Situation

I visit my parents about one time per month, for one to two days. Sometimes I manage to visit them twice, in rare cases I have to skip a month. So we see each other in person regularly (and, for sure, during some holidays, but this is about the shorter visits.). They know that I can't visit them more often. They live about 3 hours away, and I've been out of the house for around 4 years now.

While my dad is pretty relaxed about it, my mom then tries to have everything in perfect condition and planned exactly to my tastes (e. g. musing about the whole week and asking me what I would like to have for dinner or taking care to get me a little present). She also ensures to take care of me in other ways, e. g. by buying me useful items I may need.

She is not a helicopter mom and never was. So don't get a wrong picture of her. She is also not interfering with my day-to-day life (from afar) - it really just concerns her preparations for my visits.

Problem

I appreciate her efforts very much, but I'm sometimes a bit indecisive and also don't want them to plan everything according to my wishes. It causes her more stress than I would like. Sometimes she even mentions that in passing - something like

Mom: I couldn't get X done because I had to do Y for you and then ...

Me: I told you that you needn't have done Y for me.

Mom: It's fine! I'm always glad when you visit us!

or

Mom: This week was very stressful for me. There was ... during the week, then your visit over the weekend. And now I still have to do ...

Me: I'm sorry that I caused you more stress. Why didn't say anything?

Mom: Oh no, it's nothing!

But I know that she causes her too much stress even if she doesn't say anything.

What I tried

Usually, I try to tell her that she doesn't need to make such a fuss about it, when she asks me ("It's not necessary that you ...", "I don't know, just like how you would do if I didn't come ..."). I fear that I come across as nagging - especially if I approach it from the angle of how I feel about it - and she answers that I needn't worry and that she is always happy when I visit. My dad is of no help in this issue.

Question

My goal is for her to treat my visits as if I was still living there - like nothing overly special. After all, I visit my parents to see them, to spend time with them and to talk to them. And I would like her to be able to enjoy it without unnecessary stress.

How do I go about telling my mom, that I appreciate all she is doing for me during my visits, but that she needn't cause herself too much work and stress?

Once I even got the idea to surprise them (I had made sure beforehand, that it wouldn't interfere with their plans), but it caused her even more trouble.

up vote 15 down vote accepted

You asked:

My goal is for her to treat my visits as if I was still living there - like nothing overly special. After all, I visit my parents to see them, to spend time with them and to talk to them. And I would like her to be able to enjoy it without unnecessary stress.

How do I go about telling my mom, that I appreciate all she is doing for me during my visits, but that she needn't cause herself too much work and stress?

Your goal is for her to be more relaxed about your visits, and you ask how to talk to her about that. Telling her clearly and compassionately how you feel about this is one step toward reaching your goal, but there's an underlying problem here. Your mom is probably acting this way toward you because it's a way for her to show her love. Even if you do successfully convince her that what she's doing is unnecessary (and maybe even a source of stress and discomfort), she'll still be left with the urge to show her love for you but now without her usual way of doing it. I assume it's not the case that you want her to love you less (or show it less) but rather that you'd like to change the dynamic in your relationship that makes her show her love by doing things for you all the time.

I think Mirv's answer hit the nail on the head with this:

keep in mind while there are many love languages - mothers are taught that "acts of service" are how you prove your love.

Some existing answers talk about ways to redirect this impulse so your mom does things that a) really do please you and b) don't cause her too much stress. That's a great idea, but I recommend complementing that approach with another tactic: Try to open up more ways for you and your mom to communicate and show love by shifting the nature of your relationship.

You're an adult now, and your mom is too. Your relationship can change into one where you love and respect each other as peers. It sounds like your mom shows love to you by keeping you clean, fed and comfy, but she likely has other ways she shows love to other people (her husband, friends, etc.) --- she can do it, she's just not doing it with you. Here are some ways you can shift your role in the relationship, to help move it from caregiving to reciprocity:

  • You offer to cook. Tell your mom you want to do your share of cooking for the family and say you'll go to the grocery store to get everything once you're in town. Do the dishes after and clean up the kitchen. Note that you need to do this regularly enough that it's not a special occasion for you to cook. You should make dinner several times when you come to stay for a week, maybe even every night for some visits.
  • Ask her about herself. This is something kids tend to forget to do --- they often see parents just as comforting presences that only matter in terms of how they relate to the child. She has adult stuff on her mind, and if you ask her about it the two of you can talk as peers, and you can be a source of comfort and guidance for her as much as she is for you (a powerful way to show love). Note that this can be a little alarming when you start doing it; you'll find out that she's not invincible, not a perfect angel. You may find out that she's made bad decisions, has regrets, is confused or anxious or depressed --- be ready for her to be a whole person, not just your mom. You'll also get to know her in a new and deeper way, which is wonderful.
  • Look for ways to take responsibility, and look for ways to care for her as much as she cares for you. Take the garbage out without being asked. Make plans and organize things; don't wait for her to take care of everything. If you see she's reading, ask if she'd like a coffee. Get up early and make her breakfast. The goal here is to show her that you can take care of things, too, and that your relationship doesn't need to be one where she just gives and gives. In other words, pretend that you're both the mom. :)

Note that this will be a slow transition, for both of you probably. You may find that trying to really "pull your weight" as a grownup at home means a lot of work you're not used to doing (or even thinking about), and it may take a while for you to get the hang of it. Your mom will also probably take a while to stop thinking about your relationship as just "mom-child", and may resist your efforts to take responsibility and interact with her as an adult. She might act like she's just humouring you for a while, or try to still take responsibility for everything behind your back.

Keep at it, and keep showing her you love her with the reciprocal acts of an adult relationship, and not with the innocent, selfish love of a child. The truth is that moms are just people like the rest of us, and they like to be taken care of as much as children do. There's a good chance she would love to have a reciprocal relationship with you, instead of always having to be the mom.

Do continue to let her take care of you sometimes, though. It's not that you don't want her ever to take care of you, it's that you don't want her to feel that she has to. <3

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    That's management of the relationship is what I mean - only better said ty! I love the the showing them you are changing the relationship by changing the roles :) – Mirv Nov 21 '17 at 21:25

I wonder if you and I have the same mother and are sister/brother, but never mind... :)

For decades, my Mom has been exactly the same. Same words, same ideas, same problems, same questions, as the ones you just mentioned to us. And I've tried, just like you. Almost everything, until I reached the point of "nothing else to say". Mom's always right :)

From "Mom, please don't buy too much food, as we don't eat that much, and my GF doesn't eat [ X / Y ] (that you like to buy for us)" to "You'd rather do this like that, son, it's not going to work", I've said and heard almost everything. Almost.

What I found out is that Moms (at least, mine, lucky me!) like to take care of their kids. No matter what happens, how old you get, you're still "her kid". She'll try and protect you, anytime, anywhere, no matter what, or the cost for her. It's part of their pride of being a good Mom.

Mine thinks I'm still 15. Wish it could be the case, though...

About the "too much food" part, I managed to show her that she was wasting, as we couldn't eat everything. Then, ask her, before we visit her, if she could cook just ONE meal, my favourite. And add (on the phone), that it would be the best for me: spend time with you, and the pleasure of my "Proust's « sponge cake »". That would be the only thing to make me the happiest son of all. Not more.

This way, she was sure that I would have had enough. A Mom's concern. I had deflected, relieved her from willing to do more and more, and the stress attached to it. Then, a loooong, big hug and a gentle kiss on her cheek would be enough for both of us.

If you can't have her stop, then ask for more. YOUR more, just ONE thing she can focus on. It'll be less stress and work for her, but this way, she'll know she has done what "a perfect mother" has to do: make her kid happy :)

Took years before I get the trick, now, it works all the time.

  • I’ve done a similar thing, and it was effective for me. I only visit my parents & sister a couple of times a year, for a couple weeks each time. So my mom wants to clean the house and get me presents and stuff, which is very nice, but I don’t need her to do much, nor do I want more material things in my life. She got the hint a year or two ago when she asked “What do you want for Christmas?” and I just said “To see my family!” – Jon Purdy Nov 22 '17 at 4:25
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    I didn't know the madeleine was called a sponge cake in English. that's a terrible name :( – YSC Nov 22 '17 at 8:41
  • @YSC: maybe, but soooo close to the truth when you want to soak in into you hot chocolate and it ends at the bottom of the cup, into pieces :))) fair enough to call it "sponge" ;) – OldPadawan Nov 22 '17 at 9:01

My grandma used to be just like this.

I found that telling her not to worry makes things significantly worse.

In that vein, I would suggest that you don't explicitly talk to her about stopping to obsess over you. It is likely not going to reduce her stress and anxiety around your visits, but increase it.

I also found that limiting my visits made things even worse, and that it caused her great emotional distress and made her think she's failing me and I'm distancing because of that. I strongly recommend against doing that. I cannot stress enough how bad of an idea this was for me. I thought at the time I was doing my gran a favor because she wasn't well. Instead, I contributed to her depression by making her think I wanted nothing to do with her.

What I found to work is to accept that she'll obsess over you and to steer that in a direction that is helpful to you and doesn't create a lot of stress for her.

When you plan your visits, ask for something simple that you enjoy, like your favorite dish or activity. This has several advantages:

  • It will make her feel needed, which is often the motivation behind this behavior
  • It will remove the stress of not knowing if she's doing the right thing (this was the biggest stressor for my grandma back then, she was constantly afraid I wouldn't like what she thought up)
  • It will make visits easier on you
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    Grandma's are mothers too :) love you Mom. – OldPadawan Nov 21 '17 at 13:13

This thing with mothers is completely normal. Especially when you are first out of the house & the empty nest syndrome is alive.

I find understanding the cause is helpful to me & how I communicate with my parents.

The anxiety is real, they worry that if you don't enjoy the visit, you won't come to visit as much. Also, keep in mind while there are many love languages - mothers are taught that "acts of service" are how you prove your love.

So for my mother, after 5 years of these situations - I told her I wasn't coming back if she kept ruining my time off with all these worries. Wow, that was the wrong thing to say, her anxiety got worse.

Due to my experience with personal boundaries - I know this is not really my issue & if she had used her issues to guilt me into something, I would have shut the conversation down.

She didn't though & I could tell she was worse off, not better. This is pretty common - you can't tell someone not to feel their emotions - instead you can help them to walk through them, if you want to - but it's not your responsibility & don't let people guilt you into that ... you should do so only if you want a better relationship with them.

For my mother, I let know I was sorry she was more worried & I wanted her to always feel like she can talk to me about her concerns ... that I actually wished she would talk to me more about her concerns instead of my personal preferences. I asked her if she wanted to talk about the causes of her anxiety in relationship to my trips to visit her.

For her, she knew what I used to like, but do I still like that type of food dish? Is the place clean enough? Is the dog not bothering me or the girlfriend? Do I know where the towels are? Did I forget anything like bringing tooth brushes/paste? I had to keep the conversation on track, reminding her gently that this conversation isn't about me - it's about what made her worry when I visited? What would help her feel good enough to relax?

  • She was worried I wouldn't come back if I didn't enjoy the visit
  • She wasn't given sufficient information to plan meals for the visit by me
  • She was worried I cancelled without telling her or something happened to me on the road when driving (as my normal mode of operation was to get up & drive - in the winter it hits -30 to -50)
  • She felt, she didn't see me very often, so it was a multiplier to her previous worries
  • She wasn't receiving positive feedback in the manner she expected communication wise
  • She just wanted to show she loved me by providing me with over the top things she liked herself
  • She wanted to be reassured of when I would be coming back the next time before we got to planning the current trip

The first 3 were easy. We ended up nailing down a list of things that we could both agree on, like setting a day a week ahead of time to chat for like 15 minutes to let her grocery shop. Then two or three days ahead of time to confirm everything was on schedule. Lastly the day before I would check in early in the day so she knew I was on my way & when I expected to arrive. I additionally said I would call or text at the half way point just to help out.

The feedback part was kind of painful, I had to lay out in a calm & measured way to her that I was serious, not insulting her & it took some serious discovery on both of our parts, "Mom what makes you feel good to hear?", "What do I need to say in order to get your attention to the fact that I'm trying when you bring me coffee/tea or make a meal or leave out towels for us?" I had to learn some new ways of giving the feedback to compliment her style of communication for the other one & work on it. I jotted down some notes & asked for her help in reminding me of this part.

We got a list of things she could do for the nice extra touches at meals, when I could say that's enough of the extras & identify she was crossing my boundaries & negatively effecting my mood by violating my wishes to stop doing favors for me.

Note in all of this, I told her that mistakes always happen & we are just working together to both improve the quality of our friendship. Don't say anything that makes her think breaking the agreement formed here will ruin the relationship.

For me the last one was the hardest - I hate committing to months ahead of time. Still working on that & we check in about holidays etc about twice a month.

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    I really like this answer. If I hadn't been writing something very similar to yours while this was posted, I might not have written mine. – anongoodnurse Nov 21 '17 at 16:30

How do I go about telling my mom, that I appreciate all she is doing for me during my visits, but that she needn't cause herself too much work and stress?

You've already tried talking to her about this, and she brushes it aside. She doesn't want you to stress over what she does. But both of you are left feeling stressed.

I would recommend that you have a serious, adult-to-adult talk with her. Make it sound official and important, so your words carry some weight and aren't casually dismissed.

Mom, I have something important to talk to you about. Is there a time when I come home this weekend when we can sit quietly for an hour or two to talk? Great! I'm looking forward to our talk.

If she asks what it's about, tell her it's about something that has been bothering you, and you'd like her opinion on the matter.

Then, prepare everything you want her to really hear (with examples), summarize the main points as prompts for the conversation, and have the sit down. Make this more about you than about her. If she gives you quick, reassuring answers like "But it's nothing!", remind her that it's not nothing to you, and she has indicated in the past that it's not nothing to her, either, when it interferes with her routine. If she insists, I would tell her gently (but as forcefully as needed to be heard) that she's not listening honestly to your concerns. If you're conversant with love languages (which are more complex than presented in most articles), you can ask her about hers and you can express yours honestly. If receiving a gift when you visit isn't really in your love language, you can tell her that.

This isn't nagging. This is about having a more balanced relationship.

Usually when I advise something like this, I advocate setting some kind of boundary. I'm not sure that's the thing to do yet. In a year or two, maybe. But to her, you're probably still fresh out of college, and see if this talk helps at all.

Follow this up (if I may give advice not asked for) by actions that spell out your adulthood at home. Make some meals. Wash the dishes, your bedding, the towels you used, etc., and put them away before you go. If your mom tries to dissuade you from doing this, tell her you're serious about making your visits less work for her. This may make her fuss even more initially, but that's fine. You're backing up your talk.


I have a similar problem to your mom's. I know this because of the glass of wine I usually pour myself an hour before my kids come over. I try to hide it (the stress) but my kids know me. I've never tried to change it. I might, though, in light of this question.

Here are some things my kids do to make it less stressful for me (though I've never asked.)

Several times a year, they invade my house, groceries, kitchen utensils and small appliances in tow, and do all the cooking and clean-up. This is wonderful for me; it's truly low stress. All I need to do is enjoy their company, their thoughtfulness, express appreciation, and praise the food, which is always good. If I try to help, they insist, "No helping!"

When I extend an invite, I ask them what they would like to have. If they answer me, great. I don't have to worry about what they want. So, tell your mom what you want, and if it's relatively simple (grilled chicken and veggies), then great!

This is my problem; I don't know what my kids could say to make it go away. I know that it's rooted in love, and how I show love. It's a desire to make my children feel loved, but it's maybe not really necessary or even in their love language. But this is food for future thought and a conversation I will be having with each of my kids. Thanks for asking this question.

  • I disagree that this is "your problem". It's more of a case of a communication failure. And usually when mending expectations with loved ones, you try to meet half way. – Magisch Nov 21 '17 at 17:20
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    @Magisch - I disagree. How I deal with my feelings is my problem, not theirs, not half-mine and half theirs. What conclusion I come to when dealing with them does depend in part on the wishes of my children. – anongoodnurse Nov 21 '17 at 18:58
  • If we ignore talking about who is right/wrong, then I can see how neither of your insights are necessarily mutual exclusive in their most basic points. (trying to find ways that everyone wins is helpful) – Mirv Nov 21 '17 at 21:35
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    Excellent answer (as usual from you), plus quite enlightening to get a perspective from a mother, the other side so to speak. – sleske Nov 22 '17 at 11:38

Empty nester here. In the long run, things change but Time only flows one way. And please don't underestimate the pain of children leaving home. It really is like grieving for many parents. So redirect the affection into spending time together. This could be

Hey Mom, let's make that cake together on Sunday.

or

I haven't seen that park since I was 12. Let's visit it again.

These opportunities give her time to work with you as an adult and you time to spend with your mom. Oh and don't forget dads too. If your dad is a handy kind of guy, a day out at the flea market looking at the old tools is a great way to spend time with him.

So 2 suggestions that work well for me when I'm visiting family.

1) If you can afford it, you can reduce the stress around meals by offering to take everyone to a local restaurant for at least one key meal during your stay.

This has the advantage that it

  • Directly saves your Mum work and stress as she has one less meal to think about

  • Removes your Mum from the home environment for a few hours so she can forget about any other little jobs or tasks she might have at home.

2) If you're staying over, and if after you leave your family would have changed the sheets, then strip the bed and leave everything in a neat pile before you go.

Your Mum buying you little gifts is a way of her showing you that she loves you. She may enjoy it, so if it's not a problem for her, then just be thankful.

I see all the effort you put when I come visit. It's really kind of you to take care of me so well every time. I love these visits. Everything you do and prepare is really great.

The best part about being with you is actually being with you. If you are stressed about all the things you have to do, you are less present. It's more difficult to talk and actually connect when stress is around.

I don't have a lot of time to visit more, so in these visits I think it'll be best if we all put an effort to take good care of ourselves and feel good. Of course I'm happy to be with you in any condition, life is not always pleasant and relaxed. But when you insist of working so much when I come while being so busy with other stuff, it's kind of missing the point.

Mom, let's keep it casual. We were living together long enough for that! I'm coming home to be with you, all the other stuff are not important.

Love you!

  1. When you're there, be active and create the new situation you wish for, e.g. make a simple dinner, help with arrangements, simplify things.

  2. There is no problem with the amount of work your mother puts in, only with the emotional outcome. If she's able to do the same without receiving stress, let her do her thing. Maybe she needs it.

  3. Truth is, her stress is not caused by your visits at all. She experiences a fair amount of stress even when you're not around. The best solution here is to cure the real source of the stress using different techniques (IMHO eastern ones seem to be working faster than western ones).

It is time to start building a new relationship with your parents.

Let's imagine you're angry at your mom for making you feel like a guest in "your own home". This is reasonable; why would she want you to be a guest? If you were angry, perhaps you'd say something like:

Why is it every time I'm here, you spend the whole weekend obsessing about me? Why can't we just have a normal relationship like before? Do you prefer me to feel like a guest, and don't you want me to visit anymore?

Depending on her answer, you start building a new relationship with your mother. The idea with expressing your anger is to start a conversation about what your relationship will become.

What if there is not anger? This would be probably too drastic a response for this situation. One idea is when she asks what you want, to demand things that require zero preparation. Would be like this:

Mom: What do you want to eat this weekend?
Anne: I only want to eat leftovers. When you cook this week, just make a little extra, and I will eat that. Also, cereal for breakfast.
Mom: I won't do that.
Anne: How about frozen pizza and frozen burritos?
Mom: What?
Anne: If that doesn't work, let's just eat out for every meal.
Mom: Why?
Anne: Honestly, I don't come there for the food or to be pampered. I come home to spend time with you because I love you. Can we ratchet down the stress on these material things? Besides, it might be fun to just eat junk food together.

Do this for a few weeks; see how she takes it. The idea is to change your relationship with her, and to bring it into a new place where the two of you spend time together instead of her caring for you.

Keep in mind that for 20+ years her role was to just take care of you, and it will take time for her to adjust to a new relationship. Odds are that she'll like it.

It might be a good idea to take an interest in what she is doing to fill her time these days. For example, let's say she is starting a hobby X (knitting? genealogy? Python programming?). In that case, when she asks what you want to do, tell her you want to learn about hobby X. And if she hasn't found hobby X and she's just filling her time dreaming about being your mother again, because that's the best thing she ever did, then maybe you can help her find a place to volunteer. There might be a local teenager who would love a mom-cooked meal once in a while.

In summary, there should be some sort of transformation in your relationship with your mom, and it should come from you and your communication with her. This will help her immensely in adjusting to her new lifestyle.

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    "It sounds like you're angry at your mom for making you feel like a guest in "your own home"." I'm not angry at her. I don't want to cause her more stress than necessary. – Anne Daunted Nov 21 '17 at 15:32
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    I think it's unfortunate that you interpret the OP's concern as anger rather than love. I read it as, she loves her mom and doesn't want her to be stressed by her visits. Getting in touch with potentially non-existent anger is not a helpful answer. – anongoodnurse Nov 21 '17 at 15:33
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    Is anger wrong? Not at all, depending on the situation. But I don't know your situation. I think you're on the money about building a new relationship. I would disagree, though, that anger is part of a healthy relationship. What is part of every relationship is conflict. Anger is a result of a negative emotion, like hurt, feeling unloved, disrespected, or invalidated, etc. Misunderstandings happen and so does anger, but if a relationship is going in the right direction, anger should decrease. – anongoodnurse Nov 21 '17 at 16:38
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    @anongoodnurse I think of it as: Anger is a natural part of any relationship. Conflict is normal in relationships. But to have a healthy relationship, you have to resolve with the conflict while leaving anger out of it. Then revisit the emotion and see if it's still valid. If it is, you haven't resolved to conflict. – user3316 Nov 21 '17 at 21:22
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    I'd go far as to say that all emotions - joy, happiness, surprise, trust, anticipation, disgust, sadness, grief, anger, fear, guilt, etc - are critical to living a full and fulfilling life. Without the full spectrum, it can be very difficult to have healthy relationships with other and with yourself. If anyone of these emotions is suppressed, it can lead to many problems. Likewise, emotions should not rule a person either; but they should be used constructively in building connections and bringing life and fullness. – axsvl77 Nov 21 '17 at 21:36

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