My Sister Has a Cold. She Is Not Dying.

My sister has a cold. She told Mama. I guess she had to, to explain why she wasn’t going to visit for a couple of days because even if Mama didn’t catch it (which she wouldn’t because she’s never sick), we would hear about how she “thinks [she] has a cold” for the next six weeks.

For the past three days when I was visiting, she has asked me how Rebecca is feeling. The first two days I told her she has a cold, she’ll be fine. Yesterday I told her I hadn’t spoken to her. (Contrary to what Mama apparently thinks should be the case, I do not know my sister’s health status and whereabouts at all times.)

“She has a COLD!” I said. “A common COLD! She is not DYING. She will get BETTER.”

Mama ignored me. As we walked to the dining room for lunch she told me not to leave until I found out how Rebecca was and gave her a report. I rolled my eyes and sent Rebecca a text message. If I didn’t hear back I was prepared to make something up.

“Tell her I have a cold, I’m not dying, I will get better. And actually today I don’t feel like I’m dying.”

I passed on the message, Mama thanked me, and I left.

My sisters and I learned long ago not to disclose our lives to our mother unless we wanted advice, reports of her worry (not to be confused with concern, because that would be about us, not her), interrogation well beyond the passing of the crisis or event, and newspaper and magazine clippings on the subject (thank God she didn’t have access to the internet). These days the fallout for disclosure extends to her making up and sticking to “facts” she thinks she heard. “No, I did not tell you I was nearly mauled by a bear at the front door.”

And she has endless ideas for why something has happened, many of which are good for a hardy laugh; but not in front of her, she has no sense of humor. Like last winter when I had a cold and she told Rebecca it was because I have too many jobs. At least, for once, she recognized that I wasn’t sitting around watching soap operas and eating bonbons. (That didn’t last long. Pretty sure she never asks Rebecca what I’m doing, knowing I’m at home doing nothing.)

All that to say, I related to every single thing Carolyn Hax said in a recent post in her Washington Post column. It’s not new information, so much as a reminder to myself of how I should respond and cannot seem to, however hard I try.

My most favored response is sarcasm—see her last bullet point—and that is the the one that makes Mama angry however cheerily I say it. I’m getting better at ignoring and redirecting. I don’t even bother trying to thank her for the advice. I am patently incapable. Besides, it just encourages her.


Dear Carolyn:

[My mother’s] style has always been 0 percent cheerleader, 100 percent drill sergeant. I hesitate to tell her anything. When I say I’m going to the beach, she says, “Don’t forget sunscreen!” and if I say, “Mom, I’m 55 years old and you don’t need to tell me that,” she says, “Don’t get snippy with me!”

My confidence suffers every time I talk to her because it seems like she thinks I’m dumb or can’t take care of myself. But if I object, she gets upset. What can I say to make her understand that her unsolicited advice insults my intelligence?

— Don’t Need This “Help”

Dear Don’t Need This “Help”:

“…to make her understand.” That is your treadmill, your hamster wheel, your Mobius strip of maternal suffocation.

Trying to change her output — what she thinks or feels or advises — hasn’t worked in 55 years, and it isn’t yours to change, anyway. So, change your input. Tell her less. Expect less. React less. That’s what you control.

You know the ridiculous advice and invasive questions are all coming — so, adapt accordingly. Either:

∗ Ignore. “So, Mom, how are you?” Don’t underestimate the power of a non-answer.
∗ Rise above. “Ah, Mom. You taught me well, remember?”
∗ Hold firm. “Nope, not answering that.”
∗ Disengage. “Thanks!”
∗ State the obvious. “Mom, I’m 55! years! old!” [Then let it go.]
∗ Get silly. “I used baby oil.” “Yes, I wore sunscreen. Did you floss?”

But do not engage anymore.

Deflections can be mean if not said in good cheer, so here’s where to find some: People tend to smother and control out of anxiety, not contempt, your mother probably included. Such worrying says she doubts her ability to handle risk.

That certainly explains her methods. She fusses over and drill-sergeants the people she cares about because she (fancifully, mistakenly) thinks her fussing helps keep them safe, so she feels better for fussing, which is why she does it — and why anybody does anything, right?

It also means you can expect her to resist your efforts to deflect her, but stand firm — and, again, try more smile, less exasperation. Make this your new way to assure Mom you can manage: quietly managing vs. discussing whether you can.

Don’t just do this out of kindness, either. To take her seriously is to question yourself, and that’s the crux of it. Self-doubt is the example she set and you now unwittingly live by. If seeing this pattern isn’t enough for you to break it, then good therapy might bring relief.

— Carolyn Hax, Washington Post Advice columnist, November 23, 2017


“I’m sorry I’m so much trouble,” Mama said the other day after I helped her into bed for her nap.

I know I hesitated for too long a moment before I said the right thing: “You aren’t trouble.”

She thought for a minute, then said, “I’m sorry I’m such a bother. Is that a better way to say it?”

“Maybe you could just say thank you for being here,” I suggested; “and not make it about you.”

“Thank you for being here my darling, wonderful daughter.”

Was that sarcasm?

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