Virginia Ironside's dilemmas: My son doesn't want my help any more

"He probably genuinely wants to be caring towards his old mum, and imagines that your offering to help him move is some kind of penance"

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The Independent Online

Dear Virginia,

For weeks now, my son and I have been planning his move to a new flat. We’ve had a lot of fun together, and the plan was that I would help him move. We are very close and I know he wanted me to help. But I’ve had to have some quite serious unexpected surgery, and suddenly my son said I shouldn’t help him move, but should ‘stay at home and take care of myself’. Though I’m still a bit weak, there’s no medical reason why I shouldn’t help. I find myself childishly distressed about it and getting really depressed. I’d been so looking forward to it all.

Yours sincerely, Perri

Virginia says...

I know that the expressions “look after yourself” and “take care” are meant to be kind, but I can never hear them without feeling a twinge of resentment. I always hear what I feel is left unsaid: “Look after yourself, because I’m certainly not going to”, or “Take care, because no one else will take care of you, that’s for certain”.

“Look after yourself” – isn’t everyone left, after hearing those words, not with a warm glow of being loved but, instead, with a sense of loneliness and isolation?

And increasingly I feel the expression is often used to keep one away. Mention to anyone that you think you’ve got a cold coming on, and they immediately beg you not to come to their birthday party or have lunch but to “stay at home and look after yourself”. The subtext here is that you’re some kind of leper, and no one wants to catch anything from you.

Now, in your case things are rather different. I can understand where your son’s coming from. He probably genuinely wants to be caring towards his old mum, and imagines that your offering to help him move is some kind of penance. Many people don’t understand that giving help to a child or friend is actually a treat for many of us, and to be deprived of the capacity to nurture is actually like a rejection. They don’t understand, either, that to have our offers of help rejected leaves us feeling powerless and diminished.

Many’s the time when, after an illness or an op or even a sleepless night, I’ve geared myself up to do something I really didn’t feel like doing, physically, at all, simply because I know that the mental strength I’ll get from having done it is actually healing in itself. Exhausting as it might be, I feel better in every way – physically and mentally – after achieving something than I would if I had spent the time lying in bed eating chicken soup.

This is often very difficult for other people to understand. Your son probably feels that, by insisting you stay at home, he’s nurturing you in some way. And perhaps also he doesn’t want to be constantly offering you a chair after you’ve lugged a table into his kitchen.

But if it’s not too late I’d explain your feelings to him. Don’t say how disappointed you are but simply say it would make you feel better to come and help. Say you’ll only stay an hour or so (you can extend this if you want) but that you really want just to be there for a tiny part of it. Explain that it would make you feel better, not worse, that he’d be doing you a favour by letting you pop over.

Any resistance and you’ll have to back down at once, of course, or you’ll be accused of being manipulative. But if he understands, you might be able to share part of the fun even if you don’t contribute quite in the way you would have wished.

Readers say...

It’s time to let him go

Count your blessings, Perri. Your son is a young man who is looking forward to an independent life, and yet is still looking after your welfare. You have had a lot of fun planning this move. Well, now let him go. Perhaps he wants to tackle this final stage all by himself. How lucky you are – plenty of women would love to be in your shoes, with a confident, caring son. Your surgery has probably affected you more than you realise: perhaps that is why you are feeling low. Sit on the sofa, go online and choose him a really nice house-warming present. Put together a hamper of goodies to be delivered on the evening he moves in. Plan a nice home-cooked dinner for the first evening he visits from his new flat. Your son sounds lovely – don’t sour things by being too possessive now.

Ros, by email

You need to give him space

Thank goodness one of you is thinking straight – and that person is your son. Your description of “serious unexpected surgery” and “feeling weak” should tell you that your son has recognised that the strain of moving into a flat (or a house, as I have just done) is probably a step too far for you in your recuperation phase. It is hard for parents to recognise their own limitations when faced with the boundless energy of their kids – I feel that often, when the desire to help almost overcomes the reality of being older. Clearly, the disappointment is shared, but if he cannot manage alone I am sure he has a friend or two to help. I have no doubt also that you will be among the first to be invited round for a house-warming cup of tea. Take him a few beers and some flowers to brighten up the place. He will be much happier knowing that you are farther down the road to recovery than watching you carry boxes and stuff around. Help him the best way you can by taking a step back.

Matthew, by email

He’s showing his independence

Perri, do you think it’s possible your son is trying to encourage you to let him manage this move on his own? It sounds like a great relationship, and if you’re close, the last thing he would want to do is hurt your feelings. Don’t be distressed. He’s demonstrating the maturity and confidence that you have given him. Let him exercise his independence and look forward to visiting the flat and taking pride in his achievements. 

Ruth Liss, by email

Next week's dilemma

I employed an old friend on a freelance basis for some creative work in my small consulting business. I was able to secure some interesting contracts, which we worked on together happily for three years. Our fees were fixed in advance – not much, but it was interesting work. Then suddenly it became clear she thought I was exploiting her in some way and she left. I’ve emailed and written to her but she has pretty much cut me dead. My children miss someone they loved. And I miss a friendship that lasted more than 40 years. Is this the end of the road or is there something else I can do? 

Yours sincerely, Jean

What would you advise Jean to do?  Write to Anyone whose advice is quoted or whose dilemma is published will receive a box of Belgian Chocolates from