My not-quite-elderly parents split a year ago and are starting divorce proceedings. My mother’s spending habits are worrying me. She had a difficult childhood, grew up in poverty but became financially successful in her adult life. She’s enjoyed a privileged lifestyle the past 20 years but has never been particularly extravagant.
Since the split she has been filling her emotional needs by purchasing designer shoes, handbags, renting a townhouse and fitting it out. After helping her with some life admin, at her request, I’m certain that she is living outside her means.
I have a new family, and, combined with the split, it has changed our relationship drastically. We are figuring out a new one, which means I’m unsure of how to broach the subject with her.
Eleanor says: Not long into lockdown I was speaking to a friend – I’ll call her Molly – about how much a mutual friend was drinking. Another friend was agitating for some kind of “quit or lose us” speech, and Molly and I weren’t sure how to feel. We agreed that it seemed like the drinking was a little too fervent, a little too void-filling, but we felt uneasy demanding abstinence. It didn’t exceed 15 drinks a week. It wasn’t causing financial problems. It didn’t interrupt this person’s work or relationships.
Molly said something that I put in my pocket that day. I take it out to rub with my thumb and forefinger when I need to remember it, now and then. She said: “Not all of our coping mechanisms need to be healthy.”
Your mother’s in trouble, if you’re right that she’s living beyond her means. You’re probably right that something needs to be said.
But the reason these things take hold in our minds is that they do, in fact, serve a purpose. Something in us needs to be soothed, and we’ve worked out a ritual for quietening it. Maybe it’s spending, as it is for your mother – or having precisely two glasses of wine, as it is for my friend.
Some of us have less visible, more socially forgivable compulsions: we eat dessert with a little too much relish, or we check our phones for five hours a day, paying not with money but with our one truly unreplenishable resource: time. In one form or another, we all have rituals of indulgence that calm something we don’t otherwise know how to calm.
So the question isn’t how to get her to stop. It’s to understand what this behaviour soothes, and how she can retain the part that serves that purpose.
It’s not hard to imagine why your mother might want a little lever to pull that reliably makes her feel good. She’s newly unmarried. She’s newly a grandmother, a mother to a parent. She has to rearrange the anchoring identities that hold down her sense of self: wife, mother, woman.
It makes complete sense that she’d want to make herself feel powerful, independent, beautiful – surrounded by things that are hers. Perhaps she is shaping her physical world and presentation to look the way she might most need to feel right now: beautiful and deliberate.
Though it may seem awkward, it might just help to ask how she’s feeling. See if there are ways you can help her feel what she needs to, so she doesn’t need to get it all from a handbag.
And if you decide to talk to her directly about the money, the message doesn’t need to be: “I want you to stop spending and I know you’re out of control.” The last thing you want is for her to associate what she’s already bought with failure or shame. That will only worsen the feelings that the spending tried to help. The message can just be: “What you are and what you own is already enough.”
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