Losing the Family Illusion and Finding Freedom

I just finished reading a most excellent memoir entitled Mother Daughter Me, by Katie Hafner. I was barely able to put it down, highlighting half of it using the nifty feature on my Kindle for iPad app. My own mother currently lives with my husband, my daughter, and me and I am resonating all over the place with Hafner’s tale.

Removing my loving husband from the equation, I am the meat in a multi-generational female sandwich. My mother would probably be sourdough, while my daughter would be some exotic bread that made your mouth explode with happiness. I think I am pretty much the bologna: tasty enough, but mostly a barrier between the condiments and the bread.

I was very anxious last year when the idea of my mother coming to reside with us was broached. As in any family, there was some history there that I wasn’t too sure what to do with. Yet, Mom was getting forgetful and falling down more often. Neither one of us was ready to consider the dreaded “assisted living” facilities that dot the city, yet it was obvious that she needed to not be alone.

The decision made, we converted our guest room into Mom’s bedroom, which made her my teenage daughter’s next door neighbor and new bathroom-mate. I already had visions of my kid and her friends keeping my mother awake all night or my mom leaving her dentures in the middle of my daughter’s makeup set. Fortunately, they have worked all that out on their own.

What I am now discovering is that my mother can work out things on her own. When she first moved in, I hovered constantly, “translating” what she said to my husband and daughter while they looked at me like I was a freak. I realized that I had the mother that I grew up with stuck in my head, not the pleasant, elderly woman that stood before me now. Old habits die hard, I suppose.

My “job” in my family growing up was to be the buffer – the peacemaker. My mother had undiagnosed Bipolar Disorder and dealt with her tumultuous feelings by dulling them with alcohol for many years. Even after she received the proper diagnosis and found a good medication regimen, there were times that she was just, well, bat-shit crazy. My father dealt with this mostly by going to work early in the morning and coming home after dark and attending to various “projects” on the weekends that kept him outside and busy.

While I know now that they both did the best they could with the resources they had at the time, as an only child, I more than once felt that I had been dealt a pretty bad hand. I learned how to finish an abandoned dinner after my mother had passed out. I even learned how to serve it on a plate to my father with a smile, like nothing was wrong. I learned how to listen to their separate rants and agree that the other was a complete jerk. I kept the peace. And so, I thought that would automatically be my role now that one of my parents was going to live with me.

My, how wrong I was! Not only was it unnecessary for me to keep the peace, I learned that it was essential for me to get out of the way and let my mother forge her own relationships with my husband and daughter. The drunken, unreasonable, embarrassing mother was nowhere to be found! She’s still a little bat-shit crazy, but who am I to judge since I obviously got half of my genes from her? I’m sure my daughter calls me similar things, because – I admit it – I can be quite insane sometimes. Whether it’s giggling hysterically at a fart joke, being irrational or communicating ineffectively, there’s a lot of “crazy” in me, too. I think we all have a little bit of that je ne sais quoi brand of nuts in us; that makes us human.

There’s a quote in Hafner’s memoir that really struck a chord with me:

“What stands between me and the person I would like to be is this illusion of perfect love between my mother and me. It is a lie I can no longer afford.” – Nancy Friday, from My Mother/ My Self.

That’s what I am slowly stepping away from – the illusion. Not only the thought that my mother and I could have a perfect love, because human love is never perfect; but from the illusion that she is still today who she was back then. And with this understanding, I realize that I don’t have to be bologna anymore.

2 Comments »

  1. I’m so there with you. Life got much better when my mom and I learned to accept each other for who we are now instead of past perfect images. When we’re “bat-shit crazy” we can even laugh about it. Much better and more real.

  2. Actually, I was giving my “past fantasy” mom the short end of the stick. I remembered her as being way worse than she is now. It was a nice lesson!