Wednesday, November 4, 2009

In which I blame everything on my mother

Who here has or had a perfect relationship with their mother? Show of hands? Anyone? Bueller?

My relationship with my mother is in transition right now. It's actually getting better. After my step-dad announced that he was divorcing her to reunite with his university sweetheart things were rough all around for couple of years. We're finally past the worst of it.

My mum is finally ready to admit that she's better off without him. She's getting a financial settlement that will allow her to live out the rest of her years in worry-free comfort. And she doesn't have to wash his socks anymore, or deal with any of the big and small habits of his that drove her crazy.

For example, when they went out to eat at a restaurant, unless there was a "Please Wait to be Seated" sign, he would always chose to sit at a table that hadn't been cleared yet from the previous diners. If there were plates on the table, he would eat french fries or other leftovers off those strangers' plates. Or if it was a coffee shop with just an empty cup and napkin on the table, he would lick the tip of his index finger and use that to pick up crumbs from the table. And eat them. Despite the fact that he never got sick from this habit, it drove my mother to distraction.

She doesn't have to deal with his many eccentricities anymore, but she still gets to enjoy his money. She has a full schedule with volunteer work and socializing. It's a pretty good deal.

Living alone has been good for her. She's independent, and seems much less inclined to cast herself in the role of "victim" in her life story, something she used to constantly.

Lately, she's not demanding, and only asks me for help with a few things here and there, like fixing her computer. She likes me to be there as a second opinion for big decisions, like buying a new stove. Other than that, she's self-sufficient. We can talk now almost like friends. I don't feel that she's babying me or asking me to do too much for her. It's really great.

And yet, I'm having trouble accepting this new way of relating. I don't trust her quite yet. And I'm not ready to let go of my grudges. It's all too new, too weird, and too difficult to believe that we have truly arrived here.

When I was a kid, my mum did her best for me. She really did. She gave 200%. Unfortunately, in the context of her life, giving 200% meant that she didn't become an addict or attempt suicide. She barely had the emotional resources to remain gainfully employed and cope with everything life had to throw at her. I had clothes on my back, a warm place to sleep, and three healthy meals a day. She even cooked a hot breakfast every morning when she was working full-time.

I know that she loved me, her only child. Every year she made me two birthday parties. There was one for the kids, with games, loot bags, and Hamburger Men* for lunch. Then there was one for the family. She baked a cake from scratch for each party. That meant a lot.

*Hamburger Man recipe: One hamburger patty face; pickle slices for eyes; a ketchup smile; mashed potato afro hair; carrot sticks for the body and limbs. Dang, I can't remember the last time I ate Hamburger Man. I should do that for my next birthday.

On special occasions and emergencies, she always came through for me. She pushed through and made it happen. But most of the time, she just couldn't. Couldn't cope, couldn't smile, couldn't be there for me. She was depressed. She was easily enraged. She and my step-dad and I fought in an endless triangle for years.

Sometimes, if the fighting got too bad, she went into an altered mental state. It was like someone hit a switch, and her eyes changed. Pushed past her limit, she was frightening. Her eyes were intense and blank at the same time. Sometimes she looked at me like she wished I were dead. That happened a lot.

She blamed me for things that weren't my fault. For example, I recall one time when I was a teenager, and finally had realized that I could stand up for myself. She wanted me to come out for the afternoon with her and my step-dad, but I said I'd rather stay home. I told her that there wasn't any point to going out with them because they just fought all the time and it was never fun, or even remotely pleasant. She said:

"Maybe the reason why we have such a bad marriage is because you refuse to be a part of this family."

I looked directly at her and said "It's not my fault that you two don't get along. You can't blame me."

That was the first time I didn't accept the blame that she tried to heap on me. And it was good. But when you grow up in a sick house where the grownups you're counting on for your survival feed you this kind of crap, it's not like you can suddenly get over it just because you intellectually finally understand what's going on. Years of messages along those lines wired my brain badly, and re-wiring has been a struggle. It's still a work in progress.

Once I moved out, we didn't spend a lot of time together. I showed up for all the obligatory family gatherings, but I rarely went over just to hang out. She almost never called me, unless it was to remind me of a family birthday or invite me to a Jewish holiday dinner. When I got divorced it was my step-mum and sister who showed up to help me move into my new apartment.

After my step-dad left, I figured I'd better help my mum. Like I said, she's had a rough life and doesn't have a lot of emotional resources. I didn't want her to go irretrievably over the edge. So I called a lot to check in on her; I sent her little encouraging cards in the mail; and Ken and I went over there every Sunday for months to help her pack all my step-dad's stuff into boxes. I gave a lot, timewise, physically, and emotionally.

It wasn't easy. In fact, it was one of the most difficult and draining things I've ever had to do. And when I finally had what pretty much amounted to a breakdown, during which I got sick for 6 weeks and couldn't handle spending any more time with her, she complained that she felt abandonned by me. At the time I was also a new church-goer. Church was where I fueled up on good vibes before going over to my freaked-out mum to help her with everything. But she resented that too. She said that my conversion made her feel like she had lost me. I had never been there for her more, and she was still complaining.

She's always expected a lot from me. Even when she was giving me the evil eye in private, she was always happy to show off my report cards to everyone who would look at them. She wanted me to be her perfect little princess, wearing pink and pearls. Ever since I became an adult, she's liked to marvel at how I "raised myself", since she couldn't really do the job. I think that she thinks it came naturally to me, this "raising myself". She thinks it shows that I'm a stronger person than her, and ever since I grew up she wanted to lean on me. I'm the strong one, the wise one, supposedly. Now I'm a resource for her when she needs help.

Honestly? I'm not ready yet to forgive the past and be her good friend. Every time we get together, I put on my best smile and try to be both compassionate and honest, so that our relationship will improve. But there's a part of me that's still really angry, that says I don't owe her anything, and doesn't want to try.

But, I'll try anyway. Because she did the best she could with the resources she had. Because forgiveness is a choice and an act of will, not a feeling. Or at least, the choice comes first, and hopefully the feeling comes later.


Warped Mind of Ron said...

{HUGS} Sometimes doing the right things are totally sucky. I'm sure you are trying your best to heal things, but take some time for yourself no matter what. This situation didn't break in one day and fixing it won't happen in one day either. I'm not sure if I would be there I tend to take only so much from someone and then I check out and there is no checking back in.

darcknyt said...

Nothing is harder than deficient parents from which to recover. I know, I've been where you are, and grew up with a lot of garbage being poured into my head -- about me, the world, even God and Christ.

It's been easy to debunk the God part; the me part is an ongoing thing and probably always will be.

I'll say a prayer for you on this. It's not an easy task.

SoMi's Nilsa said...

Wow, this post pushed and pulled me in all sorts of directions. I think one of the things I learned when I saw a therapist for family problems of my own is that my family doesn't have to be an obligation. As an adult, I get to choose how often I see my family and under what conditions. It was very empowering to fully embrace that message. When I put it into play, I felt 100 times better about my family and the time I spent with them ... because I wasn't obligated.

But, that's me. And I think the thing about family is no one knows what it's like to live with your family but you. And only you really know what's best for your health, your mother's and the precariously balanced relationship between the two. I hope, with time, that relationship feels more natural for you.

Holly said...

Wow! The part about your stepfather in the restaurant tripped me up. If he sat at a dirty table in my section, he'd be there a long, long time before I'd even notice him. I look at bodies, not faces, and new bodies at a dirty table wouldn't even register with me.

And what is up with eating other people's left over food. That's disgusting. I'd probably have to slap his hands.

Sorry about your mom. There are few of us who have a good relationship with our mothers, sometimes speaking terms is all we can hope for.

Scarlet said...

I know my mother had a lot of issues with her own mom and of course that affected her parenting...but she did everything with good intentions and I can't complain although I understand the past can stay with you and jab at you (even when you want to forgive).

Your last paragraph made a lot of sense. It is a decision to forgive. Believe it or not, I've forgiven some pretty cruel people in my life, but never without God's help. I could never be this calm with those people without His love in my heart. Honestly.

I hope you get to the place you want to be with your mom. You've done so much already!

G said...

Good for you that you're moving at your own pace and speed with your mother.

It's always important to make sure that you and your peace of mind comes first whenver and wherever you're dealing with your mother.

wigsf said...

Although I love my mother and she is a saint, she is also a woman, therefore, she's either nuts or evil. Chances are, she's just nuts, not evil.
I love my crazy crazy mamma!

Buzzardbilly said...


I live in a pair of shoes very similar to yours, but for different reasons. I'm not going into details there other than to say that Mom and Dad only wanted one child. They had that child, and then came me. Mom had raging hormone problems when I was growing up, and since my sister was in school she missed the worst of it. When she went through the change, my sister was already married and out of the house. Again, I'm the one who got it. And, now that Dad has passed and my sister is a single mother, I bear the brunt of taking care of Mom a lot of the time.

Like you, I don't blame my mom so much because something she couldn't control was controlling her, but it's still a tightrope to walk most of the time because she's conveniently forgotten (or hormonal rage blocked her memory sectors) and she's just pleased as punch at how well I turned out (with my same shrink for eleven years now--the one she swore I didn't need because it reminded her of that it wasn't all sweetness and light at home).

There were good memories in the past to go with the shitty ones. The shrink says try to focus on those since I don't think she meant to be that way. There are good memories now because the time we spend now is better than when I was young. The shrink says focus on making the best of the time we have because before I know it, it'll be gone.

It's hard, but know you aren't alone in that boat and it's a struggle at times. You'll be in my thoughts and prayers.

unsigned said...

You're the best.

Kate said...

From the other side of the coin, my parents are still quite cautious about their interactions with me following my 16 year love affair with alcohol. I'm sober now and living the life I've always wanted and I thought they should just embrace the new me. Well? Not so much. I hurt them and alot of people around me. To expect them to come running with loving, unconditional arms was pretty selfish of me. I know that I have alot of work to do to nurture the relationship I want with them today. It's the consequence of my actions.

And I'm willing to do it. Because I want it. Don't feel like you automatically have to forgive and forget. Because forgetting means you won't be ready if and when something goes wrong in the future. I know that's what my parents do with me and it's completely justified.

Jenski said...

You are a strong person. It sounds like the decisions you make with regards to your mum are a path you are on to forgive. I do like Kate's reminder that forgiveness does not mean forgetting too.

DarcsFalcon said...

It's only natural for you to be cautious and distrustful - past behavior is usually an indication of how people will be in the future. Or, as the proverb says, leopards can't change their spots.

Trying to move on to a new place in your relationship is part of growing up and letting go, and changing your expectations of the relationship is all part of that same process. I think it helps that you had some positive elements with your mom from when you were growing up. For those who didn't, getting to where you are now is practically impossible.

It sounds like you're reasonably content with the path you are on. I'll say a prayer that things continue in that way for you and her. :)

LL Cool Joe said...

Reading this makes me realise what a wonderful daughter you are to your Mum.

I can relate to a great deal you are saying. Sometimes in life we have to just do the right thing, even when we don't want to. It sounds like that's what you are doing. I believe God rewards good behaviour like this, not that you are looking for that, I know.

Stay strong, and know that God will bless you and help you through this. :)

Claire said...

Oh honey, what a path. I'll be praying for you as you walk it.


Sparkling Red said...

Ron: I've never cut anyone out of my life who's been close to me. I seem to be constitutionally incapable of doing it. So I'd better learn to forgive, because otherwise I get stuck between "can't let go" and "can't break through" and that's just torture.

Darcknyt: Thanks. I'm grateful that I was never smacked over the head with harmful notions about God. My mum did have a lot of opinions about our Jewish identity, but none of them had anything to do with spirituality.

Nilsa: In the final analysis, although I have a lot of mixed feelings about my family, I'd have to say that I'm primarily motivated by my love for them, not by feelings of obligation. Sometimes I wish that I could turn off the love, so that the bad stuff would hurt less, but I can't shut down my heart that much. When I'm of two minds, resenting my own emotional attachment, sometimes I can feel that it's an obligation. But in the end I continue to choose to return to them, and I'm glad that I do, even if it does sometimes hurt. I'll take hurt and love over estrangement, for now.

Holly: Yeah, he has some habits that most people would find disgusting. He also used to give the cat a "treat" of petroleum jelly. Indeed, he would let the cat lick Vaseline off his hand after he'd used it to moisturize his face. Blick.

Scarlet: I lean on God a lot when it comes to dealing with my mother. He loves her and knows her better than I do, so I let him be the expert. I sure as heck don't know what I'm doing most of the time.

G: True - if I'm not calm to start with, I won't be able to deal with her on her bad days.

wigsf: That's sweet. She must be alright - she raised you. :-)

Buzzardbilly: One thing that helps is that my mum is gaining a lot of perspective these days on how much she wasn't there for me in the past. She has a lot of regrets. I would find it very hard to take if she was pleased as punch about the past. I don't rub it in, but when she apologizes about the past and acknowledges that there were big problems, it really helps me to feel better about our relationship.

Unsigned: Thanks.

Kate: That's an interesting perspective. Like Ron said, a relationship that was broken for years can't be totally fixed over night, despite our best intentions. I think my mother has some understanding of this. In fact, sometimes I get the feeling she wishes I'd be more angry at her. And maybe I should be, for a while.

Jenski: That's good, because I could never forget. :-)

Darcsfalcon: Thanks. My mother is a conundrum. In some ways she's the same as she ever was, but in other ways she's changed a lot in the past year. I really appreciate how much flexibility she's demonstrated, and her willingness to try new ideas on for size. It helps a lot.

LL Cool Joe: Yes, sometimes it's best to do the right thing even if you don't want to at the time. Later, in retrospect, it's easier to live with oneself that way.

Claire: Thank you - all prayers are mightily appreciated. :-)

Nicole said...

My Mom and I never had a great relationship either.
It got better / we got closer after several of our last close family members (my Dad, my uncle and then my Grand mom died).
Now we are the "last ones" of the close circle. I guess that's what it needed to bring us closer.

Glad the relationship between you and your Mom got better!

It's hard to forgive and bury the grudges. But Life's too short to keep them up.
You never know when it might be too late to bury them and forgive the hurts :(

Jameil said...

Have you talked to her about this or would it be one of those fruitless conversations where you get blamed? i wish i could give you a hug. on a positive note, it's really nice to get rid of someone who eats off of strangers' plates...... EW!!!! it's also amazing that you're making such an effort. really great of you.

Sparkling Red said...

Nicole: That's exactly how I'm thinking these days: life seems very short and fragile. You never know if you're going to get another chance next week, or not. Best not to procrastinate.

Jameil: I do talk about it with my mum occasionally, but I still put too much effort into protecting her feelings at the expense of my own honesty. I think I could reveal more of my feelings and still be loving and respectful of her.