Mothering Sunday is always a celebration of flowers and chocolate as well as a time to be thankful for our own children and to treat or remember our mums. For many of us, it is also when we are exposed to, or vividly recall, the intensely frustrating phenomenon of mumsplaining.
Just in case you’ve never encountered this, mumsplaining happens when your mum adopts the position of knowing better than you about an issue where you’re an expert. This happens a lot in relation to childcare. You may have been told by your health visitor to breastfeed on demand, but mum is convinced ‘you’ll make a rod for your own back’ unless you adopt a rigid feeding regime. Or she explains what she’s heard about quantitative easing on a radio phone-in when you’re a government adviser on finance.
Sometimes this can be accepted as an amusing little quirk of your mum’s, but there are also occasions when you might feel very hurt. This is often the case when, for instance, you’re hoping to share some good news – such as getting a new job – and, instead of celebrating, you’re mumsplained about why getting it was a bad idea.
Another time when mumsplaining can be hurtful is when you’re trying to describe something that upsets you and you find that what you’re saying becomes all about your mum, how your problem affects her or how she suffered from something similar. What makes it even more difficult can be when you try to explain to your mum that you feel hurt by what she’s said but she then becomes hurt and upset, so nothing changes.
It’s unlikely that your mum consciously intends to upset you, but that doesn’t really help - indeed, that often makes us feel much worse, as though we’re mean for hoping we’ll get support rather than a mumsplain. It’s helpful if you can step back from the situation and try to look at it objectively, experimenting with different ways to approach your mum or noticing what sort of things bring on a mumsplain.
It’s very possible that the mumsplain comes from a childlike part of your mum, a part which has unresolved issues and hurts which probably date back to the relationship with her own mother, and which sometimes surface and run amok. Your mother child relationship may be the very trigger for those hurt feelings to be released. Since this is almost certainly an entirely unconscious process, there is no use waiting for her to change. However, you can change your reactions which, in turn, may change her responses to you.
The most important potential change is not to let yourself be triggered by your mother’s childish or thoughtless behaviour. Even when you feel she is being very unfair, it’s important to respond from an adult place and to keep doing so. Becoming angry or lashing out will probably only provide more triggers which keep your mum in touch with her inner scared child rather than able to access her more rational adult self.
Do feel you can tell her if she’s being hurtful; however, doing so angrily is less likely to be taken seriously than if you remain calm and are able to show your vulnerability, something mumsplainers often find difficult. If she dismisses your feelings or acts upset herself, say you’re sorry she doesn’t understand and that you know she loves you, as you do her, but you really do feel hurt. Being clear about exactly what was hurtful is important as, otherwise, she may attribute your feelings to something else.
If none of this works, it may be worth considering counselling. Family counsellors will see you and your mum together or you could just attend on your own – at least initially - to work on managing your own reactions. Hopefully, you’ll find ways to experience the mumsplaining without feeling so hurt, so that you can enjoy every moment of your relationship.
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About Cate Campbell
Cate Campbell is a counsellor specialising in relationships and psychosexual therapy.