It was something I was told a thousand times growing up. If you’re going to go out, leave a note.
By my mother when I was staying at my parents’ house. But not just her and not just there. Everywhere. At all the other places I stayed. Friends’ houses. With other relatives.
Leave a note.
Back then, none of us had cell phones. Even call waiting and answering machines were special luxuries that not everyone had.
And in high school, gas was 80-something cents a gallon, so I drove and drove. I had kind of an ugly little car that I’d scraped together gig money to afford. But it was freedom to me. It took me everywhere.
And after a childhood where my bedroom was routinely searched, private writings seized and burned (after I’d been confronted with and punished for the contents), that was about the most amazing feeling I could imagine. Freedom. And privacy. The ability to disappear.
Having idolized Wonder Woman from a very early age, I spent years dreaming about her invisible jet. In all the pictures, the plane was visible but with transparent sides, a bit like the jelly shoes that were all the rage when I was a kid. And Wonder Woman could be clearly seen flying inside this jelly shoe-style plane.
But in my mind, the jet didn’t really look like that. Even after I saw it, I imagined more a cloaking device that rendered it and her completely invisible.
And when I got my car, it was just like that. My car’s cloaking device wasn’t high tech. It blended in because of how nondescript it was. Kind of ugly but not in a way that stuck out. A really forgettable car. And sitting inside it, I, too, was obscured. Just some random person behind the wheel.
I had other forms of coping besides disappearing. Playing music, writing. But sometimes when it all just got to be too much, driving was there. I’d take off in my car and go.
A lot of times when I set out, I didn’t know exactly where I’d end up. I had a standard route I knew that would take me around to see all the people I knew I could visit or perhaps even stay with. But if they weren’t home, sometimes I’d just drive around until I saw something fun to do or someone I knew. And if that didn’t work, I’d start driving off in a direction I’d never been, trying to make a mental note of the way I went (since that was before GPS was around).
And when I did finally come home I’d return to wherever I was staying feeling calmed by whatever adventure I’d been on. But oftentimes, I’d be immediately met with a new wave of stress.
“Where were you? I was so worried about you. If you’re going to go out, you need to leave a note.”
It was a mistake I made more times than I should probably admit. In those days, I found it easy to get consumed by my own emotions and forget about how something like that would affect other people.
But with time, I did learn, and I started to make a point of leaving a note for whomever I was staying with whenever I went out. Calling “home” and letting someone know I wasn’t coming back if I was staying the night somewhere else. Checking in. Keeping people apprised (more or less) of my whereabouts.
And once I got the hang of it, something funny happened.
The Awkwardness of Being Scolded By a Parent Who Hadn’t Been There For Years
While some people were satisfied with these gestures, others definitely weren’t. Most notably, my own mother. “Well, I guess at least you left a note,” she’d say but in a tone of voice that indicated that she wasn’t really giving me any credit for the behavior. And then she’d proceed to punish me for leaving.
A different reason every time:
It was too snowy to go out, she’d say. Why did I take a chance driving on those roads?
She’d had a bad day and waited to go to the mall with me and was irritated that I wasn’t home to do that.
I’d already hung out with that friend twice already that week. What kind of person is closer to their friends than their family? Obviously a selfish one with a poor values system.
And each time she scolded me for going out, I’d hold my tongue, keep myself from talking about the past. The reasons why we weren’t closer. The way I’d had to become more independent after her first nervous breakdown and everything that had come from it. The experiences that turned me, irrevocably, into my own parent. One who would never again need her the way she needed to be needed. One who would always maintain a little distance from her in order to keep her from hurting me again.
True, I was a shitty self-parent (as most teenagers would be). But it was still awkward to have her reemerge after several difficult years of separation, detachment, and strife suddenly presiding over me as though she had been a reliable mother all along and our history a sitcom level of normal.
A Mismatch Between Words and Actions, Stated Expectations and Reality
Even this new, improved version of her courtesy of therapy and family interventions had trouble being honest with herself and others about what she really wanted.
Because what she really wanted wasn’t reasonable, to be the center of everyone’s universe, she’d instead come up with other reasons why you’d done the wrong thing. She was concerned about your safety. You were being selfish.
It was never about the fact that you hadn’t satisfied her needs — at least not officially. Not going by what she said.
But if you watched her actions, it was always about the fact that you hadn’t satisfied her needs.
And even though she would express do’s and don’t’s via simple axioms like “If you’re going to go out, leave a note,” and act astonished if you asked followup questions (because she’s always believed that differentiating between right and wrong is obvious and easy), she’d easily create conflicts and double binds. Situations where no matter what you did, it was the wrong thing.
What she asked for and what she actually rewarded always seemed to be different things. “Always tell the truth,” she’d say. And then if you did, and the truth were unpleasant (which it often was, because life isn’t always pretty), you’d get punished. Meanwhile, you’d get rewarded for lies, so long as they were flattering or convenient for her.
It was frustrating. And exhausting.
What I really wanted from her was a reasonable agreement. A set of guidelines that made sense. A way of clearly understanding what she expected of me as a daughter.
But what I got instead was rolled eyes. Being told I was stupid for not knowing the way things worked. Axioms like “if you’re going out, leave a note” that never seemed to cover as much ground as they needed to. And a constant barrage of mixed signals, hypocrisy, and insults.
If You Leave a Note Before You Go Out, Will They Still Yell At You When You Get Home?
Agreements can be extremely helpful in relationships. Setting boundaries and expectations.
But boundaries and expectations are only useful if people aren’t weaponizing the setting of them. If they’re clear and consistent, connected to clear underlying values, well expressed. (And especially if the other party is also allowed to set boundaries and have them honored in return, a reciprocity that’s often absent in a lot of parent-child relationships.)
If not, they’re just a pretty cover story for underlying controlling behaviors.
Because of my mother, I’ve learned how to spot these tendencies in other people. Especially once I’ve made an agreement with someone, and we start to abide by it, certain patterns will emerge, ones that can be pretty revealing. Here are some tells:
If they’re disappointed in you or something you’ve done, how do they approach it?
Do they punish you for being honest when the truth is difficult or challenging?
Do they put you into double binds? (“You talk too much.” “Hey, why are you so quiet?” “Why are you asking me what the right amount of talking would be? God, you’re weird.”)
Do they act as if there’s some kind of higher code or authority that only they have mastered and you’re incapable of understanding?
Are they a person who seems to mean what they say? Or are they only saying what’s convenient and ego serving?
If they tell you that you need to leave a note before you go out, and you do, will they still yell at you when you get home?