I’m proud of my career but my mum simply cannot take my work seriously | Leading questions

Training yourself not to want approval is really difficult, writes advice columnist Eleanor Gordon-Smith, but sometimes it is the only option you have

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


Ask us a question

Do you have a conflict, crossroads or dilemma you need help with? Eleanor Gordon-Smith will help you think through life’s questions and puzzles, big and small. Questions can be anonymous.

  • If you’re having trouble using the form, click here. Read terms of service here


Eleanor Gordon-Smith

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
I’m struggling to maintain friendships with people who have kids. How do I connect?
Staying connected through diverging experiences is difficult, writes advice columnist Eleanor Gordon-Smith, but doing so may future-proof your friendships

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

10, Nov, 2022 @11:55 PM

Article image
I’m experiencing family burn-out. I love my wife and kids, but I feel like I’m being used
You say your attempts to talk about this don’t get far, writes advice columnist Eleanor Gordon-Smith, but the situation won’t change unless you change it

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

24, Nov, 2022 @10:45 PM

Article image
How do I get my husband to accept basic child safety measures, before someone gets hurt?
You shouldn’t treat this like an ordinary parenting dispute, writes advice columnist Eleanor Gordon-Smith. This one involves lives and laws

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

02, Mar, 2023 @2:00 PM

Article image
My in-laws feel we are too rich to need presents. I don’t know how to handle Christmas | Leading questions
Perhaps your relatives are not just responding to perceived levels of wealth but to perceived social class, writes advice columnist Eleanor Gordon-Smith

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

22, Dec, 2022 @2:00 PM

Article image
Leading questions: 'Should I make contact with my father, whom I have never met?'
Ask yourself whether this is a person you want in your life, writes advice columnist Eleanor Gordon-Smith, and be prepared for the possibility of disappointment

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

02, Jul, 2020 @1:32 AM

Article image
My successful only son is miserable to me. Am I wrong to feel unappreciated?
Being a parent plunges you into a sort of unrequited love, writes Eleanor Gordon-Smith, but that doesn’t mean you’re in the wrong

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

12, Nov, 2019 @5:00 PM

Article image
Should I validate my teen daughters’ concerns, or support their father as a co-parent? | Leading questions
This is a common parenting dilemma, writes advice columnist Eleanor Gordon-Smith. Find a way to hear your daughters without turning this into a proxy-fight

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

29, Sep, 2023 @1:57 AM

Article image
I have suppressed hatred for my stepmother. How do I have a relationship with my dad? | Leading Questions
You say this woman set out to hurt your parents’ marriage, writes advice columnist Eleanor Gordon-Smith, but perhaps some of your anger is for your father too

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

09, Sep, 2022 @1:32 AM

Article image
I miscarried, while my best friend had a healthy baby. Is it time to move on from the friendship?
It’s hard to connect if you’re not really seeing each other, writes advice columnist Eleanor Gordon-Smith, and there are only two ways of resolving it

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

16, Feb, 2023 @2:00 PM

Article image
Deathly silence: 'How can I persuade my parents to have a practical conversation about mortality?'
When you talk about death you make it seem real, writes advice columnist Eleanor Gordon-Smith, so find a more gentle way to frame the conversation

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

05, May, 2020 @5:30 PM