DEAR MISS MANNERS: Mom is a professional complainer. It is not that nothing is ever good enough; that would be easy. Everything is unbearably horrible, and she is going to let you know all about it -- for hours at a time -- and continue to bring it up for years.
If I cook for her during visits, the food is inedible, and we are too cheap to take her out. (I am a professional pastry chef. I know how to cook.) If we take her out, we can’t choose a decent restaurant and are too lazy to cook. She is deeply offended, and the whole restaurant knows it.
Every gift we buy her is the stupidest thing she has ever seen, and we should have given her cash. But if we do give her cash, it’s never enough. We owe her more. We once gave her a vacation to a place that is all about her main interest, and spent way more money on it than we could comfortably afford. She hated it, and reminds me of that fact every gift-giving occasion.
But still, she had better have more gifts than the kids do, or else! We obviously do not care about her at all, she says, and on and on. She ruins every special occasion and family gathering, and makes a nervous mess of everyone with her ranting. She has a nasty temper.
We all want to tell her to just stay home, but she is getting up there in years, and is not in great health. Guilt keeps us coming back for more abuse. Can this situation be better managed, or do we all need to try to ignore it?
GENTLE READER: Being an active sort, Miss Manners likes to fix problems. But she acknowledges that some situations cannot be fixed; they can only be, as you say, managed.
What is to be done after you have exhausted hope of correcting a relative’s ongoing bad behavior, but before you conclude that the behavior is intolerable -- and that therefore, the relationship must be severed?
You must do what you can to mitigate the damage to others. You may be adult enough to ignore your mother’s outbursts, but it will be harder for young children. Perhaps they can be away on a playdate for some occasions. Avoid restaurant entertaining as a way of protecting your own good name, if not your mother’s.
As you are not going to please her -- with gifts or menus -- make choices that satisfy your own standards, and let that suffice. Guilt is not only counterproductive: It, sadly, fuels the bad behavior.