Mother in the Middle

Posted on: January 29th, 2011 by Richard Cressman

There’s an old school yard game called “piggy in the middle” where two people try to keep the ball away from a third person. It still gets played across the rural countryside on many farms today, but with a twist: the person in the middle, in most cases, is Mother. Farm mothers frequently find themselves trapped “in the middle” as the go-between for family members who cannot communicate rationally with each other.

As one farm mother vividly explained, “after acting as the go-between and refereeing these sessions, I feel as if I’ve just been plastered by the slurry slinger they use to haul that brown stuff from the barnyard to the field. Being caught in the middle just plain stinks”. Mothers so often unwillingly find themselves as communication peacemakers when the warring parties cannot speak civilly and directly with each other.

One of the most common scenarios is when Mother finds herself trapped between Father and Son. The game usually starts when the Son enters the mid to late teen years. Father asks the Son to do a few jobs around the farm, but the youngster pretends he doesn’t hear or ignores his father and does something different. The next time Father asks the Son to do something the Son gets a not too gentle a reminder that the work better get done this time or else. Again, the youngster does not take his father’s commands too seriously and shrugs and walks away. After numerous episodes like this, dad really gets steamed up. Finally, after not knowing what to do, he begins to dump his frustrations on Mother pleading with her to “set that kid straight because he just won’t listen to me anymore”. Mother then has a talk with her son and tries to temper her husband’s words while still trying to convey the urgent message that Father must be listened to, and yes, the work must be done. As the years go by and these communication patterns persist, Mother finds herself being trampled deeper and deeper into this communication rut. Eventually, both husband and son are yelling at her.

Mothers can also find themselves as the go-between for children — usually the sons. This is extremely frustrating because intuitively Mother feels that she made mistakes raising the kids, and guilt sets in. Sadly, there are mothers who are still refereeing communication battles for sons who are in their 30s and even 40s. Old habits do not die easily.

What does a mother do when she finds herself caught up in this communication maze? The best solution is a straightforward approach. Sometimes it takes a real wake-up call to get warriors to change. Step aside and insist each of the disagreeing parties deal directly with each other. Yes, this has the potential to cause an explosion in the family. And yes, the fall-out can be disastrous–but you will get their attention. It is a tough call for a mother to choose between her own sanity and keeping the lid on the family pressure cooker.

Changing old ineffective communication patterns is a very difficult challenge. Occasionally, combatants can learn new communication strategies, but this is very rare. Usually the most effective way to implement change is to involve a neutral third party. This gets Mother out of the line of fire.

I have observed very successful farming operations where all it took was the involvement of a neutral individual who was able to successfully help facilitate some of the difficult conversations to get the family back on track. The secret is to take action before irreparable damage has been done to family relationships.

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