The Pot and the Kettle

I do not like my mother.

My mother does not like me.

The two facts landed softly after hard words and deep pain, on a 180-mile drive down a dark highway, silent but for the sound of my tires on the road, leading me back from a family vacation a day earlier than planned, grateful and relieved to be home at 1am.

I think I first sensed my mother’s dislike when I was about 10. I can’t say when she first sensed mine because I can’t pinpoint when it became obvious. I have, and I believe she has, spent a lot of time and emotional energy since then trying to either rectify it, dance around it, pretend it wasn’t there or ignore it.

None of those things have worked, and none of them ever will. That’s clear now.

I am always the quiet one on family vacations. Part of that is because my family is loud. With the nephews and niece, we are 12 people in one house, and no fewer than three are running, shrieking or arguing at any given time except those few precious dark-night hours when even the baby is sleeping. I tend to be an observer; I take things in – I rarely initate. It’s just who I am. For countless summer vacations I have been happy for some time with my book and a spot on the beach or in the house that’s away from the din.

But somehow I am expected to be someone different from year to year, so that there are always questions about what’s bothering me, what’s wrong with me or why I’m anti-social.

Nothing, nothing, and I’m not. Since I was a teenager, this has been my vacation routine. I have lived alone for 14 years, and I am not used to being around 11 other loud, shrieking, arguing, running people for 24 hours a day for a week. I like my space, I like my quiet, and I don’t have anything to say because I’ve been with you for all this time and therefore nothing new has happened in my life of which you are not aware.

I cannot talk for 15 minutes about a pair of shoes. If you ask me a question, my answer will only have so many words. I don’t count them. I just answer. Not everything is fodder for a full conversation.

Was anything bothering me this week? Yes. Two things. One was Jack. I have spent the last ten summers thinking of Jack on the beach. I’m still struggling with it and I’m still hurting and I am reminded of that when I’m sitting on a beach in a tiny town I love, to which I invited him many times, only to have him refuse each time for one reason or another, and then visit it with Gwyneth instead, while hiding the nature of their relationship from me. I had dreamed about him in fitful sleep. I wish it weren’t bothering me, but it was. My family doesn’t know about how my relationship with Jack evolved, devolved or ended because I’m a very private person who doesn’t share her personal life much. My family knows that.

The other thing that was bothering me was my mother. Over the course of the week, the two thoughts that gelled in the car in the end had been pushing their way to my consciousness. I was struggling with them, too. Nobody likes to admit that she doesn’t like her mother, and nobody likes when her mother doesn’t like her. It seems unnatural.

What has finally broken the surface is that it is completely natural – as natural as disliking anyone. The only thing that’s unnatural is trying to force oneself to change the feeling in the absence of a change in the person.

I am me. She is she. What we do not like in each other are things central to who we are. Though we can move to accommodate differences in whatever way is possible, the fundamentals of our selves cannot be changed.

But my quiet and my feelings about my mother had created a tension that erupted at the dinner table Friday night when I jokingly insisted that a young band performer’s four-inch acrylic heels were trashy and my mother told me to put my chin away. The long, slow simmer of the pot’s relationship with the kettle ticked from 210 degrees to 211, and I told her, with an effort at joviality to belie truth, that she had jutted hers first. And she told me, nastily, to shut up. Twice.

I got up from the table to do the dishes and try to control my anger, and a few minutes later, she ordered me to sit down. Still furious, and now resentful of being an adult ordered to a chair for a lecture, I ignored her. When she yelled at me again to sit down, I turned and looked at her but made no move to obey, my mouth firm because anything that could come from it now would be bad.

212.

She stood shrieking obscenities and came at me. My sisters and brothers-in-law scattered from the area with the kids. My mother’s fury made her stronger despite being four inches shorter, and she grabbed me by both shoulders, turned me around and threw me into the chair. Then she leaned over me, finger in my face, still screaming profanities, and threatened to hit me.

It was then that I knew I would not stay the night.

My father stood close-by but made no move to stop the incident, instead coming to tower over me, telling me to obey. I wondered in what way I had behaved as a child who might warrant this treatment and was admittedly not receptive to a conversation when my father mandated it, convening what felt like an intervention because I had been quiet this week.

I think, now, that he was initially motivated by concern until I told them that if they know I’m quiet and I tell them there’s nothing wrong, they need to accept it. He ceded that. Was there something wrong? Yes. I had a broken heart and I don’t like my mother. The former is of no matter here, and the latter might yet be best left unsaid. With both of those truths considered, accept the negation and let it be.

The next twenty minutes picked apart my faults as a person and what my mother called my life’s blessing and curse: “You are smarter than 90% of the people around you and you don’t hide it.”

I also fail at greeting card shopping.

“The last two Mother’s Day cards you sent me were funny.” This was an accusation.

“Are you fucking kidding me right now?!” The only time I swore.

How do I explain that my failure to send mushy greeting cards to my mother is not out of an inability to express warm feelings, but out of a lack of having those feelings for her at all?

“You hate me, don’t you?” she demanded to know. Her chin jutted and her eyes hardened. It was a challenge, a goading – an effort at drawing ire so she could play the victim from here forward.

“If I hated you, would I send you a card at all? Would I think of you? Would I call you? Would I ever talk to you?”

“No.”

“Okay, then.”

My father asked what my mother has always wondered: why he and I can talk for an hour on the phone and she and I cannot. He knows the answer, but always stops at a single reason: we can talk about business and work. I gave the real reason: he and I talk about a lot of other things – including politics – and I cannot talk with my mother about those things. And when I do try to talk with her about work, she doesn’t care. She changes the subject – sometimes when I’m in the middle of a sentence.

She apologized and said she would try to do better. It was a score she kept, so that later in the conversation, she could say she had acquiesced to two things and I to none.

Which wasn’t even true, but is her standard of operation.

When the demand came for an explanation as to why we have always had such a tense relationship, I started with my answer but was interrupted with accusations. And when I calmly tried to point out that something my mother had just said was an example of why I feel she is judgmental, she rolled her eyes, shrugged her shoulders and said, “This is futile.” Then she got up and left the room.

I pointed at the empty chair while my father stared down at the table. “I don’t know how to fix that,” I said quietly.

Minutes later, with my father and me both still at the table, my mother came back to finish the dishes I had started, and told me that if I insisted on leaving that night, I should think about how it would affect the family. This was her way of constructing a narrative to claim that I had been the one to walk out.

There was no good path to take, but the moment that had sealed my decision to leave had not been mitigated and no forgiveness had been sought. I had been commanded to respect her by virtue of her motherhood and told that I didn’t have to like how I was treated and that I, as the child, do not warrant a similar degree of respect.

On that, we will never agree.

I packed calmly and waited an hour for my sisters and their families to return from the amusement park and ice cream shop so that I could say goodbye and tell them I was sorry if my decision to leave that night hurt them.

My sisters and their husbands told me that they were not hurt, and they understood.

I said goodbye to my parents, with hugs, and I drove three hours home, with a new acceptance of our destination and no idea of where to go from here.

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22 thoughts on “The Pot and the Kettle

  1. Oh dear. There is always somebody you don’t get along with in any family. Sorry. But maybe the acceptance will help. On the other hand, maybe things will change. There are a whole lot of maybes as well as hopes in dealing with family members, I find.

  2. I read this last night on my tablet but didn’t have my keyboard along to respond. Families can be the shits and what makes it worse is our societal mythology that they shouldn’t be, It sounded like an awful scene and I think you conducted yourself well, not that you need my approval. I’m sorry you had to go through this with your Mom and that your mutual dislike for each other is so obvious Sometimes a crisis triggers a shift … sometimes, it’s just another crisis. I’ll hope for the former for you.

    Liking and loving are two very different things. I love both my kids but I’m less than thrilled at the people they turned out to be. I would not choose either of them as friends, but as relatives, I’m stuck with them. It’s hard for me not to see what I see as their faults reflecting on me although I try not to. I sometimes wonder how it all looks from their side.

    • The societal mythology is exactly what I was getting at when I mentioned that it’s natural to dislike some people – thank you for putting a better phrase to it. I don’t know that I conducted myself entirely well, because I admit that being shrieked at and shoved into a chair left me less than open to conversation and much more challenging than I might have been if it had gone another way (when I pointed out that it might have been better if she had come to me separately and said, “Can we talk?” instead of commanding me to sit down, she said I was asking her to change who she is). But I was mindful of my anger before that, and once I calmed down after, I handled myself better, I hope.

      You are so right about like and love being different. I think, as you mentioned, the added angst for a parent is that their offspring are not who they hoped they would be. It’s natural to be naive enough to think one’s children will be as one wishes them to be, or, at bottom, will resemble one or both of the parents. It’s hard, I gather, when a parent looks at their son or daughter and can’t understand how they got to be who they are. As a childless adult who has long struggled with her mother (25 years), I wonder if parents ever fully accept that it is not a two-way deal. Parents decide to have, choose to have or accept having children. Their sons and daughters get no say in the matter. There is no contract, though I find a contract is often what parents expect. I am not really willfully obstinate about it – I don’t begrudge my parents’ generosity in my education or the support they’ve offered or the values they’ve instilled in their daughters. They have been good parents. I just don’t agree to some of the conditions set forth in the contract that I never entered into, which they find inarguably bonding by virtue of conception.

  3. It seems to me that the truth is not really what she’s looking for. It speaks volumes that being kind and gentle with her daughter during conflict would be asking her to change herself (though maybe I’m wrong or I’m misinterpreting). She wants you to change to suit her. But then most of us want the world to wrap around us in the way that suits us best. Anyway, she refuses to listen when you try to offer options or solutions or simply ask her to meet you half way. And this is ongoing, based on other posts you’ve written. I think she just wants to hear that it’s you, not her.

    Truth is, we can only change ourselves and our own situation. Which could mean making some hard choices, like limiting contact. For your own peace and mental health, you will have to change how you interact with her, what you accept from her, how you view and internalize her words and actions. Maybe you limit family vacations and length of stay during holidays. Or you train yourself not react to her. It is super hard to do, and it takes tons of practice. But it can be done. Examine her each time her words or actions hurt you, BEFORE you allow yourself to react. Why does she act this way? Look hard at who she is, her motivations, limitations, etc. You may find that you end up feeling a bit sorry for her. She seems unwilling to change or see herself clearly, so that’s two things to pity right there. I’m sure she has many, many wonderful qualities, and those should be focused on too.

    I did it once, making a huge effort to understand someone and then be accepting of her. My anger/resentment/bewilderment slowly morphed into compassion. In the end, I realized how much of my disapproval I had been letting show before. And when my feelings toward her changed, she softened and she actually did change as well. Even if all it gets you is some peace and acceptance, then that will be a win for you. Of course, I don’t know all of the ends and outs of your relationship and history, but I do know you can’t change anyone but yourself.

    • Thanks for your insights, Stoney. I appreciate that you’ve had a similar relationship and have the experience to provide those insights. Some of them are similar to what I’m starting to accept. I will recommit myself to monitoring my reactions. So far I’ve tried to just keep my mouth shut and react as little as possible when she says something I can’t tolerate, but I guess she’s interpreting that as disrespect. I can’t respond to her or it causes trouble (because either my response is too brief or runs afoul of her sensititivites), so I don’t know how to do that, but I’m thinking on it. And you’re right about limiting time; this is the only time of the year when I spend more than 48 hours around her, and that’s because my whole family is there and I enjoy the time with them (usually). The sad thing right now is that I’m in such a negative place about her that I don’t see many good qualities. Terrible, huh? And I know that contributes to the tension. I’ve got to look for them.

      • Not terrible – normal! Sometimes you just can’t win! With my person, shutting up worked really well. After that, I just had to re-adjust the way I viewed her outburst or what I perceived as meaness (which was really insecurity and anxiety). It sounds like your mom doesn’t give you much room to manuever, and also reinforces the image that she needs to be right and needs people to validate/agree with her. So for you, how important is being right (disagreeing or protecting your own sensitivities) compared to having a peaceful relationship or at least a peaceful visit? That may be the ultimate question to ask yourself.

        Maybe you can still examine her when you are away from it and come to some understanding for yourself, and maybe tailor some voice tones and comments that will satisfy her and not make you completely crazy. It would be hard work, I think, and probably not sit well with you for a while (it would make me kinda resentful I think), but if it brings you some peace, you’d end up happier. At the very least, you could smile in your head that you’re the bigger person and she doesn’t even realize what you’re doing. I don’t mean that to sound mean about your mom, but there are some people in this world that we just have to work around, as opposed to with. We don’t get to choose our birth families, but we mostly have to keep dealing with them, haha.

      • I don’t care that much about being right. What I care about is being respected as an adult, and my own person. Shutting up has been helpful from my perspective because it keeps me from saying things she wouldn’t like, but on the whole it’s not too helpful because she deems it “difficult to talk to.” Having a peaceful visit is certainly important – but only to the point at which I have to maintain – and sometimes enforce – my self-respect.

        We do have to keep dealing with them… that’s for sure!

  4. I’m sorry.

    I get this, 100%.

    Are you an introvert? I am, although that’s not the problem. In my family, everyone is well aware of the different personalities.

    My suggestion would be to limit contact with her. My mother still gives me the silent treatment on ocassion, going back to the “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all model.”

    I am in the midst of this with my kids- the oldest are teenagers and maybe that’s all it is.

    It’s ok to not like your parents. I’ve swung on that pendulum for a really long time. As an adult, there is no way I would sit and be reprimanded or chastised like that. I simply will not do it. {Of course, I’m 41, too, so that may be part of it, although in my 20s, I pretty much did my own thing then, too.} I don’t ask them for anything, including counsel.

    I am not perfect, and I pretty much suck as a parent, but I will muddle my way through it best I can. It doesn’t help, though, when everyone else expects the oosh and goosh to fly with family and in particular, mothers. Maybe I fail as a mother because I didn’t get along with mine and therefore have been determined to not do many of the same things. I don’t know.

    Easy to say try not to stess about it and let it go- harder to do it. I’ve written several letters, getting it all out, because there is no having a conversation about these things with them. Even as a kid, I had to have a list of my points, because they always talked first, and then of course, you were an idiot {not that they ever said that, but that’s how you felt} if you didn’t agree with them by the time they were done.

    As an adult, the letters were my chance to have MY voice undiluted with commments or questions or body language and looks.

    Peace.

    • We seem similar here. Yes, I am an introvert. In fact, I just saw something today that screamed THIS IS YOU at me – and it was about being an introvert. You’re only five years older than me, and believe me, I was not at all up for sitting there and taking it, but since volatility had already arrived in the equation, the only way around it would have been to cause physical harm to my mother, which I would never do. I’m sure you can relate to that. I have hoped that blogging and vomiting all my drama at the cybersphere would serve as a kind of letter-writing. It does help. Thank you for your sensitivity and your empathy.

      • My “go to” response has always been to remove myself from the situation if I could. We moved across the country which meant a single visit from them annually, usually for 2 full days.

        Now that we’ve moved closer and one brother (that we have nothing to do with because he is completely uncommunicative with us for who knows why) is about 2 hours away, we’ll get biannual visits.

        The letters I actually sent. For me, personally, I didn’t feel like I could stay quiet and stew in my own juices. I felt like I could never move on and/or get resolution if I didn’t lay it all out.

        We have paramiters. There are things I/we will not do. As long as they are respectful- particularly in my space- we’re ok.

        I do think some of our issue is the lack of biology, because on a very basic level, we are very different and are wired differently. The 6 bio kids all have similar thinking; my older (also adopted) and I were always differently brained.

        That being said, it’s not an excuse or reason as much as it’s another factor.

        I hope you can eventually find some measure of peace and accepting, regardless of what the relationship looks like. {{{{Hugs}}}}

  5. Oh wow. I am so sorry. There is just no win in that situation at all. I think you handled it the best you could at that time.

    I do not like my mother at all. However, I think she likes me. Maybe not anymore since I have been nothing but cool and civil to her these past years, but she used to want to try to be my “best friend.” More for appearances, probably. She wanted what she saw her friends have. Now that I think about it, I don’t think she likes anyone but herself, really. So, I guess I’m right where you are. Never thought about it that way, but there you go.

    My advice is to avoid spending time with her as much as possible. Works for me, anyway. Usually.

  6. The good thing is that we don’t live near each other. We see each other about once a month, for about a day. That works out well. Talking on the phone can be a challenge, because I feel obligated to do it once a week and when I feel obligated I don’t typically come off well! But there’s definitely something worth considering when it comes to week-long vacations. Maybe I have to limit those occasions. The struggle is that it means cutting back on my time with the rest of my family, who I do like.

  7. What a miserable fix you’re in! We can choose our friends, but we can’t choose our family. You might consider not doing the weekly phone call or the monthly day-visit for a while. Put the ball in her court.
    At our family reunion last month, I had a row with a niece over some behavior of her teen-age daughter, and I still feel badly about it. But that’s nothing compared to what you just went through!

    • Thanks Joanne. t’s been surprisingly hard this week. I think as a responsible, self-aware person, we’re obligated to take into account those things which the people we love feel are problematic about us. I’ve been struggling with finding the balance, but I’ve gotten some peace from those who know me well who insist that I’m not the problem in this situation. That helps, though it doesn’t answer how to mediate things with my mother. Interestingly, I just received a card from her. I think she had American Greetings produce it just for this occasion, it’s so spot-on. Inside, she says she had no right to tell me to shut up and that she’s sorry about that and about losing her temper. That’s something. Those were the reasons I left, so that’s something.

  8. Sorry. My insides get all chewed up when I’m on the outs with someone. Can imagine you’re feeling equally unsettled… especially since it’s your mom. A lot of people would simply get pissed, move on and hold a grudge. I like that you’re digging into it, exploring it and grappling with how to handle it. Painful as it is, I think it will serve you well – both in life and in your writing. I guess that’s something?

    • Turns out I have anxiety attacks at a mild level for days and react slightly more meanly to people who can’t get their acts together at work. Fascinating. Break out the Klonopin! Thank you for the credit. I do feel like self-aware people have to make sure we at least consider the criticisms we hear instead of being that person who thinks they never do anything wrong. It has helped that no one has seconded her feelings. But it’s hard to know exactly how many issues there are – we only got as far as a couple of them before she left the table. If it helps anything, including my writing, I suppose there’s something to be gained.

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