I have a question for you! What do you think one’s moral obligations are to an ailing parent who parented very poorly?
I had what seems to me to have been a very rough childhood. My parents divorced when I was four and my mom pretty much neglected me. She stayed out all night and left me at home alone without food frequently. She drank too much. When she was home she was asleep or drunk. Several times we had to move because she bought clothes and shoes rather than paying for the rent. We moved many times to avoid creditors or to follow a man. She moved me to my grandmother’s house when she couldn’t afford the rent and gave my cat away while I was visiting my dad.
By the time I was a teen, she decided to blame everything on me. I left as soon as I could and moved out on my own my senior year in high school. We had moved to California when I was a junior and she wanted me to move back to Texas during my senior year when her last relationship failed. I moved out and she moved back to Texas.
Since I have been an adult, she has neglected her own mother and let her die all while drunk. She spent her parents’ money and practically danced on their graves. When I was 19, my grandmother asked me if I wanted the money or the house after she died, and I told her I didn’t want her to die, so my grandmother didn’t change her will and it all went to my mom. My mom spent the money on a cruise to Hawaii, then let the house go to shit. They put a lien on the house because she didn’t pay the bill for the flowers at my grandmother’s funeral. She lived there until she went to rehab and couldn’t go back because she couldn’t pay to get the electricity and water turned back on.
In 2000, I struck a deal with her to let my husband, kids and I live here if we got the utilities back on and worked on paying the back and present taxes. After a year or so, she decided I needed to buy the house or move. I bought the house for 75,000 of which she pocketed 45,000 after the fees and liens, etc. had been paid. I advised her to pay off her car (which she had obtained by making my 75 year old uncle cosign for) and find a cheap place to live. She did not heed my advice and instead she bought a house more expensive than mine, and filled it with thousands of dollars of furniture and bought two full size poodles to complete the picture. (Oh my this is getting too long…sorry.)
I got a 30 year loan on a house that probably should have been mine, and she got her car and house repossessed in short order. She ended up getting an infection from a knee replacement, very well made sure her wound wouldn’t heal (I am not making this up…nurses told me they suspected Munchousen’s syndrome) and had an amputation on her left leg right below the knee.
Then everything began to go her way. She received long term disability from her job, then social security and Medicaid and reduced-cost housing and everything else she could get. Her apartment is lovely, she has a provider and gets student loans she will never pay back and lives a nice life. Her amputation was the beat thing that ever happened to her.
Wow. I sound bitter. Anyway, since I have been an adult, she has aligned herself with my abusive ex and fed him information while encouraging me to trust her. She was angry that I told the n
Social workers at the hospital that she had a drinking problem and could not care for her mother so she told Children’s Protective Services that my husband sexually molested his daughter in plain sight in front of everyone. We were investigated and cleared after my step-daughter had an intrusive medical exam.
If you need more examples, I am not close to being done but I will spare you more details unless you ask for them.
I have a lame psych degree and I really think my mom has Narcissistic Personality Disorder and I don’t think she cares about anyone but herself. There are times I have removed myself from her life because I had enough to deal with without her insanity. I did that about a month ago. But her neighbor called me yesterday and said she had gone to the ER and I have been there for several hours over the last two days. I feel like I need to protect myself from her toxicity but I also feel responsible as her only child and only living relative that does not hate her.
What are my moral responsibilities to her? Should I treat her like a child would a normal parent? I love her but she has hurt me every chance she has had and she is passive-aggressive and unappreciative and she tries to make me feel obligated to do for her and there is no pleasing her. If I don’t go the extra mile, should I feel guilty? Am I a bad person? She can be nice and we get along sometimes but there are always strings attached and underlying tension and hate from her.
What say you, Dan?
Why do we have special obligations to family members? I am inclined to think that it is because society as a whole inevitably cannot meet all the needs of every individual when they hit turbulent times as efficiently as smaller networks of people assigned to one another can. And so social institutions built around kinship serve this role of giving a great majority of people a relatively small set of people with whom they have shared special obligations and to whom it is morally accepted that they show some degree of socially tolerable favoritism. And this is reasonable given that, at least in parent-child relationships, there seem to be great natural psychological propensities towards love here, in most cases.
And since everyone owes their very lives to their parents’ genetic contributions and since most people grow up receiving immense amounts of care from their parents, especially during the early years in life when they are the most utterly dependent on others’ care, a very good case can be made that there is an enormous debt in terms of labor and money that most people owe their parents. We owe them our existence at a minimum, and we owe their contributions to our survival, our physical, emotional, and mental development, etc. We can never fully pay back this debt directly to our parents. It is the nature of things that most people wind up returning the favor of their parents’ care for them by “paying it forward” to the next generation. And one imagines that the care they give their own parents is comparable to the care they receive from their own children.
So, in this picture, what do you owe a terrible parent? What do you owe your mother, Julie? Were we not talking about your mother, the question would be open and shut. Anyone you do not have some special, overriding obligations to, who exploits and manipulates you and causes you emotional pain and tries to sabotage your life as badly as your mother has is someone you should feel no compunction about cutting out of your life. Anyone you don’t have overriding obligations to who behaves like this is someone you should feel no guilt about leaving behind. And even if you do have obligations to her, they are, at this point, formal ones, as far as I am concerned.
What I mean by this is that any obligations you might have are due to a respect for the value of having the institution of family as one where even the rottenest people are theoretically to be afforded some allies, or due to a respect for the fact that, neglectful as your mother was overall, she still invested some minimal modicums of care such that you were able to grow up and have a life and family of your own. These sorts of bare bones abstract considerations are alone what should tether you to her, if anything should.
But it is important to recognize that whatever your formal obligations might be to her in the abstract, when she engaged in outright malevolent, destructive behavior like trying to destroy your husband’s life with false, criminal accusations, you are pretty much absolved of any obligations to keep her in your life in any manner whatsoever. And I think that abusive, neglectful, and otherwise counter-productive parenting that harms children precisely where they are requiring care can make it so that the debt that might normally accumulate is simply not there. If parents did not give the care that normally incurs the debt, but instead fail to give the children what the children are minimally owed, then it is the parents who owe the children when all is said and done. And even people that on net we owe, say parents who overall did greater good than evil by us, should not be able to trap us on that technicality into being subject to exploitation or abuse. And even what you might owe her, we might reasonably, as I mentioned earlier, be considered “paid forward” to your own children and what she is owed from her children as a mother is little if the standard is what she paid to her own mother, on your accounting.
So only if you feel completely safe associating with her and can trust that in her current situation she has few realistic means of maliciously trying to injure your interests, should you even consider paying back whatever vestiges of debt you could reasonably consider yourself to have towards her as some one who at least raised you, however negligently, and towards whom you have at least a formal institutional connection to as a daughter.
As an unaffectionate, neglectful person who only took care of your basic needs (and sometimes only did so barely) when you utterly depended on her, and who owes you much more by way of nurturance than she will ever pay you, and who did not even return the debt she owed her own mother, you cannot conceivably owe her much more of a debt than to make sure that she does not fall completely through the cracks of the social and medical system as far as her basic needs are concerned. You may not even owe her that much morally. But just for the sake of erring on the side of moral scrupulousness, let’s assume you owe her something. Even then you certainly do not owe her any assistance that puts you at risk in any way or demands sacrifices from you in any way.
You do not owe her a full time commitment to be by her bedside and to assuage her every whim so that her stay in the hospital is as comfortable as possible. You do not need to put your life on hold or to put her needs over those of yourself, your children, your husband, your friends, or other family members.
There is nothing wrong or ungrateful about you if you do not feel much affection or sympathy towards her or if you deny her companionship. She has not been the source of love that you have needed and deserved. As someone who has been emotionally draining and a source of tension, hate, irrational guilt, and any number of other likely psychological anxieties and insecurities for you, it is not only perfectly understandable but arguably much more rational if you do not feel strong feelings of love for her. To the extent that your emotions are in your control I advise you not to actively cultivate feelings of affection and attachment to her but to free yourself emotionally from her as much as is possible.
But this may be difficult for you since she is your mother. You shouldn’t feel guilt for not going the extra mile for her in caring for her but you may feel strongly inclined to do so anyway. If you wind up, because of these feelings, going beyond the minimum and taking care of her in more gracious and sacrificial ways that she does not deserve, do these things for your sake rather than hers. Do them so that your conscience, even the irrational or self-doubting part of it, is completely at ease and even feels vindicated and proud, rather than uncertain. While it would be more rational to adjust your conscience so that it does not feel guilty over not investing in a destructive person, the second best thing is to be able to stamp out all potential for guilt by saying, “I did everything that could have been demanded of me even were my mother a good one and not a malignant influence in my life.”
If that makes it a bit easier to stave off the guilt than to have to remind yourself against irrational self-doubt why you didn’t owe your mother much, then for your own future emotional ease, it may be worth it to you to give her a bit more than she deserves in the meantime. If she does not have long to live, you can see this as one final ordeal to endure so that when she is gone you can have a clean conscience.
But if you go down this path, beware that there is another psychological risk. The more you do for her and yet recognize that she never reciprocates with genuine appreciation or no-strings-attached affection, the more that you might feel rejected in a painful way. On the one hand it is comforting to be able to say, “I did everything right and then some more, so it’s not my fault that she never reciprocated” and sleep nights with a clean conscience. But unfortunately, it might hurt you all the more if you crave your mother’s approval, affection, and nurturance if you say to yourself “I did everything right and yet still couldn’t get her to be proud of me and desire me for my own sake rather than for what she could use me for.” This is what is so destructive about her inability to love the people who are psychologically the most prone to get trapped craving her love. You have to look out for yourself and knowing your own mind think through which you are more likely to think and which thought will give you more suffering day by day and in the future when she is gone.
If time with her is only going to disappoint you more and more the more that it remains unfulfilling then it could be more emotionally damaging than it is worth in benefits to you. And in that case you have to cut her off. Or at least, if you cannot bring yourself to do that and you must keep visiting her, you should, without any compunction, walk out and go home with a brief, firm, civil explanation every time she introduces tension, hostility, and manipulation into your relationship by criticizing you, demanding of you, and passively aggressively poisoning your interactions. She needs to be trained to understand that the only terms on which you will spend time with her (if at all) will be ones where she does not try to get her claws into you to try to hurt you. You need to show her over and over again if necessary that you will simply not be manipulated. You will give her what you judge she deserves and if she does not like it she will get nothing at all.
The hard truth is that the only emotional solace you can reasonably hope to get from investing more energy into her at this point is the removal of any nagging doubts that you didn’t fulfill all of your obligations. Putting more work into her at this point can only prove to yourself that you are morally responsible even when you have cause to feel morally absolved beyond a shadow of a doubt and so you have no cause for guilt. But if you are inclined to put more work into her out of hopes that finally she is going to love you properly, then you are going to be disappointed and I do not think you should waste the effort. Probably the best you can accomplish is to merely train her to treat you formally with more respect by consistently refusing to be around her soon as she disrespects you. You still have the hard task in life of coming to terms with the fact that she is never going to be the mother you deserved. So, don’t do this expecting her to finally be a different person capable of caring about you.
In sum, I think that family, especially parents and children, have more obligations to one another than we would have towards others. With anyone else, unless they have some other extraordinary basis for obligating us, we can cut them off far more swiftly and thoroughly for mistreating us. With family we often accumulate greater debts and interconnections to one another and the family is culturally set up to be a valuable formal social relationship that serves a greater good to maintain as reliable and trustworthy in general, even when it hurts us somewhat individually. But when family, even parents or children, actively and maliciously try to hurt us and fail in their own obligations willfully and unrepentantly, we can feel absolved from obligations to them and even consider them to owe us more than we owe them. If we still want to honor the existence of abstract debts and to do our part to uphold the general institution of the family, and take care of a family member whom we have rights to abandon, we should only do so on terms we define and control in ways that put ourselves at no risk of emotional abuse or other harms and in ways that do not sacrifice our own flourishing or those of others to whom we have duties.
Anything more we opt to do should be for the sake of warding off even more damaging irrational guilt that we may not otherwise be able to shake emotionally. In other words, we should take care of them, if at all, only to assure that our own consciences feel no doubt so that we can move on without second guessing and take satisfaction in ourselves as at least done all we could. Feeling outright blameless, having been extra morally careful, can be an insurance policy against those who would exploit our scrupulous feelings irrationally and for making sure that any negative or missing positive emotions we have to suffer from the ungrateful are absolutely not our fault. But we have to be careful in what we do not to invest any of our energies with a false expectation that an unloving person will finally love us. If that is what motivates us, then we need to start preparing to move on from that unfairly disappointed dream.
This was an installment in my Friday’s Philosophical Advice column. I am an American Philosophical Practitioners Association certified philosophical practitioner and I have a PhD in Philosophy from Fordham University. If you have a problem you think I can help with write to me at camelswithhammers at gmail dot com with the subject line “Philosophical Advice” and if I feel comfortable advising you and can get to it I will answer it here on the blog. All identities of those writing in for advice are kept strictly confidential. I use pseudonyms for all the letter writers when writing about them on the blog.
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