This is the biggest problem in my life right now: I suck at being nice to my mother. Far from nice, some days I am downright cruel. I put her down on a daily basis, I mock, I shout, I scorn. I don’t know how to make things better.
To make a bit more sense of this I need to reveal some of my back-story. So much of what my mother and I do and say today is tied in with our past. I was raised mostly by my grandmother who was quite the tyrant. She controlled my life and my mother’s for many years. She made all the big decisions like which country I should live in (my mother worked abroad but my grandmother insisted she and I lived in the UK) or who my mother was allowed to see socially. When my grandmother eventually died in 2002 it came as a huge relief, we had feared she might live much longer fuelled entirely by spite.
My grandmother had her reasons for being the way she was. She loved us both although I’m not sure she ever really understood love. A wise friend once told me that there’s no such thing as a debt of love. With her it was all about that debt, I’d get home from school and she would list the housework she’d done and be aggrieved that I was not grateful. This would usually lead to a snowballing tirade of every petty slight she had ever suffered dating back decades. She often reminded me of the time when as a baby in a pram I had bitten her thumb… I digress, this post isn’t about her but about my relationship with my mother.
I think a part of the reason I treat my mother so badly is because my grandmother got away with that sort of behaviour for so long. Ironically another reason is that I’m angry that my mother never had the gumption to stand up to my grandmother. My mother tries desperately hard to please everyone. She’s generally very anxious and one of the things she fears most is causing offense. She tried desperately hard all her life to please her mother, an impossible labour of love for a woman so embittered.
My grandmother died alone. It was in the early hours of Christmas morning and we knew it was the end. She’d slipped into a coma some hours earlier. An ambulance somehow stretchered her off the balcony of the flat where we lived. I took photos of this. I’m not sure why. I think a part of me wanted to have a record of the event, perhaps to make sure it was real, it seemed like a good idea at the time and in some ways I’m glad I have something solid in the blur of it all. We did wait with her for a while as she lay there dying. That awful wait between each breath to see whether another would follow. The breaths went on. And on. I think it was about 2am when I convinced my mother there was nothing else we could do and so we should go home and get some rest. She did as she was told. She usually does. I don’t know if going home was a kindness to my mother and myself or an act of cruelty leaving my grandmother to die alone. Perhaps a little of both or just a practical need for rest. I am a particularly practical person in a crisis.
In some ways it was only after my grandmother’s death that my relationship with my mother began, or at least was allowed to exist without censorship. Throughout my childhood my mother came and went. Holidays were divided between two countries and we were never allowed to be alone. I think my grandmother was jealous that I loved my mother. I used to sneak into her room once I heard my grandmother’s snores and we would cuddle and giggle about things. I have always been very good at making my mother laugh. Sometimes we laughed too loudly, woke my grandmother and were told off. We were allies in adversity.
How did we get from there to here? I haven’t allowed my mother to hug me in years. I don’t really understand why but the thought of touching her, even holding her hand fills me with jumbled negative feelings I can’t begin to define.
One key problem is that I believe my mother is stupid. It’s a little like the teenage phase where you believe you just know so much more than your parents and they could never possibly understand anything. I may be stuck in that phase. In some respects my mother is very knowledgeable, there are a few narrow subjects where she excels and I am very proud of her. In so many ways however she fails to have any common sense and it is a constant source of amazement to me that she hasn’t come to serious harm as a result. She has no ability at all to understand how any mechanism works, perhaps it is that she can’t visualise the mechanical forces, but simple gadgets like a baby gate or a retractable dog lead are utterly beyond her capabilities. I have tried to teach her such things but while I am usually able to summon patience for slow learners my reservoir of patience with her is much smaller before I even start. I genuinely do not understand how she not only gained employment but succeeded to function for many years in a fairly well-paid job which afforded me many opportunities. As the name of this blog suggests I have a tendency to respect intellect more than heart. I am trying to address this but it is very much a work in progress. I do need to remind myself on a daily basis that it is better to be kind than right.
I’ve been wanting to write this post for a while. I really need to resolve things with my mother before she dies and it is too late. To some extent my reasons for this are selfish, it’s not all about wanting her to suffer less because of me but also because I do not want to have to live with the guilt once she is gone.
My mother plays the piano, she plays it pretty well. The sound of her playing has been a constant soundtrack to much of my life. For a long time I have been aware each time she plays that one day she will not be around for me to hear. This makes me cry. I know that decades down the line, if I am lucky enough to still be around, I will hear a piece she used to play on the radio and it will break my heart. My mother sometimes cries when she hears the tunes her father used to sing.
I am living with my mother again these days. I’ve lived independently in the past and will have to again in the future but for now it is an arrangement which suits us both, well, when I’m not shouting at her that is. She gets to see a lot of her granddaughter although she knows I don’t really trust her to take care of my baby. Throughout my pregnancy I was terrified that my mother would do something stupid that would hurt my child, she wouldn’t intend it but it could so easily happen. I don’t think this is an irrational fear, we’ve had enough near misses, she even managed to let P fall off the sofa aged 12 weeks because she was distracted by the phone. My daughter has brought us closer together though, we now have a shared love. I am learning to trust my mother (or just in luck?) a little more, she even gets to babysit while I take a bath or go out for a couple of hours – this scares me a lot but I do need down time and this is the only way that can happen. I do have to remind her still about things anyone else would think of without prompting like that P’s nappy might need changing or that she needs to offer her a drink. It has become easier as P gets older and becomes less breakable.
My mother also takes information very literally without applying practical knowledge so she consistently goes by the ‘use by’ date on food rather than actually looking at it and noticing when it is off (this does not end well!), she has similar unshakable faith in the weather forecast rather than her eyes. There are a lot of things she simply does not notice but she seems incapable of acknowledging her difficulties and instead tries to lie or justify herself – one example of this is the time she made me a piece of buttered toast and I found rice on it. She had used a rice-covered knife in the butter and some had found its way in there (a pet peeve of mine but understandable), she had then managed to transfer this to my toast, spread the butter and bring it to me without seeing that there were half a dozen grains of rice on it – I just don’t understand how she could not see that! Her eyesight isn’t that bad but she just doesn’t look at things or notice things while I feel like I notice every little thing. What upset me on that occasion however was her reaction to me pointing out the errant rice (admittedly I doubt I did this in a particularly nice way), at first she denied it but when presented with the evidence she started trying to argue it was a good thing because rice was good for me… I do not understand why she would say that rather than just admit she got it wrong. Not understanding her logic drives me potty, this is probably unfair but it is honest.
My relationship with my daughter is so much simpler. I love her endlessly and do my best to ensure she is as happy as possible while trying to teach her how to be kind, although I am still learning that myself. I am so much more forgiving of my daughter’s mistakes than my mother’s. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still a contender for world’s okayest mom and have my share of Homer Simpson child-throttling envy. I do however try my best, I generally accept that my mothering ability is reduced when my mental health isn’t great or if I’m tired etc. I can live with good enough parenting. If only I could find a way to be a good enough daughter.
I think another contributing factor is simply that I can get away with it. Just as she let her mother get away with being so horrid for so many years, I have now taken on that role and become the thing I swore so many times I would not become. There is a lot of my grandmother in me. I can get away with it because I am secure in the knowledge that my mother will love me regardless of what I do. I am spoiled.
I do depend on my mother an awful lot in my day to day living. She cooks (terribly) and does the laundry (much better since we got a dryer, she could never grasp that damp clothes will smell or that increasing exposed surface area by spreading rather than scrunching up improves drying!). It’s 3.27am as I write this and if I went and woke her and asked her to make me a cup of tea she would, she would complain but she would do it. I am scared for the future that I will not be able to manage a job and being a mother and all the domestic stuff all at the same time. I can do the domestic tasks, I struggle more with domestic paperwork (I have a problem opening mail and answering the phone, this gets me into trouble sometimes). I just find dealing with everything so exhausting. At the moment and in the immediate future I’m working pretty hard and I’m just about functioning, I mostly keep my head above water. This is only possible because of the support my mother gives me. She enables me to spend my time doing something I am passionate about and I am very lucky to be able to do this and know that something (OK perhaps something inedibly cremated or still semi-frozen) but something, will be on the table each evening when I am too tired to care. About two months ago when I was upset I kicked the kitchen bin and broke it – thankfully it is only objects which are on the receiving end of my violent tendencies these days (see previous post). However it has taken me a full two months, perhaps longer to decide on and order a new kitchen bin. Doing so today has been a real achievement for me. Strange but true.
I was planning on writing this post as things have been worse of late. I find myself losing my temper over the smallest thing. Last night my mother told me she’s got kidney “failure”. I use quotation marks because I don’t know if the failure part is an actually diagnosis or my mother’s interpretation of what the doctor said. It doesn’t seem to be terribly serious, apparently they said her kidneys are still working at 50% but they want to run some tests and find out why they’re less functional than they were before. I am still processing this news. I don’t know how I feel, I’m not even sure how I should feel. Obviously I’m scared of losing my mother and it adds to the guilt I carry about the way I behave.
The guilt is a big deal. I have enough guilt to work my way through to last several lifetimes. It is worse because my mother had breast cancer when I was 13. My grandmother told me repeatedly the cancer was my fault. There was at least some logic to this, I had tried to bolt from the dinner table and escape to the bathroom where I regularly locked myself in. My mother had tried to grab me, to catch me before I got away, and caught some of my clothing and was dragged by my momentum into a chair. It was when she was probing the resulting bruise that she found the lump.
Another all too vivid childhood memory was the day I realised I was stronger than my mother. We’d always fought tooth and claw, I wasn’t the easiest child and she wasn’t adept at dealing with kids so to force me to comply she ended up manhandling me and I fought back with all my might. One day, I guess I was maybe 7, in the midst of one of these fights, I hit her on the thigh so hard that it made her cry. I was shocked. I’m not sure I really understood before then that my actions could cause her such pain. I remember the guilt I felt when I saw the resulting bruise.
Another thing my mother said last night was that she wanted us to get counseling because she doesn’t understand why everything she does makes me shout and she can’t take any more. She even asked the doctor if her kidney trouble could have been caused by stress. I think this was harder to hear than the physical illness part. I did the only thing I could, I carried on as if I didn’t care. I’ve kept that up for over a day now. An imaginary voice asks in my head how I can sleep at night. I don’t . I don’t sleep well and last night when exhaustion took over I was plagued by nightmares. In one of them I was carrying my mother over my shoulder the way I carry P, she weighed about the same, I was trying to get her to the right part of a hospital. My grandmother also popped up in that dream, perhaps she’ll never really die while she lives in our minds.
For most of my life I didn’t want children. I didn’t want to pass on the monster genes and I didn’t want to become my grandmother. I’m doing better than I had feared as a mother, but it is being a daughter I am failing at.
I don’t know if we’re going to actually get counseling. She was relieved that for a change I thought she’d had a good idea. I had previously ruled out counseling because I thought she wouldn’t agree or if she did she would only be doing it out of acquiescence. Given how long it’s taken me to sort out the bin I can see this being another idea which falls by the wayside because I don’t have the wherewithal to follow through on it.
I find it very hard never knowing what my mother really thinks. I could argue anything and she would agree with me. Sometimes I deliberately argue the opposite of what I believe, wait for her to agree then use it as an excuse to lecture her about why she’s wrong. She is also terrible at understanding what’s going through my mind. I do feel that by now she should get me, she should know what upsets me. So it seems to me like she must do things on purpose because I can’t find any logic to her methods. 10+ times per day I want to (and quite often do) shout “but why would you think that /do that/ say that? That makes no sense!”
I feel like she will not or cannot meet me halfway. I explain time and time and time again why I am upset, why I am angry, and she cannot/will not change. A simple example, I have some sensory sensitivities which I’m only just starting to understand are different from what most people experience. I am very sensitive to light touch. My mother has taken to having her fingernails quite long. She regularly catches me with them as she passes me something and I hate this sensation. I also worry that if she’s inadvertently scratching me then she must be doing the same to P when she handles her. I have explained this as best I can at least 4 times and asked her (both nicely and nastily) over 20 times to trim her nails. I think this is a reasonable adjustment for her to make for the greater good, surely if it’s one less thing for me to snap at her about that is worthwhile right? Her nails aren’t painted and she isn’t vain about their appearance. For reasons I cannot fathom she refuses to cut her nails any shorter. I do not believe this is out of malice but I get increasingly irritated by each little scratch because it could so easily be avoided.
I think autism is a factor in all this. I so want things to make sense but I clearly can’t put myself in my mother’s shoes very well nor she in mine. Communication or rather all our failed attempts at communication are a big issue. I often wonder if my mother has problems with her auditory processing. She does not listen to the words I (or others) say but seems to grab a couple of words at random and jump to the nearest conclusion and it then takes a lot more explanation and effort to correct her assumptions and convey the actual message I’m trying to get across. For example I often ask her to fetch things for me when I’m pinned breastfeeding P or just being lazy, so I’ll say something like “could you get me X it’s upstairs in my room next to Y?” (I am doing much better these days at asking politely rather than barking orders). She will faithfully head upstairs and a minute goes by and I start to wonder if she looking for the wrong thing or in the wrong place. So I shout up the stairs “the X by the Y”, she can’t quite make out what I said but starts to mutter about how maybe I should get my own things instead of sending her on a wild goose chase (a valid point, if I depended on her less I wouldn’t be so frustrated by her difficulties). We both talk to ourselves quite a bit so half heard self talk is a constant source of confusion and misunderstanding. Another full minute ticks by and she shouts down “it’s not on the desk!” I lose it because this is the fifth petty irritation in the last half hour and I reply “I said next to the Y!!!” She finds it and brings it to me. This process is very inefficient and leaves us both needlessly upset. I try to slow down my speech and make things clear by only using key words but it doesn’t help, as soon as she’s made that leap to what she thinks she knows there’s no going back.
So here I am, it’s now gone 4.30am and I’m still awake going over this all in my mind. The only solution I can see involves me becoming a much better person. Somehow learning to let go of everything I feel and manage to be a decent human being instead. I can do this for short periods but I can’t keep it up. I try to use humour where I can, it’s always been a useful tool for me even if I’m not the greatest judge of when it is appropriate. I guess I just need to try harder. I need to get better at being kind and care less about being right because failing to be kind is as wrong as I could possibly be.