Well, I did it. I saw my mother and stepfather. I wasn’t nervous at all until about an hour before I had to leave, and then it hit me. I was suddenly scared that she was going to be unkind to me. I was also scared that I wouldn’t have what it takes to withstand it.
My mother’s unkindnesses usually began as passive aggressive comments about my appearance, and, for some reason, I always experienced that as more painful than most of her other criticisms. It’s so high school, I know, but I think that’s why I found it hard to bear. Growing up, we put up with a lot of social garbage. We don’t expect to come home to it as well, but my mother was the ultimate Mean Girl. I feared that I was about to go out to lunch with that persona again. Frankly, I’m over that, and I’m really over pandering to that to keep the peace.
But, it doesn’t mean that the remarks don’t sting. They do because mothers have a way of making them feel very personal because they know us.
In my previous post, I described my mother like Faye Dunaway’s portrayal of Joan Crawford in “Mommy Dearest”. That’s accurate. Socially, however, my mother used to be very much like Lucille Bluth, the mother on “Arrested Development”:
Two of my daughters wanted to see my mother as well, and my other daughter decided to externalize her anger towards my mom twenty minutes before we had to leave causing conflict between all of us. I was functioning at capacity at that point. It made the drive to the restaurant a time of “trying to get one’s shit together” rather than a time to just relax. In other words, I was trying really hard not to cry.
When we arrived, I saw my mother and stepfather sitting in the restaurant, and I froze for a second. My stepfather hasn’t changed. He’s hardly aged. It’s the weirdest thing! My mother, on the other hand, has aged a lot. In ten years, she looks to me like she’s aged twenty years. She looked frail and small. The girls went ahead of me, and, as soon as they saw us, they stood up. My stepfather started tearing up right away and hugged them. My mother told them how much they’d grown and how beautiful they looked.
Pause: I have never heard my mother tell anyone that they look beautiful. She never gives compliments. That startled me. I was starting to wonder if she might say something nice to me.
Play: She came over to me and hugged me. She then said, “Oh well…don’t you look…older. And all grown up now. And…older.”
I sat with it for a minute. Older. Of all the things to say that’s what she went with. What makes this funny is that I joked with friends that she was going call me old: “I’ll wager that my mother is going to say I look old or something,” and, sure enough, she did! It could have been so much worse and, in times past, usually was. So, I moved on in the moment.
The lunch lasted a long time. Everyone behaved. I saw my mother as just a woman. She was no longer this powerful perpetrator who had power over me. She was a woman with health problems whose health was declining. She didn’t say anything new or unusual, but she still clung to a certain narrative particularly about me:
“Aren’t you glad I so strongly encouraged you to take Latin now that you’re in medical school?”
She has always taken credit for that and brings it up whenever she can. I just nod my head now. It doesn’t cost me anything at this point to let her have it. She did indeed encourage me to take Latin I. Not four years of it. It doesn’t matter anymore. It’s time to let it go.
There was no drama. There was very little jockeying for power. She appeared to really want to try to reconnect without the past bad behavior. We all saw a movie after lunch, and then we parted ways although she was her typical self when she told the guy filling our popcorn order to layer the butter:
“Young man, I want you to layer the butter. Laaaaayer it! Do you understand? Really layer it. I want it layered! Layer the butter!”
Classic mom right there. You know what? I have never had popcorn so perfectly layered with butter. That kid spent so much time trying to layer that popcorn with butter because he could feel my mother’s eyes boring into his back! I just stood back and watched. She has zero assertiveness problems. NONE.
All in all, it was a positive experience, and I didn’t feel triggered. My daughters had positive experiences as well. She didn’t display any past borderline behaviors, and my stepfather was, as always, himself.
I did feel very drained when I got home as did my daughters. It was emotionally exhausting. I have final exams this week, and I couldn’t study at all. I could hardly process a thought. I think the significance of the event didn’t land until yesterday. I woke up feeling completely trashed.
I don’t know when I’ll see her again, but I know that they will want to visit. I feel okay about that at this point. I’ve worked really hard to achieve this state of mind. A few years ago, I would not have imagined ever feeling that a day like that was possible not because of my mother per se but because I couldn’t imagine feeling well enough emotionally. I honestly didn’t feel triggered by her–even by the remnant behaviors that would have triggered me in the past. Calling me “older” would have bothered me simply because it could be perceived as a criticism of my appearance, and I used to be hypervigilant to things like that. My mother’s demands upon the guy at the movie theatre would have triggered me in the past because that’s how she was towards me all the time. I would have identified with him too much. Her mentioning Latin class for the millionth time would have triggered me because my mother overly identified with my accomplishments always taking credit for everything I did. It was as if she were me, and I would have felt diminished and engulfed by her.
But now? It all felt irrelevant. I told my friends that she called me “older”, and we all laughed about it–a lot! My boyfriend didn’t hold back either. People filled in that gap for me so that what she said wouldn’t find a place in me. I don’t need my mother’s approval or emotional support, and most of the trauma associated with her has healed. It is very possible to achieve that given time and effort–as much time as you need. I’ve needed over a decade.
So, if you find yourself estranged from a parent and harbor even a flicker of hope that perhaps you will one day see them again under better emotional circumstances, don’t give up that hope. It’s possible. I don’t say this with a Pollyanna-esque attitude. I am in no way BFFs with my mother. It was one lunch, and it went well. That may be all that we ever achieve. Quarterly lunches if that. I may not see her for another year, but I feel very good that I did see her. It feels like an accomplishment.
I wonder if that’s because I’m older…