“Oh, I know all about my mother and me, you may say. All that business with my mother was over years ago. You don’t and it wasn’t.” Nancy Friday, My Mother/My Self
I should have known that returning to live in my childhood home with my mother would be about more than physical regression from the autonomy I had been enjoying for several years; that the bigger issue would be emotional trip down a fast slide.
When I decided to return to the small town and the house where I spent the second half of childhood, I was able to give up my independence only because it was, I promised myself, temporary. Had I not been getting on quite famously on my own on the other side of the country, it would have felt like defeat coming back here to live with my mother. But I kept my reason for this adventure clearly at the forefront: I wanted to return to the Pacific Northwest, and this was a relatively risk-free way to do it. And it was only for one year. Right?
Oh, I knew it would be challenging. My mother was aging, and in some ways had been for most of my 35 years away, as if dread of what might come could push one prematurely into old age. My sister Rebecca had returned to Centralia, and for the first years had lived with Mama; I knew through her the frustrations. But it was easy to just roll my eyes at the craziness when it was she not I who had fallen down the rabbit hole.
I thought I had long overcome the tendency to get lassoed into old patterns, secure in my forty years of adulthood. Over the phone I didn’t feel a need to point out how ridiculous Mama was; and I was almost never the focus of her complaints. Across the miles she was sweetness and light, the way most people experience her. She could not exert control over me, nor did I have a need to do so over her.
In Katie Hafner’s book, Mother Daughter Me: A Memoir, Katie relates words from the first visit with the therapist she and her mother see (largely an exercise in futility): “’Whenever a parent moves in with a child, it is a crisis.’ Crisis sounds a little over the top to me (I’ll change my mind later), but I let it go. ‘No matter what we might think’ she continues, ‘we cannot simply act like housemates. Everything we say and do will be charged with subtext and emotions that are a legacy of the past.’”
This is why unrelated caregivers can deal with the eccentricities of the elderly. Not because they are saints, they are simply unrelated. They can let their employer maintain constant vigilance over how things are done in the kitchen, because they are simply doing a job; and then they go home, to their own kitchen fiefdom, their sense of self intact.
I dare say, hard as a parent moving in with a child may be, a child moving into the parent’s home is beyond the pale. Mama holds the key to her fiefdom; I am still the child trying to earn entry. When she chastises me for not getting the grease off her broiler pan, or not loading her dishwasher the way she does, I become the 13-year-old me in this same kitchen—never able to please her. When I don’t deal with her leaking faucet the way she would or when she doesn’t trust that I can do a “man” task (like change a light bulb in a ceiling fixture), I am the girl who never grew up into a self-sufficient adult. When she criticizes me for not relaying all of the information from a phone call, even though I passed on everything I was told, I can hear her disappointment in me. When I sit at her table and quietly pay her bills while she eats her breakfast, and eight hours later she tells me not to do that again because “it made her stomach roil all day,” I hate myself for unwittingly upsetting her…again.
I understand Mama’s need for control is part of what happens when people grow old. As more and more becomes unavailable to her—her vision, her hearing, her memory, her energy—she watches herself fading into a pentimento. Her fierce fight to retain control—to stay visible—manifests itself in constant anxiety over the minutiae of her life. As I struggle to be patient with her, I become controlling myself in response to my own fear of diminishment and my own sense that I am losing authority over my day-to-day life.
I have failed to keep my vow made months ago to let go of the things she says that make me go berserk. I know my snippy responses are a misguided attempt to prove to her that I am an intelligent woman with proven ways of doing things that are different than hers. I know I am still seeking approval. In my mind, sticking up for myself is the better alternative to the 14 year old aching in silence under criticism. But it is pointless. She is 97. She is not going to change her stripes.
With this comes a glimmer of understanding: I can choose what I absorb and what I deflect. Katie Hafner: “This is how the color spectrum works: Some colors absorb light, while others deflect it, depending on where they are on the spectrum. Earlier in my life, when it came to hurtful words from my mother, I was more like an off-shade of brown, absorbing most of them. Now, with experience, wisdom, and a little more self-confidence, my spectrum is shifting. I’m making a choice to be less absorptive.” Mama’s rebukes about closing the blinds wrong or forgetting to leave the lid of the empty washing machine open, are ones for which I can choose to become pure white. But…
“Habits born of excess psychological baggage die slow, complicated deaths. We can’t just tell ourselves we’ve killed them off one day and start fresh the next” (Katie Hafner). Mama is doing and has done the best she can with what she has to work with, and I owe her my best to help her complete her life knowing it was lived well. And I will forgive myself seventy times seven when I fail, and then keep on keeping on to a better me.