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How can I communicate openly and honestly with my mother?  With her, even I-statements don’t stand a chance since she perverts and twists everything I say to her like it’s a funhouse mirror, until it resembles an insult, rather than a clear expression of my feelings. 

Mom buys me things I do not want, do not like, did not ask for.  They don’t fit, or have missing pieces, or are things I would never like and have expressed so.  Never one to see the solution-less problem, she bends over backwards, martyring herself in pursuit of the one underwire bra I will like, because it will fit, even though I have stated my opposition to them a thousand times, on moral, ethical, spiritual, and ergonomic grounds.  Yet far be it for me to reject her gifts, for she recoils as if it is a piece of herself. 

At the very least, she meant well.  She honestly believes this.  Foisting unwanted, unasked for garbage of my or others is a measure of her good intentions.  And if she is so well-meaning, I dare not say anything about that particular act, as it is perceived immediately as an act of overt criticism.  Even if I start a sentence with, “I know you meant well, but…” it’s a criticism, it’s a critique, it’s a bald-faced insult of her good intentions. 

Last night, as I tried to assert myself, going against my usual complacency for her actions, and avoidance of conflict in general, it turned into a Mommy-trashing session.  According to her, at least, I was engaged in nothing less than the undermining of her very foundation, nothing more than verbal abuse.  Here’s how I perceive my part of the conversation went, after polite small-talk:

“Mom, I don’t like it when you send me a stamped card to send to someone, like Uncle Leo.  When you do that, it makes me feel like I’m a child.  I am an adult and am capable of sending a card by myself.  If it’s important to you that I send one, please just tell me.” 

That was perverted into accusations that I was ascribing intentions (malevolent, no less) to her actions, and that she views me as a child, and that she doesn’t think I’m an adult, and that she thinks, she feels, she means, she intends.  If you’ll reference my statements, I believe I talk only about her actions, and my resulting feelings, just like a good, assertive I-statement would.  She also enclosed a note I consider hideously inappropriate.  Had I used those words, I might be able to understand her feeling “trashed”, but I didn’t.  She essentially solicited gifts for Mother’s Day, under the guise of “helping me” by offering to let me know what she wants if I am so “stumped”.  I spent 30 minutes hand-crafting her a card, painstakingly sewing buttons and embroidering little flowers on it.  Her note immediately made me feel guilty for not sending a gift.  Even if I had – and I considered it – gone into a tizzy crafting/buying something fabulous for Mother’s Day, it wouldn’t have arrived on time, like the card did.  And doesn’t that just smack of, “I meant well, but I needed your reminder to send a gift, ‘cuz really I just forgot about you until you reminded me, and  it’s the thought that counts, but you solicited this ‘thought’, and it really doesn’t count, so Happy Mother’s Day anyway”?

So I gave her a similar message about her note about gifts.   Which was again perverted into accusations that I was assuming her intentions, her feelings, her thoughts.  This turned into a tirade about how everyone needs help, not just children.  People need help remembering to do things, to acknowledge the special days, to find the right gifts. 

And I basically lost it at this point.  Instead of her usual generalizations about life’s maxims and playing Devil’s Advocate for no apparent reason, it seemed very personal all of a sudden.  As if she were accusing me of, child or not, needing help to “do the right thing”.  And her version of etiquette – that’s what it’s always been about.  Sending cards for holidays and birthdays, making sure thank-yous are sent and received in a timely manner.  I hear about her harsh criticism for others who “never even sent a thank-you note” after she painstakingly picked out an obscure wedding gift of a pickle fork that probably confused the poor bride and groom more than anything.  I hear about her so-called friends who never call, never write.  I hear the judgment pouring out, and I know I have internalized it all. 

And because we cannot be mature in our conversations, my mother hung up on me shortly after 10pm, leaving our words said, but our conversation unresolved.  I called 8 times, and she wouldn’t pick up.  I tried my father’s phone, the land-line, and finally left a short message on her voicemail:

“When you hang up on me and don’t pick up the phone, it hurts my feelings.”

I tried again this morning.  She really couldn’t fathom why I’d want a “do-over”.  I had said what I wanted to say, right?  And every way I tried to say it, hurt her feelings.  I asked her last night how she would prefer I phrase it, as I couldn’t seem to play the game her way.  Oh, she had no idea; I should talk to my therapist about that.  Yes, I demurred, but my mother would be the only one who can gauge if my statements are appropriate enough for her ears. 

I don’t have therapy until Wednesday, and Mother’s Day is tomorrow.  I had to get this monkey off my back, so I tried again, in spite of her protestations that we’d already said all that needed to be said. 

“I don’t like it when you send me a stamped card to send to Uncle Leo.  Please don’t do it again.”


“I don’t like it when you send me a list of things you want for your birthday or Mother’s Day.  Please don’t do it again.”

Okay.  I pushed for a third.

“I’m not using the stand mixer you bought us for our anniversary.  Where can I return it to?”

Wal-mart.  Figures.  Of course, I was not rewarded for my last attempt, as I had waited too long to speak up (see how I can’t win?), and she doubted the store would take it back, even if she could (heroically) find the receipt.  And what a waste of money.  Yes.  Her money.  For buying us something we neither asked for nor have used in the 7 months since receiving it.  We are automatically ungrateful.  This was not expressed, but I could hear it between words. 

And though therapy isn’t until Wednesday, I think I may have figured out how best to express my feelings or opposition to things my mother says and does – leave emotion out of it entirely.  As all my feelings are perverted into insults on her pure intentions, or assumptions of her thoughts, none of them are valid. She can’t handle my feelings.  She can’t even comprehend them.   And they certainly don’t have a place in any conversation where I express dissatisfaction.  I may be able to get away with statements like this, geared at someone with the emotional maturity of a preschooler: “Stop that.  I don’t like that.  It makes me feel yucky.” 

Nothing more specific, nothing like “I feel angry when…” or “It hurts me when…” or “I feel guilty when…”  Nope.  Just “yucky”.  I think she could handle that.

And just to prove I’m not completely insensitive, cold, hard, and unfeeling, I ran a version of my first attempt by my husband.  Just to check. 

If he persisted in buying me beautiful skirts that were size 4, and I’ve been a size 6 since forever, it might make me upset.  I might want to speak up.  I might say, “Honey.  I know you mean well when you buy me these skirts, but they’re always the wrong size.  When I see that they’re too small, it makes me feel fat, or as if you’re trying to tell me I’m not the right size.  They’re beautiful, but I can’t use them.  Please stop doing it.  It makes me sad.” 

I asked him if that would make him feel “trashed”.  Nope.  I asked him if felt like an attack on his very underpinnings. Nope.  It seemed, on the whole, quite rational, quite reasonable.  And quite, now that I’m wiser, unlike anything I’ll ever be able to say to my mother.

My father is the quintessential absent-minded professor.  A babysitter once described his absent moments as seeming as though he is consulting a giant invisible blackboard in front of him, full of mathematical equations only he can understand.  My father is very smart.  He has also been trending more towards the absent-mindedness lately.  He can’t seem to hold a job since September, and this, for a man who is 68 but defines himself by his work, is breaking my heart.  He apparently did something — some mistake, some errors, some oversight, some slip-up — at his last place of employment, and now they can’t even give him a fair recommendation when a prospective employer calls.  They can’t even let him move on with his life.  Each place he interviews, they find out about the last place, and the hiring process stops dead in the water. 

We the family have no idea what this mistake was.  My family is pretty tight about our personal secrets, and not so good about sharing difficult moments or talking about emotionally laden subject matter.  I may or may not have referred to my brother as “emotionally retarded”.  I’m lying; I call him that regularly, just not to his face.  He’s not a macho guy, really.  He’s trending more Euro-trash lately, thanks to the influence of his fellow cosmopolitan physics doctoral students.  However, he regards any displays of emotion as being “like mom” and dismisses them as some sort of genetic defect.  See?  Not macho; he just  has the emotional maturity of a 4 year old.  And the rhetoric skills to go with it.

Apple not fall from from tree, you say?  Yeah, Dad’s not so good at that either.  Yet the main difference here is that Dad knows he’s not good at it.  After some recent blow-out/family drama/weekly crying session, he admitted, “I’m not good at the emotional piece (of child rearing),” but he had sensed that I was sad.  So Dad, despite his brilliance, and his blunder, has not spoken openly about what happened at work.  Suffice it to say, it was a B.M. (Big Mistake).

It was recommended, after the B.M., and subsequent job-leads-gone-bust, that he be evaluated by a psychiatrist to look for some physical/chemical/neurological explanation as to why, after working consistently and competently since 1967, he suddenly can’t hold or acquire a job.

And he, non-chalantly, mentioned this to me on the phone.  I freaked out.  Of course, not while talking to him.  Any family members who share feelings might have had the following conversation:

“Daddy, that’s scary.  What do they think is wrong with you?”

“Oh, it could be dementia, you know.  Don’t worry.  We’ll let you know how the MRI turns out.”

“Daddy, I’m so scared.  Talk to me and make me less scared.”

Or something.  I’m imagining this conversation, clearly, because the last time we approximated it, I was afraid of a witch hiding in my walk-in closet while I slept, and I haven’t had a walk-in closet since I was 6.  In reality, it went more like this.

“Yeah, well, they did an MRI, because they think I have some early stage dementia.”

“Uh huh?”

“And I didn’t do well on the word recall test, mostly.  No matter how many times they gave me the list of words, I couldn’t recall enough of them.”

“Uh huh.”

And then I hung up the phone and cried on my husband’s shoulder.  I imagined all of our unborn children growing up without a grandfather, as I did.  My father’s father made it until I was about 7, but he had had one of those diseases that cause you to sleep in a hospital bed in the dining room and sit in a wheelchair without moving or talking, and scare the piss out of your grandchildren.  I didn’t really know him.  I remember making Betamax videos for Grandma Esther and Grandpa Oscar, so they could watch us grow up.  I remember more about our grandma, who died when I was in 9th grade.  But about my grandfather, I have very few memories.  I saw the same fate befalling my children, and it scared me.  What would we do?  What would happen?  What would it look like?  When would he stop remembering us?  He’s always called us by the other’s names, and I comforted myself neatly into Denial thinking of that.  He’s always taken 45 minutes to go change a pair of pants, and he’s been getting lost going to my mother’s office for the five years she’s owned it.  But what else could happen?  I didn’t dare think.  I just let myself be held, and I cried. 

Today, he called me to talk about the new computer he bought on my recommendation.  Dad’s a tech-nut.  Even as he isn’t always on the fore-front of gizmotry and gadgetude, he’s interested in technology.  We were the first family I knew to own a CD-ROM, a DVD player, and a Disc-man.  His latest thrill is some unlimited tech-support in Bangalore he purchased.  It’s called iYogi, or something, and they’ll help him for two years, even running his virus protection software for him.  He’s very happy.  And they transferred all his old memory files to the new computer, something I told him they could do.  He was even happier.  The MRI came back negative.  I was even happier.  They still don’t know what’s wrong with my father.  They’re looking into nutritional definiciencies, since he’s an almost-vegetarian 5’6″ man who weighs less than 130lbs.  They’re looking into sleep and alertness issues, since the 95lb chocolate lab pins him down at night and he can’t move.  But the truth is, they don’t know my daddy.  They might not find out what’s wrong, or what’s newly wrong, or what’s different.  As long as I get a reprieve from my fears, and more time to prepare myself.  It’s hard enough dealing with my father as he is, a true absent-minded professor.  Let’s hope nothing more, and nothing less.

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