Dear Ms. Peirano,

I’ve had to go through a lot in my young life. I have a grandmother in need of care who was cared for at home. My mother became an alcoholic, was depressed, had anxiety disorders and panic attacks. My dad was a truck driver and traveled a lot. Nevertheless, I completed a top degree, studied and am now a manager.

Ten years ago I met my now husband. We moved into my parents’ house and renovated my grandmother’s former apartment. Three years ago my mother was diagnosed with kidney cancer and then suffered from depression again. Shortly afterwards my father suffered a heart attack. I stayed home to help my mother, who had recently undergone surgery, and my weakened father.

Then my parents went to rehab one by one. During this time, I took over driving, cooking and household chores for my parents. A year later my husband and I got married. Unfortunately, our wedding was also affected by my mother’s depression. She wasn’t happy about anything that day. My father drove her home early and unfortunately wasn’t able to enjoy the wedding either.

Shortly after the wedding, my father was diagnosed with metastatic pancreatic cancer. He needed nursing care, but didn’t want to go to hospice. I took sick leave and cared for him with my mother, and I also gave him strong medication. My father only lived four months after the diagnosis.

My mother held her own during this time. However, she only went to therapy once for her alcohol addiction and never again after that. She cannot cope in unfamiliar surroundings, is dependent, does not drive a car, and appears very clumsy and helpless. I also have a much older sister, but she doesn’t care as much.

I am currently 6 months pregnant, it is an absolute dream child. Unfortunately, my mother has been depressed again for eight months, but she doesn’t go to therapy. When I run into my mother, she complains about how alone she is, how bad she is, what she’s been through, why she didn’t die first, now she’s so helpless and alone… She meets other people in town the themes are only her loss and her loneliness. She doesn’t tell anyone that she’s going to be a grandma. She hardly has any friends.

I work full-time and also drive my mother everywhere. I’m afraid that I’ll go crazy when I’m on maternity leave if I’m subjected to her unfiltered moods and worries all day long. My mother doesn’t understand that. I went to therapy when my father died. I coped with that quite well, but I’m barely able to cope with my mother. My therapist says that my mother shifted her responsibility to me early on and that I needed to set clear boundaries for her. Besides, I’m not responsible for my mother’s happiness. My husband has my back and supports me, but he is now losing patience with my mother.

Dear Ms. Peirano, what can I do to gain more distance and to be able to enjoy my pregnancy and motherhood afterwards without this time being spoiled for me? I can’t just move out, I’ll have to pay off the renovation loan for another ten years.

I’m starting to despair and I’m also afraid that this will have a negative impact on our baby.

Thank you in advance for your advice.

Kind regards, Denise Z.

I work as a behavioral therapist and love coach in private practice in Hamburg-Blankenese and St. Pauli. During my doctorate, I researched the connection between relationship personality and happiness in love and then wrote two books about love.

Information about my therapeutic work can be found at

Do you have questions, problems or heartache? Please write to me (maximum one A4 page). I would like to point out that inquiries and answers can be published anonymously on

Dear Denise Z.,

They really have a huge family burden to bear! There are many tragic burdens in your family of origin: your alcohol-dependent, depressed mother, who also got cancer; Before that, your grandmother, who was in need of care, and your father, who was suffering from cancer. Your grandmother and father are no longer alive, but your mother seems to weigh heavily on you with her negativity and helplessness.

It sounds as if you always had to take on the role of the strong, adult daughter because your father was absent and your mother took on a dependent, fearful role. This reversal of roles between a child and its parents is also called “parentification”. Parentification is particularly common among parents who have a mental illness such as depression or anxiety disorder or are addicted (or who, like your mother, are affected by both).

You have certainly addressed this topic in your previous therapy, but sometimes it takes longer to get to a point where you really want to change something. What made it difficult for you to really separate yourself from your mother during therapy? As behavioral therapists, we also call the reasons that speak against progress “maintaining conditions”. This could be something external like financial dependence, entanglement or the opinion of those around you. Often there are also internal beliefs or learned behavioral patterns such as parentification (I have to look after my mother, she can’t cope without me).

I find it very important and helpful to find out more about mental health issues. You can also say: knowledge is power.

That’s why I recommend two books on the topic of parentification.

Beate Scherrmann-Gerstetter/M. Scherrmann: The good daughter syndrome… and how women can free themselves from it

Sandra Teml and Martin Wall: Un-parent yourself: How we overcome emotional dependence on our parents and finally live for ourselves

I agree with your therapist that you need to set clear boundaries. Maybe you have more assertiveness now because you want to become a mother yourself and focus on your own child – while at the same time protecting your child from being drawn into this stressful family dynamic.

On a very practical level, separation is made difficult or impossible by the fact that you live in the same house as your mother. All your mother has to do is ring the bell once and you’ll jump. In my opinion, you urgently need to get out of the house! Or your mother has to move out.

I would recommend that you carefully examine your argument that you can’t move out because you still have to pay off the renovation. There are many alternatives: your mother could move out, you could move out and rent your grandmother’s apartment.

Remember again what you have worked on in your previous therapy – or take more therapy sessions to work on this specific topic. The best thing would be a distance between you and your mother of at least half an hour’s travel time, so that you can’t just get to your mother “quickly”, but instead have to consciously ask yourself every time whether and when you will help her. It would also be good to tell your mother clearly that she should seek (addiction) therapy or at least a self-help group.

How about asking your husband to help you separate yourself from your mother in terms of space and content? Would it also help you to talk to your sister and ask her how she manages to distance herself better? Which thought patterns help her (e.g. the realization that she is not responsible for her mother’s (un)happiness; recognizing her own unimportant role in her mother’s life; seeing the futility of her own efforts; focusing on her own life) ?

The best thing to do is to set clear goals and pursue them so that you and your small family can live unburdened. I wish you all possible courage and perseverance!

Herzlich GrüßeJulia Peirano

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