The Cat Card

When you begin to feel sympathy for Norman Bates, you know it’s time to rethink your relationship with your mother.

My mother, older sister to two male siblings, was a born caretaker. She married my father at nineteen and proceeded to have four children with him. I was the youngest. I almost wasn’t the youngest, as she wanted at least one more child. But my dad got testicular cancer after I was born, and that was the end of the baby-making. My father was an alcoholic. A binge drinker. Along with the bingeing, came raging and violence. He never hit my mother, that I recall. But he was physically abusive with my brothers. And later, when I was the only one left at home, he beat me on occasion. My mother used her children as a buffer.

Both my brothers would grow up to be severely alcoholic. My oldest brother died from cirrhosis in 2012. He was 56. My other brother, the second youngest child, died from AML (a type of leukemia) in 2013. He was 52. To my thinking, his death too was the result of alcoholism: the alcoholism caused mouth cancer and the chemo for the mouth cancer caused the AML. My father died in October 2012 at 83, six months after my oldest brother and five months before my younger brother. In the last years of his life, my father was in the later stages of dementia and needed constant supervision and assistance with the tasks of daily living. My mother took care of him, like she took care of my brothers after their wives divorced them. To say she relished the dependency of my father and brothers brought on by alcoholism and illness is not an overstatement.

I did my best to escape the dysfunction. I refused to work at the family business and instead went to law school. In 2000, I moved to a city 165 miles away. My mother didn’t bother with me much during those years. She got her fix from my father and brothers. And now they’re dead.

These days, instead of being the caretaker, my mother has flipped to being the dependent. She frankly admits she’s made this decision and she believes, at 78, it is her due.

“I don’t want to take care of myself. I don’t want to deal with anything. I want you to do it. I took care of everyone else for years. Now you need to take care of me.”

After a stint in the hospital and inpatient physical rehabilitation to recover from a blood clot in her leg (DVT), my sister and I moved my mother into assisted living last July. Now, she’s doing well and is ambulatory with a walker, just as she was before the DVT. Until a month ago, in addition to the AL staff, my mother had a caregiver. Because my mom is physically capable of doing most things for herself, essentially she was using her dwindling savings to pay someone to keep her company and do the things she believes she is entitled to have done for her. But the caregiver got fed up with my mother’s demands and quit. My sister and I thought this was good news as it would force my mom to be more independent. Instead, she’s now attempting to substitute me for her caregiver.

Her latest demand came on Friday when, between the hours of 2:00 and 3:00 p.m., my mother called me sixteen times. She alternated between my cell phone and my office phone, leaving nearly a dozen messages, never once telling me why she was calling. She merely stated, in an increasingly pitiful voice, that she needed to talk to me and demanded that I call her back immediately. In an attempt to enforce a boundary (no unnecessary phone calls during the work day), I did not call her back. But when her calls and messages did not stop, I ultimately relented. After all, what if something really was wrong? (In retrospect, I know this was stupid. If something was really wrong, the AL staff would have been calling me.)

What do you need, mom?

I’ve been trying to reach you all afternoon and you didn’t call me back.

Mom, I’m at work. I’m working. You cannot call me over and over during the work day. What do you need?

There’s something wrong with the cat. He’s sleeping all day.

Mom, he’s a cat. That’s what they do during the day. They sleep.

He’s licking himself a lot. And he’s shedding.

Mom, he’s a cat. He’s grooming himself. He’s shedding because it’s summer and it’s 80 degrees in your apartment. Brush him.

I have brushed him. There’s something wrong with him. He’s shedding more than normal. His hair is breaking off. You need to come down here and take him to the vet.

Mom, I am not driving six hours round trip to take the cat to the vet.

You can come tomorrow. Tomorrow is Saturday.

Mom, I am not driving to Houston to take your cat to the vet. I have to come next weekend for the engagement party. I’m not coming this weekend. I have things to do. Jenny (who works for my father’s business) might be willing to take him next week during working hours. Check with her.

She doesn’t know anything about cats. You need to do it. I can’t believe you won’t come down here for the cat. There’s something wrong with him.

And so it went, round and round. I hung up with my mother and called Jenny. Jenny had been to see my mother earlier in the day to get her to sign some tax documents. My mother never mentioned any issues with the cat to her, and Jenny said when she gave him some pets, he seemed fine. Jenny and I came up with a plan that we would call my mother’s bluff: Jenny would tell her she’d take the cat to the vet on Saturday if she thought it was a dire emergency, and if not, she would take the cat during the work week. Surely my mother would not impose upon Jenny on a Saturday. On me, yes. But not on Jenny.

So much for calling her bluff, Jenny said. I’m taking him to the vet tomorrow at 11:00. The vet didn’t have an opening, but your mom convinced them to fit him in.

The cat, of course, turned out to be fine. They updated his shots and cleaned some tartar from his teeth. They thought he might have a skin allergy, so they gave him an injection and medication to put in his food. As for the shedding, it’s summer in Texas.

And here I am, incredibly pissed off at my mother. I’m fed up with her incessant and repeated phone calls. The woman calls over and over and over, demanding in her voice mails that I immediately call her back. And when I do call her back, it often goes like this:

I’m lonely. I need you to talk to me.

Get our of your room. Visit with your friends.

No one’s around. They’re all with family. I’m the only one who doesn’t have family who visits.

Mom, there has to be someone else who, like you, would love some company.

I have diarrhea and can’t leave my room. Tell me you love me.

I love you, mom.

Will you call me again later? Just call and talk to me for five minutes.

Mom, I have things to do. And I need some down time.

You can spare five minutes. Call me back later.


sick catI know. I know. I’ll miss her when she’s gone. I should be happy she’s still with me. I should take care of her and be grateful to have this time with her. But the honest truth is, I don’t want to deal with her emotional dependency issues. I don’t want to deal with her manipulations. She played the Cat Card, for fuck’s sake. The Cat Card! She’s sneaky and conniving and demanding. And this is not an old-person thing. This is a co-dependent-mother thing. The old-person thing gives her more ammunition to get what she wants. What she firmly believes she is entitled to. What she has always believed she is entitled to from her children: unquestioned acquiescence to her demands. My brothers did as she demanded. Always. After all, not only was she their mother, she was their employer. But she is not my employer, and I am not willing to do the co-dependent dance with her.

The trouble is, with an elderly parent, where do you draw the line? How do you know when there truly is a problem you, as the adult child, need to help out with, and when it’s okay to say no? How do you know when you really do need to call her back, and when she’s simply demanding to speak with you because she’s bored?

How do you know when the cat’s life is at stake, and when your mother is merely playing the Cat Card?


  • Hard to tell what is when the case, but I think it was a good move of you to let Jenny pick up the cat. And next time she calls and makes some fake alarm – tell her a little story of a shepherd boy and wolves … She can play this card only as long as you answer. After another false alarm she might face you not answering anymore. She better be prepared.


    • Fran, I’m not going to take her calls when I’m at work any more. If there is a true emergency, AL staff will call me. She’s out of control, wanting what she wants when she wants it, regardless of the circumstances. She’s demanding and unreasonable. I escaped it for many years, and now it’s time to reestablish firm boundaries. I’m a bit out of practice and fall for guilt-tripping and manipulation. She’s done it so long she doesn’t even realize she’s doing it. So it’s up to me to draw the line. And I will. Dammit. 😉


  • I can relate. Both my parents are very difficult to deal with but in different ways. My mom really had nothing to do with me when I was growing up…no much of a mother to any of us (3 girls) and now that she’s older she needs someone to look after her if she ever has to go into a home. Quote from her. Like she even deserves that, but she expects it just b/c she gave birth to us. I’m suppose to go visit her in a few months and I am dreading it thinking of ways of how to get out of it. It sounds horrible, but I never felt any connection to her and went years not speaking to her. All three of us have. So I get the guilt and for me anger b/c I’m being manipulated and I think “why do I feel guilty?” She sure didn’t feel guilty when I was young and she’d leave me alone to go do whatever the hell she felt like. Oh well, I’m babbling…but I get the dealing with the elderly parent. And the non-stop calling if I don’t answer my phone…it’s madding!


    • I am sorry you can relate, Michelle. This does not appear to be an uncommon phenomenon. I think the guilt comes from the notion that good children care for their parents when they get old, as they cared for us. But this presumes our parents did care for us; that they weren’t neglectful or abusive. I think every situation is different, and we each have a unique decision to make when it comes to what degree (if any) we care for our elderly parents. As for excuses, there are lots of good excuses to get out of a family visit. I know, I googled it recently. But the most powerful way to get out of going is to just say no. I have yet to master that approach. I have no idea how to stop the non-stop calling. When I ask her nicely to stop, she ignores me. When I tell her forcefully (i.e., like an angry asshole), she stops. For a time. Until she starts the cycle all over again.


  • Setting boundaries in any relationship is a good thing and as you say, the staff will alert you to any real concerns. good luck


  • Oh, the guilt of it all! We women take on so much self-imposed guilt for not living up to the expectations other’s have for us. That is my problem in my marraige. I find the serenity prayer is succinct in helping me follow what is best FOR ME. At the end I add “Do no harm.”

    “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change things that I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

    I always love your writing because it shows me strength in adversity. You are courageous and smart. Be true to yourself and your mom will be alright AND you will know, in the end, you did the right thing.



    • Thank you, Fern. Finding that wisdom, knowing the difference, is the tricky part. Sometimes when she pushes my buttons, I just react, shut down, and want nothing to do with her or the other pieces of my family that remain. I keep trying to sort out whether no/minimal contact is the best thing for me, or whether I should work on just letting it (all the years of abusive crap) go and trying to hold on to what’s left. Some days, I just want to run away from all of it.


  • I am really proud of you for standing up to abusers! I come from an abusive family as well and the cat in my gravatar is my cat! He was my fathers but he made him 16 pounds! The only solution was to take him into my house to be saved. Now he is on a healthy diet. Cant you take the cat from that abusive enviroment so that he wont be used as a pawn to control you?


    • What a handsome cat you saved. Eventually, I likely will be taking my mom’s cat, but not just yet. (Really my dad’s cat, but he died two years ago.) Even though she used him to get me to come running, she does take good care of the cat. But he is too fat. The vet told her how much to feed him, and she seems to understand and be complying with the feeding protocol. If it wasn’t the cat, she’d dream up something else to create drama. I will keep a close eye on how he’s doing and intervene if necessary. Thanks for stopping by. I found some really interesting insights over on your blog.

      Liked by 1 person

  • If I were in your situation, I think I would be honest with my mother. Something like “Mom, you know I’m here for you. I will help you as best I can given our distance and circumstance. However, I have a job, and a life. I need you to respect that” Easier said than done I’m sure. Mothers have a way of making us feel guilty for things even when they’re out of our control. Mine still does and she’s been gone almost 4 years…. Good luck to you


    • This is excellent advice, and likely would work with a normal person. 😉 I’ve tried reason and logic with my mother, neither of which she finds persuasive. The only thing that seems to get through to her is when I’m a reactive asshole. And then I’m not happy with myself. One bright spot: since I am childfree, I won’t be doomed to visit the guilt upon children of my own.


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