I continue to come across things I’ve learned and failed to assimilate in the past four years. This week I found the “Dear Carolyn (Hax)” syndicated column my sister sent a year ago. The reader’s question harkens back to our childhood when we could never do a housekeeping task to suit our mother. Somewhere in the intervening 46 years between leaving home and the present I learned to do everything I needed to do quite adequately, but not—in pretty nearly all cases—my mother’s way. Which is to say, not the right way.
Q: “[My mother] complain[s] no one helps her, but God forbid anyone tries. Then it’s, ‘you did this all wrong’ — even though we got the job done just as well if not better, we didn’t do it her way. No amount of telling her how discouraging it is when she puts us down after we try to help gets through to her.”
A: “…When you’re mystified by someone’s behavior, it can help to look at what the person achieves with it…Clearly she gains attention; behold her starring role in a drama where she’s the can-do gal in a family of slackers, incompetents and ingrates…”
Maybe I missed that part of the lengthy reply the first several times I read it, focused as I was on Carolyn’s affirming characterization of mom as a control freak; but of course that is the key to unlocking Mama. She was and is awkwardly letting us know that she is capable. I am Desperately Seeking Approval too, then and now. We just go about it differently. I want to hear “good job,” she wants to be crowned Queen for a Day. We are both tapping into our hurting inner child.
My mother has always had low self-esteem. She comes by it heartbreakingly honestly. She has told me this story:
“Many years ago my mother told me that when I was a baby, and the family was moving from Tennessee to Virginia, my mother and Reece (my mother’s older brother) and I went by train. My father was already there. My mother told me she left me bundled in a blanket and lying on a bench in the train station, while she and Reece walked down the platform to look at the trains.
“My mother said, ‘I didn’t think anyone would want you.’”
My mother also knows that her father, 20 years her mother’s senior and a widower with six children when they married, didn’t want any more children. Her mother did. But she only wanted boys. There were four more children, too many to afford during the depression, and two of them girls to boot. My grandmother knew no joy as she worked herself into ill health to provide for them.
These stories are a part of my mother, never challenged by the work of therapy.
My grandmother died at age 99, after living for decades in the town my mother lived in, cared for by my mother through illness and depression. My mother is still trying to make up for believing she was not a good enough daughter, and by extension, not a good enough person.
Perhaps telling us how to do things was and is her way of asking for affirmation she didn’t receive as a child. “If you do this my way, you are acknowledging that I do it well.” Do her instructions really threaten my confidence? No, I’m stronger than that. Do I want her to finally acknowledge me as capable? Yes. And she’s not going to if, in her mind, that means her way isn’t right.
Carolyn Hax says, “Use the nature of your mother’s need to guide your actions from here. If she’s a loving sort who just maintains a childlike relish for approval, then snuggle in and approve away.” I can’t fix her. But I can stop acting like the child I keep claiming I am not, stop challenging her, and just give her what she needs. Hax says, “It’s like steering into a skid: ‘You’re right, Mom. Thank you.’” How hard can it be?
Did she feel like a burden growing up? She fears being a burden now—I expect it’s a universal fear of the aging. I wonder if she believes that if she stays in control of all things, she is less of a burden, when in fact it is more burdensome to me and my sisters.
“…My children try so hard. So why can’t I just be grateful? Why am I so resistant, so irrational, so difficult? Because burdens aren’t grateful, any more than they’re graceful.
“It is not that I am unaware of all that is being done for me. Quite the contrary, I am painfully aware of it. I hear the echoes from my childhood, accusing me, repeating a single word. Burden.
“I don’t want to be taken care of, and I resent that I have lost independence — that really, I have no free choice. My life is now directed by other people the way it was when I was a child. That they are people who love me is irrelevant.
“I want the right to do whatever I choose, and that right has been forfeited to age and decrepitude, and I mind it terribly. Which makes me a very ungrateful old lady.”
My mother wants me to understand what it’s like to be blind, deaf, and incontinent, so that is what she talks about. I can observe the courage it takes to cope with physical challenges; it’s the feelings and fears about old age I can’t know. These are the things she cannot access and cannot articulate.
I am grateful to have these two pieces of insight to reread. They help me break my mother open to the things she doesn’t know. I’m going to try to keep them always in the back of my head and heart when I feel frustrated with her. Hopefully it will help me know what’s in the back of her heart beyond reach of her words.