very healthy move for our family and we are all just thriving. My relationship with my husband is stronger than ever and the kids are doing amazingly,

    I agree with what LarvalDoctor and the Unknown poster said. The behaviour is unacceptable.

    Also, you have my condolences for the miscarriage; I have been there and I know it's hard. I hope your current pregnancy continues as healthily as possible.

  5. I'm sorry that you are going through this. No matter how old we get, we all crave the unconditional love of our parents. Unfortunately, sometimes, for their own reasons, our parents are not able to give us what we need. I can only tell you that in a similar situation, I decided to have my unmet needs from Mom filled elsewhere ex by my wonderful and loving husband. Sometimes the healthiest solution for us is to stop wanting what they are unable to give.
    I wish you well in your journey with your growing family.

  6. Therapy. You need a therapist, an outside observer, who can help you navigate this. I know whatever you decide to do will be challenging, and you need support during this time. No matter how good your relationship is with your husband, he might not be the one, since he clearly has his own hurt & bias to deal with.

  7. I agree with the recommendation for therapy, if you have time, energy and money to pursue it. My mother wasn't really abusive or directly critical in the same way, but she managed her anxiety by trying to exert control of every possible situation, along with trust issues that led her to parcel out info and manipulate others...I had to learn to set and maintain clear boundaries.

    You don't have to cut ties. You can set the boundary that you simply won't remain for any conversation that involves criticism of your choices or your husband. "Mom, I'm not going to listen to that. How was the movie you saw yesterday?" "Mom, I said I won't listen to that. Let's finish cooking dinner.". "Mom, if you can't stop talking about that, I am going to leave". And then you do.

    Captain Awkward has some wonderful scripts for that kind of thing. Here are a few:

    You have been put in a terrible position. I can understand your husband's point. Would he be willing to see your parents if you promised to leave the minute your mother started in on you or on him?

    I know your mother has a wonderful relationship with your child now. That's valuable. Think, too, about what you want to teach your kid(s) about parent/child relationships - about the way we treat the people we love, and the way we allow people to treat us.

    This stuff is hard, hard, hard. Your mother is completely, utterly, out of line, and I am so sorry that she's making this so challenging for you. Condolences also on the miscarriage.

  8. I struggled with commenting here because I think I understand at least part of what you're going through. There are somethings in your situation that are similar to mine and because of that I am wary of commenting because I know that the issues are so close to your heart and there are things that other people cannot fully understand and things said here might make you feel worse than you already do.

    I think my mother may be similar - she's not Korean but of Chinese descent. A strong personality and a person brought up in an era and culture that results in a parent who would not think twice about exerting their opinion and even control over your withour mincing their words or thinking about boundaries. And for that reason I find it hard to accuse someone like that of abuse. I agree ignoring you for two months is probably more than I've been ignored for but I do think on some level this has to do with struggling with communication. They just don't know how to communicate their feelings and they are outraged by the thought that you would at all disobey. Yet we've grown up in a different era and culture that's a mish mash of things and expect differently than what they might have envisioned for us. And it resonates so much with me, what you said about finally understanding your mother better after you became one yourself. I really feel the same way. I hope never to be so cantankerous and passive aggressive or even plain old aggressive but I see now how much my mother must have struggled and how much she continues to do her best for me as she gives me childcare support even if it's on her terms. (And comes with angry outbursts now and then.) So yes that bit that your parents are good with your daughter also resonates so much with me.

    I don't have the same struggles with my parents thinking less of my husband and our other struggles are with me and my in laws instead. Childcare issues of a different nature there.

    I'm sorry my post is a bit jumbled and I don't think it's particularly helpful but I just wanted to say that you're not alone in your struggles - sometimes cold comfort I know. I don't really have any solutions to offer (if not I might do them myself!) and I think you, like me wouldn't want things to go to the extent of severing ties (has crossed my mind wrt the in laws). I hope things get better in time. Condolences on the miscarriage.

    1. Just want to echo these thoughts. Also not Korean, but South Asian, with similar parents and in-laws. Sounds like your husband is not though given that he is upset at anything they do and say, though may completely be wrong. Both my husband and I have learned take in the good, and there is so much of it :) and ignore the bad - we are lucky in that both sets of parents are quick to forget, but their views and ways of treating us are so very different from the environment in which we live and work that it can be hard to deal with (especially with all the stresses we deal with being in medicine, working and having a family). Just wanted to let you know you are not alone... just take some of those skills we learn in medicine to let things patients say roll off our backs and apply it to your parents - it's not worth being separated from them, especially for your children, despite any acrimonious things they do and say. Condolences on your miscarriage and wishing you hope and strength in the future.

    2. Thank you, everyone for taking the time to comment- I want to especially thank gesticulate and anon for their perspective and for chiming in on the cultural aspect of this issue. My husband is not Asian (I am only half Asian in fact, but my dad takes a back seat to my mom in their relationship and he has never wanted to rock the boat) and that has contributed a lot to his feelings. He grew up in a very very different family dynamic where it was not at all about absolute respect for elders and deference to their wishes, where he was treated more as an equal. Sometimes I feel like my parents just don't know how to treat me as an adult, that I am still a little girl in their eyes. In any case, all I can do is try my best to take care of myself and the rest of my family, and if I try to act as a responsible adult, they will hopefully eventually treat me like one. I am someone who definitely tries to focus on the good in people/situations- my husband generally is too, but for whatever reason this situation has pushed him over the edge so that he feels unable to do that anymore. Thanks again everyone for letting me open up here.

  9. Hi-I just stumbled upon this blog because I'm a mom who will be starting medical school in August 2016. A few months ago, I lost my husband after he had lived with colon cancer for 6 years. For the last 4 years, he had been completely estranged from his parents in large part because of how they treated me and my kids (from previous marriage). His parents are also estranged from his only brother because they couldn't accept my sister in law and their own grandchildren, either. Both my husband and I and my brother in law and sister in law had/have wonderful relationships aside from the conflicts created by my parents-in-law's behavior. I have total confidence that my husband and brother in law did the right thing in cutting their toxic parents off--like your situation, it was mostly mom who was abusive and dad was the professional enabler. Unlike your situation, it's me who has the Asian parents--and I will just say, chalking this kind of abuse up to a "culture" of respect for elders etc. isn't fair to anyone. It's not fair to your husband, it's not fair to yourself, and it isn't fair to other Asian or Asian-American parents who DON'T abuse their kids. Your mother has a choice and she is choosing to try to ruin your marriage--please, choose your husband. My husband said over and over at the end of his life that his only regret with respect to cutting his mother off was that he didn't do it sooner.


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