I’m a 32-year-old woman and a PhD student. I’m enjoying my work and I think I’m doing well. I receive funding so I do receive a salary, albeit a low one. It took me a long time to get to this position and I’m proud of how my career is progressing.
But my mum simply cannot take my work seriously. She regularly tells me that I don’t have a job and assumes that I am always available to socialise, help her out, etc. I feel as if I constantly have to prove that what I do is worthwhile.
It’s also frustrating because I feel that there is a gendered double standard here. She is vocally proud of both of my brothers’ careers as well as my husband’s and respects their boundaries, without them having to even vocalise them.
Our most recent issue has been that my mum told me that I should be doing most of the housework because my husband has a “real job” that is well paid. I feel this minimises my own work which, while low-paid, is time-intensive and challenging. I often find myself holding in my resentments because I can’t face getting irritated again.
Eleanor says: At a certain point if a loved one isn’t going to give us the approval or recognition we want, the only thing we can do is stop wanting it.
This is a difficult thing to accept. And: training yourself not to want approval doesn’t make it sting any less when we’re reminded we still don’t have it.
But sometimes the reality is our loved ones just cannot comprehend what we need them to. The barriers to understanding are too great, whether because of class, gender, or straightforward generation gaps. They have a vision of how life should be, and a set of concepts they’re used to working with, and those things are not going to shift. (A friend of mine could never manage to persuade her grandmother that her husband’s years-long affair was grounds for a divorce. “I don’t see why it’s that big a problem,” her grandmother would say. In all other respects, they were close.)
This can be especially acute when it comes to employment and “proper” ways to earn a living. Ideas about what counts as work, and who in the household should do it, have been around a lot longer than this tension between you and your mum. Ideas like that die hard.
So there’s a way to see your mum’s views here as an artefact of her own history instead of something you’ve caused. She’s telling you about her, not about you. That way, at least, it might start to feel less like an attack and more like a mistake: she’s just wrong about whether your work is difficult. An error doesn’t have to feel as upsetting, or personal, as an indictment.
Also, when she does say these dismissive things, you could also try a sort of linguistic blocking – just not giving uptake to what she’s saying. Think about how you’d react if an acquaintance said this sort of thing – someone who didn’t know you at all, but who told you things like “you should be the one doing the housework”. It might feel a bit like capitulation to even bother arguing with them. You might instead just share a bemused glance with an onlooker and carry on with your day. Putting effort into getting someone to change their mind about you can indicate to them that you care what they believe. Consequently there’s a kind of power in not trying to change their mind.
You might enjoy being able to access that feeling of power with your mum. Instead of trying to prove to her that you are busy, you would almost literally not hear the suggestion that you’re not. Instead of objecting to the claim that you don’t have a real job, you’d move swiftly on to the next topic; almost feigning not having noticed what she’d said. This kind of blocking can be a way of (silently) indicating that you’re not interested in changing someone’s mind, and that lack of interest can be a way of reclaiming power. Sometimes even more so than having, and winning, an argument.
If the people around us aren’t going to treat us with respect, we can at least insist that what they think of us doesn’t change what we know ourselves to be.
This question has been edited for length
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