Wednesday, September 08, 2010

The puzzle

For years, I've been trying to figure out my relationship with my mother. Our relationship swings wildly from wonderful conversations and loving support to terrible arguments and bitter resentment. Last night, on the phone, we almost got into a fight again when she said that some of her behavior around me--an odd kind of hesitance--is because she's afraid of setting me off and enduring my wrath. My wrath! Now, it's not like I never get angry but I don't actually yell and scream very often. Ok, I get a tone that is heard as "yelling" when I haven't actually raised my voice, but these days it's most often directed at UPS for, yet again, failing to leave packages for me even after I sign the hang tag. Anyway. My mom, is afraid of my yelling. That is just...upside down. Why? Because, growing up, I was afraid of my mom's yelling. She had a TERRIBLE temper and would lash out in rather unpredictable ways. Still, in most ways, she was (and is) and excellent mother. I always felt loved unconditionally, I always felt safe and protected. I never wanted for anything, though I wasn't indulged. I was told I was beautiful and smart and I escaped food and body image problems because of both of my parents' behavoir. So, while there was much that was imperfect about my childhood, there was a lot of good too.

But, I just kind of reeled when Mom said that to me. Because, as far as I know, in my day-to-day life, I am niether regarded as unpredictable nor tempermental. Well, maybe tempermental--as in, I will show my feelings and sometimes, those feelings are angry or upset--though just as frequently excitment or joy. I don't dwell, stay angry long or hold grudges (neither does my mom, to her credit). And I don't get angry over stupid stuff (unless UPS counts). I am pretty predictable. Does my mom still have those flashes of temper? She claims not to. She says that all ended years ago. I suppose that's mostly true--in that she doesn't yell at me very often. I do yell at her, rarely, but I am more apt to get angry at her than almost anyone else (I'd say Dad comes in a close second, followed by UPS). She also seems to think that our Paris trip was bad because I yelled at her. Honestly, I don't remember yelling at her but that doesn't mean I didn't. I went through the blog archieves and I found this:

I did grow annoyed with my mother, though, and I managed to hurt her feelings pretty badly by expressing it a bit too directly. Thing is, she wasn't much help. She was too shy to really try out her French and I did almost as much talking as she did! (I was also impressed by my ability to understand others and express myself. I can read signs and order in restaurants but I can't have conversations.) Still, it was good to have her there to talk to and bounce around ideas. I dunno. I wish we could have more fun together. It wasn't a terrible time--we've certainly had worse--but I wish I could say we had an unadulterated great time. Oh well. It's not much of a surprise. We're trying and that's something.

So, I admit that I said something mean and hurtful to my mother (sigh). I don't remember what it was anymore, which may be for the best. I STILL don't remember yelling at her or making a public scene (another accusation). It may have happened but it may be that what I considered a brief, unconsequential outburst she felt as a cataclysmic affair. This is deeply troubling and annoying. First, I don't think I actually acted as horribly as she thinks I did. That doesn't really matter, since she feels as bad as she feels, which I regret. Second, she really did act this way ALL DURING MY CHILDHOOD. Now, I'm sorry, I'm not saying it's ok for me to act this way now (and I don't) but--how much worse is it to blow up about nothing to your little kid than to get frustrated and cranky with your adult mother? From that quoted paragraph, I think I did tell my mom what was bothering me. Oh, I remember. I said she was useless. I really shouldn't have said that. I did get angry, back at our flat, after a frustrating day together. Apparently she was tired, confused and had blisters. I know for sure she didn't mention any of that to me at the time and if she had, I would have been a lot more understanding. Instead, I felt like I was lugging someone around who was supposed to help me a little and instead, really didn't want to be there. Miscommunication galore. What a mess. And, she's still unhappy about it over two years later! Well, I can apologize, again, for what I said. But I reallly hate that she thinks about me as super angry and unpredictable. I will refrain from talking her out of that because if I do, I'll be protesting too much and we all know what that means.

Ah, so, I have completely missed my point, which is that Mom told me something last night that I think is absolutely key to understanding some of our issues. She said something about trying not to compare where I am and where she was at the same age. At first, I didn't know what she was getting at--I am not doing as well because I don't have a husband/ex-husband/kids? Or I am doing better because I have a better paying job and more stable career? Or something else? It was more the latter, as it turns out (whew). But this is when I got it, she said, "At your age, I was paying for everything for my parents. When Grandma came to visit, I paid for the tickets--it wasn't even a question--and for everything else too."

Fascinating! I am not at all surprised to hear that Mom paid for everything, Grandma had no money. And Mom said that she doesn't want me to pay for everything...but sometimes she feels...bad. Right. This happens all the time when I'm in Seattle. We go for dinner and she pays. We go out again, and she pays. But she starts looking at me funny. Finally, I realize, I should pay. Next time we go out, I pay. She thanks me. Last time we go out, I'm not sure if I should pay. Maybe I pay, she lets me, but says I didn't have to. What I realize now is that she is experiencing some serious inner turmoil about these financial transactions. She can afford to pay every time. So can I! So, why don't I? (I know why I don't--I'm still the kid.) So, she doesn't want to care who pays and she doesn't want to resent that I could pay but that I don't always--but she does resent it. So she tries not to say anything, but sometimes she'll snap at me. Sometimes she get angry because I didn't thank her sufficiently and mostly, she's just caught in this conflict that she wishes weren't there.

This is extremely helpful information. It's so helpful that it might even be at the bottom of most of our issues. I really wish she'd told me sooner. I will be paying a lot more in the future and I will be absolutely delighted to do so. I really hope that she stops tiptoeing around me and worrying about setting me off, too. I wonder if that will change.

Grateful for: new understanding.


  1. I'm commenting on the yelling/tiptoeing part: my mother says the same thing and she was the same way when I was growing up. It fascinates me that she doesn't remember it that way and that she wonders why I have these little bursts of anger/annoyance. She's even said, "no one ever talked to you that way when your were growing up"!

    I've learned, with time, to not engage her in things that could set me off--which is hard, mainly b/c she accuses me of distancing myself from her--but it makes both of us happier in the long run.

    Still it's hurtful to think that my own mother is nervous around me. But it's the same way I feel about her (little things used to set her off and I never knew what it would be, so I still walk on eggshells even though she isn't nearly as "volatile" as she once was). Good luck working it out!

  2. Regan: fascinating--so similar to my experience! My mother does remember having a temper but I'm not sure she thinks she was unpredictable. I do still sometimes find myself tiptoeing around her and worrying about setting her off, offending her or dealing with her super-critical side.

    Thanks for sharing your experience. It feels better to know I'm not the only one.

  3. good one. . .sounds fascinating!keep posted


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