After archiving all the photos of you and your ex, you figure you should relaunch your Instagram with a thirst trap. Amid all the likes streaming in from long-lost Tinder matches and newly confident colleagues looking to chirpse, you get a text that makes your heart hiccup in your chest. Is it your ex, saying he misses you? No, it's from his mother, Carol.
While there's no official record of this, we can assume that the first "text from an ex" was sent within literally the first hour that SMS messaging became available. Texts from your ex's mum, however, seem to be a newer phenomenon. This could be because mums were generally late adopters of texting, or because social media has made it easier for mums to keep up with an ex long after they're out of their child's life. Whatever the cause, it's undeniably now A Thing, most noticeably with mums texting their sons' ex-girlfriends.
A not-especially-scientific survey of my 6,000 Instagram followers found that about half of young women have been texted by their ex's mum. This presents a few questions. First: why, mums? Also, what happens when you actually want to stay in touch with your ex's mum, even though you never want to see him, his anaemic mates or his customised vape rig ever again? And what's the "right" way to respond to a heartfelt paragraph sent by your cheating ex's mother?
Just as there are different types of texts you receive from your ex ("I miss you" vs "you look like a slag in that Insta"), there are different types of texts you can receive from your ex's mum, hopefully none of which involve the word "slag". After consulting girls who have received these messages, I've broken Ex's Mum's Texts down into three basic categories.
1. The Basic Mum Care Package
Chances are, your experience falls into this category. The mum texts you shortly after the breakup (or shortly after your ex tells her about the breakup). The first text probably looks something like this:
You might exchange a few more texts after assuring her that things ended cordially, after which you'll hear from her on your birthday and maybe Christmas for the first year or so, before correspondence moves on to the Facebook wall.
Of course, these texts are relatively harmless, and honestly quite sweet. Unless her son tore your heart from your chest in a complicated and medically-impressive manoeuvre using his dick and your best friend's vagina, and the mere flashing of his name onscreen sends you into a spiral, in which case maybe block her number. Which brings us neatly into the second category.
2. I Have No Idea What an Arsehole My Son Is (Or Maybe I Do and I'm Just Checking He Didn't Do Anything Properly Repugnant)
There's nothing like having to put a happy face on around your wider circle of mutuals, in the pretence that your ex didn't cheat on you. Unfortunately, if you want to be the bigger person – i.e. not a messy bitch – in the breakup, I'm afraid that's probably what you're also going to have to do when their mum texts you.
"I really thought about telling [my ex's mum] the truth [when she texted me] – that her son is a cheater and emotional abuser – but then I realised it would only hurt her because there's nothing she can do about it," says Casey, 31. "She was always really nice to me, so she didn't deserve to know what a POS her son was."
Lilith, 24, reacted similarly when her ex-girlfriend's mum texted her. "She begged me to give her daughter a second chance," says Lilith. "She even went so far as to say, 'I know plenty of couples that have bounced back from this sort of thing!' I realised that she most definitely did not have the full story; her daughter cheated on me with five men throughout our two-year relationship, unprotected. I told her mother that I'd made my decision and there would be no second chances."
Relationship expert Dr Nikki Goldstein says this is the right move: "If [the mum is] prodding for an answer, be careful to give them closure in a polite way without throwing their loved one under the bus. Even if the relationship ended badly, there's no need to take it out on that person's family."
3. Can We Still Be Friends?
For many, friendships with a partner's mum might feel a little forced. But for some, they can be profoundly real: like the mum we should have had, or at least the one who doesn't know us well enough to call us out on our bullshit. "Familiarity breeds affection, so it's natural for [your ex's mum] to feel attached to you," says relationship expert Dr Jess.
Many of the women I spoke to haven't only stayed friends with their ex's mum, but even invited them to their eventual baby showers. For example, 28-year-old Brandy, who broke up with her ex seven years ago, but is still friends with his mother. "She was always the sweetest lady to me, so I didn't want to cut her out," she says. "We had a great relationship while I was dating her son."
If you want to stay friends with your ex's mum, you should consider how civil your breakup was, how your ex would feel about it and any cultural values they may hold within their family, says Dr Jess. When in doubt, let the mum make the first move.
"I didn't want to reach out to [my ex's mum] at first, because I didn't want to cross any boundaries," says Anya, 28. "But [after she texted me], we text semi-regularly! I think we both didn't want to piss off my ex by talking to each other too often."
Tammy is an example of where these kind of relationships can get awkward. She's been dating her boyfriend for 11 years, but his mother is still friends with his ex. "His mother liked his ex a lot more than me, and that has always strained our relationship," she explains. "It's a horrible place to be…because this other woman still holds a special place in my man's family. [My boyfriend] encouraged the relationship for a long time, mostly because he didn't see the position it put me in."
As well as recipients of mum texts, I also spoke to a couple of senders, both of whom led me to believe that, generally, your first instinct when determining how to respond to your ex's mum is correct.
"The response I was expecting [when I texted my son's ex-girlfriend] was just a courteous, brief response that everything was OK," said Deborah, 54. Ultimately, this is why most mums text: to ensure everyone is OK. Because that's just what mums are like. "I just wanted her to know that we still cared about her and wished her well," said Ipek, 47, of her son's ex-girlfriend. "She's like a member of the family."
Although both mothers I spoke to were hesitant to say they would remain friends with their son's ex, it's clear there are times when a bond is formed and the friendship between mother and girlfriend surpasses the relationship between boyfriend and girlfriend. "You are fabulous and it makes sense that [your ex's mum] adores you," says Dr Jess. "In some cases, [the mothers] appreciate having another woman in the family, and in others they might feel you're a positive influence on their child."
Sure, it might come off a little creepy at first, but maybe after all the kisses and tears and declarations of friendship, you'll realise that Carol was the one who got away.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.