Should I Cut Off My Mom For Not Respecting My Pronouns? Can I Afford To?

A reader inquires about navigating parental boundaries while dealing with cancer

intravenous iv drip

Question to Dr Timaree:

This isn’t exactly a sex question but I’m in need of perspective. So, here’s the situation: I’m 32, non-binary and just started chemotherapy for breast cancer. Surgery will be in a few months. The prognosis is good but it’s going to be a lot. I’m single and live by myself and so I will be leaning hard on my family through this process. We get along OK, but my mom can be controlling and refuses to get my pronouns right. She’s done a lot for me and my siblings, but she thinks that means we should live our lives to her expectations. She thinks everything we do is a reflection on her.  When I came out to her as bi in college, she took that personally, but eventually decided it was fine because I still “could end up with a man.” She’s in denial that I’m trans, and we constantly have the conversation that my pronouns are they/them and for her to not to refer to me as a girl or woman. Basically, I’m wondering how to get through these next few months. Should I just grin and bear it since she’ll be helping me? Should I issue an ultimatum and be prepared to get through this alone? 

Criminy. That’s a whole lot! Not only are you grappling with a serious health issue, but your purported caretaker is disrespecting you on a very foundational level. 

First, let’s be explicitly clear that it’s absolutely vital to respect people’s identities. It’s also basement-level politeness to refer to someone by their name and pronouns and not whatever the hell you feel they should be called. If we can grok the concept of someone changing their name at marriage, or referring to someone as “doctor” after they get a degree, we can absolutely manage a new name and pronouns for a person who shares that they are trans. 

Despite this, some people have a hard time adjusting. Sometimes it’s from a place of ignorance: a lack of awareness or familiarity with vocabulary.  Sometimes it can be difficult to remember new information about a person you’ve known a long time. Even if I fully celebrate a person’s name change, I might slip up while telling a story about the past. Brains make mistakes. In those instances, it’s best to just apologize, move on, and keep doing your best. 

Other times it’s an intentional power play, the way a playground bully might wield a mean nickname. Purposeful misgendering is a denial of who you are and the arrogant assertion that they know better than you do… about yourself. To have a parent do it can be extra hurtful and it’s almost always an effort to regain a feeling of control over a situation. It sounds like that’s probably what is happening here. 

Ours is a generation that has benefited immeasurably from the prevalence of therapy, in addition to having much wider opportunities for learning than the generations before us. Parenting is hard, especially if you don’t have the advantage of modeling for how to do it well. If your mom thinks she should get to live through her kids or that the sacrifices she’s made as a parent necessitate your lifelong acquiescence to her, that is likely because she experienced something similar from her family of origin. Having empathy and compassion for that doesn’t mean she gets to behave this way without consequences, though. 

Parents who apply high levels of psychological control on their kids may tell themselves they are protecting their offspring, but research shows they’re dead wrong. A longitudinal (taking data over many years) study found that having high levels of psychological control from parents is as hard on the mental well-being of a person as losing a close friend or loved one. 

Your mom may well have done a great deal for you and your siblings, likely at the cost of her own happiness. She did so of her own volition, though, long before you had any say in the matter of your relationship to her. In exchange for her efforts, she got the complicated honor and joy of being a parent, which includes the part where a helpless, dependent baby grows up and becomes a person with their own thoughts and dreams. Maintaining a relationship after dependence ends is about continuing to meet each other where you are and she’s refusing to do that.

This situation is made extra sticky by the presence of illness, a factor that can add strain on a relationship. You’re going to need a person in your corner as you navigate this health crisis, someone who has your back if you experience transphobia from the medical industry, not someone who contributes to it. 

So, what do you do? There are several routes. You’ve identified a couple already. Your primary focus needs to be on your health right now, and you’re the only one who can say whether the stress of a disrespectful person in your life is worth the errands they will be running for you. 

I’m not a fan of ultimatums- they tend to reduce the opportunities to mutually resolve conflict- but I am a big fan of boundaries. You can show gratitude for the support she is providing and also set boundaries about how you will be treated. It’s important to state your needs directly and to have clear consequences when they are crossed. You might tell your mom that you’re thankful for her giving you rides or cleaning up your apartment, but that if she can’t get your pronouns right, you’ll need to look elsewhere for those things. 

For the record, she is not your only option for assistance. There are resources for getting rides to and from treatment, home health care, obtaining grants and financial help, finding housing, free massage therapy, and many other needs for cancer patients. There are also places that specifically focus on LGBT folks. Your doctor may have more local resources. 

Every single interaction we have with someone is a chance to build intimacy, maintain intimacy, or erode it. Ultimately, this is an opportunity for her to either deepen your relationship by providing loving care at a crucial time or to widen the chasm between you, potentially irrevocably. 

It’s up to you to tell her how to love you and for her to rise to the occasion. Absolute best of luck! 

    • Timaree Schmit Headshot

      Timaree Schmit is basically an episode of Adam Ruins Everything, but in the shape of a person. She has a PhD in Human Sexuality Education and years of experience in community organizing, performance art, and finding the extra weird pockets of Philly.

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