Ever since my father passed away in April, I’ve been talking to my mother a lot more. We haven’t had the best relationship, my mother and I. It’s long and complicated. Mostly, she’s wanted to be close to me, although she doesn’t actually like me as a person (and I don’t much like her).
Part of this is due to her beliefs about mother-daughter relationships (a rosy Hallmark view) and also because she dreamt of my being a certain kind of way. She wanted me to be a popular cheerleader type like her. I’ve disappointed her by having a different personality, which has been nerdy and artsy.
She’s a person who constantly looks down on others. It’s fun for her, a kind of game. Seriously. One of her activities when I was growing up was to go to the mall, walk around, and say nasty things about the people we passed after they were out of earshot.
Putting other people down helps her feel she has value. Me, I was always sickened and embarrassed whenever she did this.
Bottom line: We’re very different people. In the worst of times, it’s been dangerous. In the best of times it’s been strained. Here’s how I put it in another essay:
Our language never quite lined up, part of why communication has always been difficult with her. And why if we weren’t related, if we lived next to each other at an apartment complex or something, that we would have locked eyes when we took out the trash, avoided each other. Silently judged one another by small indicators: Her by how many times I miss the pick-up date. Me by how forced her smile is. And how quickly it turns when she thinks I’m not looking.
I’ve Kept My Distance Until Recently
As an adult, I’ve mostly kept my distance. I eventually moved away from Maine, where I grew up, first to Ohio and last year to Texas.
Partly, this was due to job opportunities and the excitement of experiencing what Big Cities were like. (I lived outside of Cleveland for eight years and now live near Dallas.)
But I have to admit that having a physical buffer has been nice. It turns down the intensity on a strained relationship that has always been there in my psyche, draining me, punishing me.
Even in the times when we are non-contact or limited contact, I can’t quite escape her. Can’t quite escape the criticism that comes to me reflexively, in a familiar cadence. Hers.
But when my father went into hospice — and died a few days later — a curious thing happened: My mother asked me how I was feeling. And she sounded like she meant it.
So what? A lot of people might wonder at this observation. Of course your mother would want to know how you’re feeling. Of course a mother cares about how her child is feeling, especially at such a difficult time.
Well, maybe your mother. But not mine. She’s typically not very interested in how other people are feeling. Instead, she’s consumed by her own emotional life. I grew up expecting to cater to her whims, to help her manage her emotions — and not the other way around. When it came to emotions, I often felt like I was parenting her. As I put it in another recent essay:
It’s not the first time we’ve had our roles reversed, where I’ve been in the parent role, and she’s been the child.
Sometimes I wonder if that’s why I’ve never longed for children. Why I’ve never dreamt of being a parent. Perhaps I walked that path early and continue to walk it, even if my time as a parent looks a little different than what people normally envision.
A Reversal of Emotional Gravity
I was shocked when she asked me how I was feeling. And to be honest at first I was quite scared. It was too big of a change. It was as though emotional gravity had suddenly reversed.
She didn’t have much to offer in the way of emotional labor. But I was able to be honest that I was struggling and she admitted she was, too. I tried to make her laugh. (By making fun of how my face looked after so much crying in extravagantly colorful terms — self-deprecation is always a sure hit with her.) This worked. She later said that I gave her one of the only good laughs she had in the immediate time after my father went into hospice.
And since then, I’ve kept in regular touch.
The conversations are beyond taxing for me. I cry a lot afterwards. Spend time feeling quite exhausted and empty. Sometimes anxious and angry, because she has a way of inadvertently hurting me, and I’m not about to push back on someone recently widowed the same way I normally would.
But I find that doing this work helps me deal with my father passing. That I’ve found the job I’m meant to do in all of this. The one he’d want me to do.
It’s incredibly difficult sometimes, the emotional work I’m doing with her, for her. But I manage to do it. And I feel quite good about it, even if it stretches me to my limits.
The Experience Has Given Me New Perspective on a Past Relationship
The whole experience incidentally has also given me new perspective on a past relationship with a partner who could be incredibly emotionally standoffish. Very withholding.
It was funny because when it came to my care, concern, and emotional support of him, he accepted it all happily. Gladly.
But whenever I would talk about needing emotional support with a particular thing that was bothering me, he’d interrupt me. Tell me that it was inappropriate to ask for emotional support from a romantic partner. That such things were the purview of a therapist. And if I wanted someone to listen and be there for me emotionally, that I should hire someone to do that. And that it was unreasonable to expect a romantic partner to do those things for me.
At the time, I didn’t question it much. I was going through a rough time and was happy that anyone wanted to be around me at all. I viewed myself largely as a burden. Not someone who was in a position to be asking a lot from a romantic partner.
As the years have wound on, however, I’ve noted that basically every other person I’ve dated since has been ready, willing, and able to provide the level of support this one particular ex told me was inappropriate.
Which definitely calls it into question.
Sometimes You Have to Make Your Own Closure, No Matter What It Takes
Recent experiences with my mother have made that attitude seem even more absurd. Here is someone who has made my life quite difficult in many ways — but I am nonetheless choosing to provide emotional support for her at this time. And it’s tough, but I’m doing it. Less because I’m invested in her own outcome but because I know it’s what I have to do to get to where I need to be. Because it is helping me grieve. Because I know — for certain — that it’s what my father would have wanted (and while he wasn’t perfect either, or around much until my 20s since he was always off somewhere traveling and working, he was the parent I was closer to).
Emotional labor is a choice. It is. But it’s one I’ll make if it’s important enough to me.
Maybe it was a harder choice for that ex. Maybe nothing would have been enough for him to make that choice.
Or maybe I wasn’t important enough in particular.
There’s no way to tell.
But I know that this quality is something that defines me. I will work quite hard for people I love — and apparently I will work just as hard for my own closure.
Sometimes those are the same thing: Someone you love is struggling, and it unsettles you, so you help them. Sometimes it isn’t. Maybe you help someone with something that isn’t bothering you because you care about them.
And maybe you are working hard to help someone else primarily because it makes you feel better.
Sometimes you have to make your own closure, no matter what it takes.