Cover Photo: Tallulah Pomeroy
Tallulah Pomeroy

How to Set Boundaries with a Trumpish, Toxic Mother

“Love is not contingent on taking abuse.”

Welcome to End It Now?, a narrative advice column. In each installment, Alissa Nutting and Dean Bakopoulos will address a question from a reader who is thinking about quitting something:

Dear Alissa and Dean,

My mother and I have always had a rocky relationship, but about two years ago, when her marriage with my father began to crumble, I became her shoulder to cry on, her confidante. In this role, she consistently crosses boundaries. I’ve heard many things I’ve never wanted to know, about her and my dad’s sex life and about her sex life post-divorce. I’ve heard her call my father nasty names and accuse him of things I cannot imagine to be true.

I tried to set boundaries, softly at first and more firmly as time went on. When that didn’t work, I stopped taking her calls or responding to her emails and texts. One night she called to tell me that she “might” have cancer, but asked me not to tell anyone. Guilt immediately set in. I decided I could handle one conversation a week. Now, if I don’t pick up the phone, she leaves voicemails like: “I might have cancer and you’re seriously too busy to talk to me?” Or: “You know, one of these days I’m going to be calling you about an emergency and you’re not going to answer and how’s that going to make you feel?” I’m at the point where I dread phone calls with her. So many people have told me to cut her out of my life, but how can I do that to my own mother? I don’t want to be cold and heartless, but this kind of thing affects my physical health, my mental health, and my ability to socialize appropriately. Am I being selfish?


Ungrateful Brat?


I am not a brat. I am not ungrateful. My mother is being abusive.

I’ll stop hurting youYou shouldn’t hurt.

The Verdict:

Alissa Nutting is author of novels Tampa (Ecco/HarperCollins) and the forthcoming Made for Love (Ecco/HarperCollins). Her writing has appeared in Tin House, Fence, BOMB, Elle, The New York Times, Conduit, and O: The Oprah Magazine, as well as the fairy tale anthology My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me.  

Dean Bakopoulos’s Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon was a New York Times Notable Book. His second novel, My American Unhappiness, was named one of the year’s best novels by The Chicago Tribune, and his latest novel, Summerlong made the independent bookstore bestseller list.