real lj idol | week 30 (prompt 4) | 1854 words
I can't pretend this is any sort of tragedy, when both my parents are still living and I know that they love me. But at the same time, this is the part of the year when I always find myself feeling melancholy over how different I wish things had been.
Shopping for Mother's Day cards is what always sets this off. I know many other people have it harder, those who have lost their mothers and cannot escape the pain this holiday reawakens every spring. I know that my situation also doesn't begin to compare with that of people whose parents abused them.
But still, it hurts.
Every year, as I look at the selection of cards celebrating mothers' support and tenderness, I am reminded of why I always wind up buying a blank card or one with a simple "Happy Mother's Day" greeting, instead. My mother is not the nurturing kind, at least not of me. After those early childhood years, anything resembling tenderness was long gone, and my choices—no, even my transient passions—were to be judged and discouraged to make sure they went away.
I was grudgingly allowed to take ballet, even though I would "never be any good at it," and violin and piano lessons were warmly endorsed up until the point where I committed the sin of actually majoring in music at college (surely making my mother regret everything that came before). My mother was fixated on my becoming a doctor, and she actively dissuaded anything that deviated from that path. Never mind that I had told her continually from the sixth grade onward that I was not going to be a doctor and had no interest in the idea—it had been her dream and she had achieved it, so surely it would someday become my dream, too.
My 8th-grade basketball fever was a waste of time, in her mind, because women couldn't make a living playing basketball. Neither she nor my father ever came to a single game—nor to the 8th-grade girls' Portland Metro free-throw competition my coach signed me up for (where I wound up getting third place).
My parents did come to my orchestra concerts. After a 9th-grade one where I had a violin solo, my mother's criticisms triggered a lifetime of performance anxiety (and 35 years later, it's still going strong). They came to my plays in high school, but always seemed pained as to why I was involved in drama in the first place. Given my mother's patterns, it's probably fortunate that I never had a leading role.
It was around the time I entered sixth grade that she settled into a solid vein of, "That's very nice, but…" How I looked and what I did somehow always fell short of the mark. My sophomore year of high school, I got As with a single B+ my first semester, and she wondered why they weren't all As. The second semester, when they were all As, she dismissed them with the comment that I should be taking harder classes.
My junior year, I discovered that my 7th- and 8th-grade advanced courses in Algebra and German counted as high school credit. What a lifeline! I seized the opportunity to graduate a year early, and went off to an out-of-state college at the age of 16.
Can you believe my mother still wonders why?
Her behavior didn’t let up in the college years at all. I got so sick of her repeatedly asking, "What are you majoring in?", that soon I was down to a simple two-word answer: "Music. Still."
The economy in Oregon was terrible when I graduated from college (in music. Still). My readily employable skill was as a radio announcer, thanks to working at the campus station. I entered the profession at a public radio station in Illinois.
For a shy person like me, that move was hard, but getting farther away really improved my relationship with my mother. Not on my part so much, because I'd stopped hoping for her approval long ago, but because it helped her let go of the idea that my future was hers to control.
She still brought up the doctor-dream from time-to-time, but being away from her scrutiny left her fewer things to criticize. Surprisingly, she happened to mention that her own mother had been very critical of her, and that the same was true in her mother and grandmother's relationship, but that she hoped she hadn't done that to me.
I think that blinding lack of self-awareness angered me more than anything. After having been victim to her ongoing criticism for most of my life, I could not let her comment go unchallenged:
"That defines my entire relationship with you."
I didn't scream or yell, but she knew I wasn't kidding. Somehow, after all the things she had refused to listen to, all the ways in which I'd tried again and again to express the concept of "me," those words finally made it through.
Though my difficulties with my mother are obvious, my regrets are not just about her. My father was fairly supportive of our interests (in a more intellectual and low-key kind of way), and rarely prone to criticism. But while he balanced that aspect of my mother, he drove the overall tone of our upbringing in a direction that caused a different kind of pain.
Growing up, almost everything centered on what my father wanted (even in the short-term), and most of the time he wanted to do adult things and not 'kid' things. Aside from a single trip to Disneyland, my parents were usually uninvolved in any child-centered entertainment unless our fun was a side-effect of something my Dad already wanted to do. My sister and I still got to do many things kids enjoyed, like going to the zoo, the science museum, or the skating rink. But we were driven to those places and then dumped off for the afternoon, with only each other for company. It probably sounds ungrateful to resent that, but it points to a larger truth that colors everything:
My mother and father were 'disinterested' parents.
I remember that somewhere in my late twenties, my younger sister asked if I'd grown up feeling that our parents loved us.
"Yes," I said, "I always knew they loved me. I just thought nobody else ever would."
I still remember her response: "Don't you think that's kind of sad?"
I knew what she meant. How do you manage to communicate your affection to your children while also giving them the impression that they're so flawed, they're completely unlovable?
I police myself constantly with my own children, to make sure I never accidentally pass that kind of message along.
The twinges of pain I get looking at Father's Day cards are slightly different. For Father's Day, there's the different problem of finding cards not centered around fishing or golf. I don't have to be so careful with the sentiments inside the cards, with avoiding words that feel like lies. What hurts instead is looking at the cards for grandfathers.
My disinterested parents… are also disinterested grandparents.
Pictures of old men blowing bubbles for toddlers—or the man in his sixties out on the bike path, riding behind his young grandson and towing his little granddaughter in a bike trailer—bring tears to my eyes. My parents have never spent any real time alone with either of my children, nor have they wanted to. Other grandparents babysit, or take children to the park or out for ice cream. My parents only did outings with the kids a couple of times—under duress, and only because I was also there.
My parents live out of state, but they're not strangers. They visit us and vice-versa several times a year. That's not the issue. My parents interact with their grandchildren primarily by talking at them, and always within the cocoon of having me or my husband present. Doing child-centered activities doesn't cross their minds—any more than it did when I was growing up. My parents are healthy, and have a good amount of energy, but my father has always been focused on himself (and making sure he keeps my mother on his chosen path).
On my husband's side of the family, the kids were lucky to have a doting grandmother. My father-in-law passed away the year we got married, but he was a loving grandfather to our nieces and nephews beforehand. My husband's mother, now gone these past two and a half years, was six years older than my parents, and wanted to squeeze in as much time with her grandchildren as she could. She was the grandparent who wanted to take the kids to the movies or zoo, and it hurt so much to have to tell her that we just weren't comfortable with her driving abilities by then. (She took the news gracefully, as hard as it was for her). So instead, she had the kids over to make cookies or play in the kiddy pool, and took them by stroller to the neighborhood parks near her house. She had them overnight once in awhile (at her age, a single night was all she could manage). Baths, bedtime, and breakfast were a completely different experience from day visits, and she and the kids loved it all. As her health grew worse, she moved to a senior care apartment across town. We took the kids to see her, or sometimes brought her to our house for the day. She still wanted to have the kids stay overnight now and then, but it was more tiring for her, so she did it one child at a time. Right up to the end, she was incredibly creative about balancing her fading energy with the things she valued most. We were so fortunate to have her.
My parents often say how nice it would be if my family moved up to Oregon. My responses were always agreements inside a lie while my mother-in-law was still living, because the truth was that I would never have taken my kids away from her. Never. I couldn't have done that to them or to her.
The topic of moving still comes up, and even though my mother-in-law is gone (and all other logistics of jobs, friends, and stability aside), the answer is the same. I'd like to return to my home state someday, but it won't be soon.
I'm sure my parents realize their own time is limited, and they wish we were closer. I understand that, but I also know the result would amount to proximity instead of emotional understanding. I wish things were different, but my parents are in their mid-eighties, and none of their behavior is going to change. It's simply who they are.
It really hurts to say this—to know this—but I often think my kids and I are lucky to be farther away.
It's much, much harder to see what a relationship is missing when the truth of it isn't sitting right there in front of you every day.
LJ Idol voting for this round is open to all current season participants. Details here.