Why Do I Let Her Get to Me? Part 1

I’m thirty-seven years old and my crazy mother still screws with my head.

Her most recent antics are affecting me in unimaginable ways and I have no idea how to shake her off of me.

I need to do something because I’m slipping into the darkest depression I’ve experienced in years, perhaps ever. I know it’s bad because I’m sitting in front of my computer in a stained tank top and a pair of Gil’s grey, entirely too oversized boxer briefs while he and our kids are at a Memorial Day cookout. I just wish I could disappear.

Here’s a bit of the backstory:

My mom came to visit back in April while the boys were on spring break. We had a good week, but by Saturday we had surpassed our three-day max and needed to separate.

I’m never completely myself when my mother is around. She and I could not be any more different, yet her presence inevitably forces me to contort myself in to a more similar version of her. It’s a survival tactic and a torturous habit that I am incapable of breaking.

My mother’s judgement crushes me and makes me doubt myself and everything about my life, but I really don’t think she fully grasps the influence she has on me.

The visit was moving along typically until Friday evening. I decided to prepare a nice dinner since Mom would be leaving the next day. Gil doesn’t get home until at least seven most evenings, so our family meals are usually reserved for the weekends anyway. My mom is a full place-setting kind of gal, and she never lets an opportunity pass to let me know that she sees our way of existing as less than proper, frankly uncivilized. She’s way too much of a southern lady to come right out and say this to me, but I’ve known her long enough to read between her eye-rolls and deep, huffy breaths. I wasn’t born yesterday. She’s as transparent as cheap Saran Wrap.

If you’ve read much of my blog, you might have picked up on the fact that I’m not exactly a domestic goddess. However, in the five plus years that I’ve been a stay-home mom, I’ve learned my way around the kitchen and can put together a decent meal. Because I know this is important to my mom, I really wanted to end our visit with a nice, proper dinner.

The food was delicious, we all sat down together, and overall, I thought the night went well. Mom, of course, had to get in her jab that it was too bad we didn’t eat until nine o’clock. Determined to ignore her and knowing that our visit was almost over and that we had survived, I bit my tongue. It was becoming difficult and she had been our guest since Tuesday, but I only had to make it until the next morning. We had done well, and there had been no outbursts from either of us.

That night I collapsed into bed with Gil, and he even complimented me on how well I had “held it together” with my mom here. Gil and my mother are similar in that they don’t like to ruffle feathers and make scenes. They excel in pretending that everything is wonderful, when in fact, the world might very well be falling apart around us. Actually, my mom is more the put-on. Gil can simply be oblivious to his surroundings, so it’s more authentic and less Oscar-worthy. I find Gil’s simplicity naive and attractive, while I see my mother as a big, fat phony, though there is nothing fat about her. Her lessons to me in my teenage years consisted of phrases such as, “You can’t be too thin or too rich.”

Another favorite when I would complain about luncheons, showers, and my disdain for waded-up-salads (my term for any party dish held together with mayonnaise), “Honey, all southern ladies eat chicken salad. You’re just gonna have to accept that. It’s high time you started perfecting your own recipe.”

Mom even shocked Gil when she announced quite seriously that at her all-women’s alma mater, “We were only allowed to wear pants on back-campus.”

I seriously do not know where I came from. The irony, though, is that Mom’s life has been far from this simple ideal she has carved out in her head. While she would like to believe that she could have been deliriously happy sipping lemonade and glistening ever so faintly under her veranda, the truth is she’s a brilliant woman who gets bored stiff if she’s still for any length of time.

She recently broke off all ties with her man friend after he tried to buy her into his world. He offered to purchase any house in his area that she liked and pretty much told her he’d give her whatever she wanted if she would relocate to be near him. She firmly declined because she had no interest in uprooting her life to be in his, so they parted ways. She had a successful career in education and still does part-time consulting work. She’s not particularly needy and has always been fiercely independent and in no need of a man to support her or make her happy. Even as I type this, I realize how in awe of her I am and feel that my successes pale in comparison to hers.

In her eyes I was always a lanky, awkward tomboy who preferred basketball shorts and a tennis racket rather than literature and shift dresses.

It wasn’t until my father’s suicide my junior year of college that I ever attempted to please my mother. We openly butted heads for twenty years. She disapproved of my life and I didn’t give two cents what she thought. If she said up, I said down. To say we had a power struggle is an understatement of magnificent proportions, and I didn’t realize how much of a buffer my father was until he was gone.

When the sun peaked in through my bedroom window that Saturday morning, I was ready to escort Mom right on out of town. My anxiety was off the charts. I was getting snappy with Gil and the kids, and there was a thick tension settling throughout our home. I grew up with this kind of tension, the kind where images were preserved, niceties trumped authenticity, and I promised myself the day my oldest child was born that I would never allow this part of my past to infest my own nuclear family life.

I’ve done my best to stick to this. We are a family who loves hard. We are passionate people and we make mistakes. We value letting each other share their feelings. Our home is a safe space, and no one has to pretend. I understand that the world expects certain behaviors, and at times that’s a good thing, but I want my children to know that we love them no matter what. Our love is NOT conditional. You may have to pretend and hold back when you are at school, but within reason you can let your hair down at home. We value forgiveness. Dad and I disagree, and we resolve our differences. Our kids have seen this play out more than I would have liked, but life is not perfect. Wallace and Piers fight, but they also know how to apologize and move forward. We offer grace. I am all too aware of the detrimental effects perfectionism has on children. They are worthy simply because they are, never because of what they achieve. We applaud their achievements, but we’ll never love them any more or any less because of them.

I’ve attempted to explain some of this to my mother the perfectionist, but she glazes over and gets that wide-eyed alarmed look. The concept of authenticity is foreign to her. Good enough and grace are lost on her as well. As long as she is living and breathing, she wants to be improving.

This post is longer than I wanted, and I’m no where near explaining the current conflict.

I’ll end with this and continue in a new post. I snapped at Gil the Saturday morning that my mom was packing up to leave. It was like I had bottled up all of my frustrations throughout the week and then exploded on him (though he is far from an innocent victim in this, which I’ll explain later).

My mother witnessed me snapping and we’ve established that she does not approve of public unpleasantness. I will add that he and I excused ourselves and went to our bedroom to continue our argument. It was heated and loud enough for her to hear the majority of it based on the layout of our house. It lasted maybe five minutes, and then we both came out to tell her goodbye. She left quickly, but no one seemed to be especially jarred. It was enough of a fight that we sat Piers and Wallace down after, apologized and discussed it with them. That’s the way we do things in our household, and they didn’t seemed phased by any of it. Wallace wanted to know how much longer until we went on the bike ride we had been planning before all hell broke loose. Our weekend continued as normal.

Two days later, I received the email from my mom that has sent me into the depths.

Stay tuned…..

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4 thoughts on “Why Do I Let Her Get to Me? Part 1

  1. This is a very raw and honest post. We are so similar in many ways. Your mother is my father. I have always failed to live up to his expectations and he’s made no secret of that. I grew up walking on eggshells around him because the smallest thing would send him into a screaming rage. He threw me out of his home 4 years ago for looking at him the wrong way, and we haven’t spoken since.

    On the one hand, it’s a tremendous relief not to have to deal with his negativity and criticism of me. On the other hand, everyone tells me if I don’t resolve things with him, I may be tormented by that after his death. And when you don’t forgive, you’re only hurting yourself. All I know is I love not being around someone who’s so quick to point out how fat I am, or broken out, or poor, or a bad mother, or…

    I have a problem with rages, too. Always have. I suppose it builds and builds, until I’m caught in the wrong mood and BLAM! I explode. The good thing is once I explode, I’m fine soon after; the bad thing is I do irreparable damage. Therapists have told me to count to 10 first. If only. It’s like something in my brain snaps and I don’t know or even care what I’m saying. If I’m remembered for anything by my exes, it’s my temper. Oh joy!

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    • I just wrote a whole reply and accidentally deleted it. Grrr. I’m sorry about your dad. It stinks when people choose to criticize you for things you already see and don’t necessarily love about yourself. My mom’s more passive-aggressive, which is frustrating because she can be so calm yet so cutting.

      As far as forgiveness, I do think it’s important to forgive FOR OURSELVES. However, forgiveness does not mean that you are obligated to subject yourself to your dad’s rage and criticism. That’s part of what my mom doesn’t get. She wants me to be like her, and I never will be. We are vastly different. I’m working on accepting her for who she is and I’ve learned to limit our visits and go into them with no expectations. The trouble is I think I’m okay until I spend a few days with her, and then I get all anxious and crazy. It’s really not pretty.

      I need to post a follow-up to this. My whole relationship with my family is an ongoing issue in my life.

      As for what you said about being tormented after his death, I don’t know. I think sometimes we need distance from people to heal. People who are not in your situation want to help, I’m sure, but I have a feeling you know what you need better than they do — just a hunch.

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  2. I’m so sorry you had to deal with this. Your mother sounds like what Julia Cameron would call a “crazy maker.” I’m no shrink but it sounds like you need to establish some major boundaries since she doesn’t seem willing to hash things out and be honest. (Or maybe you haven’t tried really hashing things out civilly?) I have a gut feeling that her issues are really more about her than about you, because why does she care so much about how you guys live your life? Does she think it’s a poor reflection on how she raised you? Is she still grieving for your dad? Is she resentful that you’ve found a good partner and she’s all alone? Who knows? But I guess I need to know more about what’s in that email to be able to comment further.

    I will say that in the South I find people to be a lot more concerned about appearances and what’s “proper” than in other parts of the country. It’s exhausting! I’m glad I don’t buy into it. But from what you said, she grew up in the South and no doubt she had that stuff crammed down her throat. I’m sure it takes a toll on a person who doesn’t have the objective perspective to see how harmful it is.

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    • Yes — your assessment is spot-on. What’s hard is that I know all of this, and I’m more upset with myself for allowing her to affect me. I think in her twisted mind, she knows that she doesn’t get to me like she did when i was younger. It feels like she’s reaching deep and attacking me where it hurts the most (my kids and my parenting.)

      As for hashing things out civilly, I have tried. It’s just hard to get through so many layers, and I’m at the point where it infringes on my life to even try to do so. She’s more passive in her communication where I’m more snappy and direct. She retreats and I attack and then I end up feeling like a bully which is never my intention.

      Thanks for your insight. I posted the email, but still there’s more. I just had to take a break.

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