My mom has a tendency to do things for me, even though I’ve told her not to, that often drive me crazy. Every time I visit her, my trip starts out in the same way. I call her, and before I discuss plans, she asks what I eat for breakfast.
- Me: Don’t worry about it, Mom. I’ll pick something up when I get there. I probably won’t eat at home much.
- Mom: Well, I’ll just make sure we have some bagels. No, I forgot. Gluten-free bread!
- Me: Really Mom, you don’t need to get anything.
- Mom: Yogurt?
I agree to yogurt. When I arrive, she insists on leaving me money for anything else I need. I know that providing for me while I’m home again (she still lives in the apartment I grew up in) is her way of expressing her love and affection. And she knows that I won’t use the household money and find the idea infantilizing. But I no longer point this out. I just say, “Thanks Mom,” and kiss her on the cheek.
Parent-child relationships, no matter how loving, are often complicated. They are some of our longest and (hopefully) most steady relationships. Yet, they are characterized by change and transformation as each participant in the relationship asynchronously enters new life stages. Rebecca Solnit, in “The Faraway Nearby,” a memoir about her relationship with her mother, writes:
When you say “mother” or “father” you describe three different phenomena. There is the giant who made you and loomed over your early years; there is whatever more human-scale version might have been possible to perceive later and maybe even befriend; and there is the internalized version of the parent with whom you struggle… and they make up a chaotic and contradictory trinity.”
As an adult, but still her child, relating to that human-scale mom is a strange thing. There is no one way to do it; I have friends that love reverting to being the cared for child when they’re home, and others that have really been the adult since childhood. I have been lucky. I’ve become friends with my mom. We are independent people, living our own lives on opposite ends of the county, and I see our relationship akin to keeping in touch with a close childhood chum living on the opposite coast.
But it is not a true and simple friendship. There are unique quirks and asymmetries, some stemming from those other two parts of Solnit’s trinity. Though we relate often relate like friends, my mom still insists on paying for all of our meals together. It is one of the ties she maintains to the giant a mother can be to a child. Yet, since I am more concerned about her financial state than my own, this makes me uncomfortable. I wouldn’t accept this behavior from anyone else, but with her, I let her protests of “But I’m the mom!” end the conversation. This is what her mom did for her, and it’s unthinkable to her to do anything less.
But the biggest asymmetry of our relationship is worry. If it’s been a little longer than normal in-between calls, my mom will pick up the phone with a cry of “Oh, I was so worried about you!” Worry is how she keeps me in mind. Author Elizabeth Stone described parenting as “to decide forever to have your heart go walking outside your body.” Having her heart running wild in the world creates a constant whirr in the background of my mom’s brain, a constant, tugging worry about my sister and me. I worry about her too. I worry about whether she is happy and has enough money for old age. These are practical worries, and they rarely surface in my day-to-day life. But her worry is different; it is seemingly constant. It is one of the ways that she loves us. I try to call her when I’m happy and can let her know that the external heart is doing just fine.
Her worry means that she is there for me in a way that I rely on, even if I don’t always realize it. Several years ago, when I was cocky on my own post-college independance and thought I no longer needed mothering, I was in a bike accident. There was something about my mom’s attention afterward — her daily phone calls, advice and concern — that made me felt truly cared for. (I am tearing up just thinking back on this.) I had friends who visited and supported me too, but there is nothing like a mother. That giant that reemerges from the human-scale version, just when you need her.
It has been at least 15 years since I lived in my childhood home, and I am perhaps in a sweet lull in my relationship with my parents. As a full adult, with my own home and salary, I feel fully in charge of my life. Very occasionally, my parents will offer advice (like when my father told me I should get a new job a few years ago when I felt quite stuck), but they really leave me to make my own decisions, even questionable ones they might disagree with, like taking a major paycut to join a nonprofit that focuses on mindfulness.
And they, in turn, live their own lives too. We are both in the golden years of mutual self-sufficiency, before I need to really start worrying about them, before the fights about hearing aids, doctors and assisted living. I am enjoying these golden years before it is my turn to be the caregiver. Then, my parents will become the external heart that I am worried about, no longer sure it will keep beating without my help.
Image: “The Enigma of My Desire or My Mother, My Mother, My Mother” by Salvador Dali (1929)