Of mothers and daughters and loudmouths

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Me 'n' mom, 1975

I look mostly like my father, but I got my mother’s mouth.

The second oldest of four girls, my mother was always one of the loud ones. She talked loud. She sang loud. At her Catholic boarding school, she was always popular among her peers, known for being outgoing and gregarious. She became a hippy and strummed the loudest campfire guitar. She became a midwife and founded a national organization and spoke loudly at international women’s health conferences. For her 50th birthday, she produced an entire CD of her songs, and threw a big party for herself. She started the night by announcing into the microphone, “Everyone, please be quiet and stop talking. It’s time for me to sing.”

As self-ordained recovered-Catholic suburban pagan priestess, my mother had decided that there were actually four phases in a woman’s life: maiden, mother, queen, and crone. Her 50th birthday marked her full ascendance to her queen phase, and everyone needed to be quiet and listen to the queen. We, her obedient audience of fawning pawns, fell silent at her requests.

My mother raised me to be a loud mouth like her: independent, self-sufficient, outspoken and brash. Part of her way of cultivating this independence she so valued in a child was a parenting technique she called benign neglect. There’s a classic family story about my mother taking me, age 3, out to the Olympic Mountains for a hike. I refused to hike, and so my mother sat with me in our VW Van for a while, rocking me and soothing me until I feel asleep. Then she pulled the van’s curtains, cracked a window, and went for her hike anyway, leaving her toddler (me!) behind in the car. She swears to this day that she wasn’t gone long.

Perhaps as a result of benign neglect or perhaps because I was an only child, my mother got her wish: I was a loud and fiercely independent kid, known for making phone calls to arrange my own childcare at age 7.

Both my parents spoiled me with affection, but my mother made it clear to me from an early age that we were each responsible for our own happiness, and if she wanted to go to Australia for three weeks for a midwifery conference, well then, she would go. And I would stay home with my father (endlessly devoted to both his loud mouth ladies) and taste the mingled flavors of resentment and admiration.

Oh sure, I sometimes whined. “Other moms are home in the afternoons when my friends get home!” I said. “Other moms make cookies or help with costumes for school plays!”

“Well, your mom delivers people’s babies,” she would counter. “Don’t you think babies are more important than cookies?”

And so she got the daughter she wanted: I am a self-sufficient island of hyper-competence. I don’t need my mother; and she doesn’t need me! We get along very well, but as two free-standing entities.

One Monday, as my long-estranged maternal grandmother was dying, my mother called me at work.

“You should be here,” my mother asserted.

I bristled. My grandmother disowned my mother and two of my aunts when I was 14. By my grandmother’s choice and my agreement, we hadn’t seen each other for over a decade, and I’d seen her only a handful of times in the last few years. Why should I be there for her death? She wasn’t interested in me, I wasn’t interested in her. We didn’t know each other. Wasn’t it, in fact, disrespectful for me to be there?

I explained all this to my mother, who got angry. “This is obviously a profoundly emotional experience for you,” she said.

My irritation grew. “No, Mom, it’s really not!” I explained. “I’m not repressing underlying emotions, here. I have no emotional connection to my grandmother. Estranged is estranged!” I am infamous for my dismissiveness.

My mother remained undaunted. “You clearly have some deep-rooted issues with this,” she countered. “You should really confront these issues by being here and facing them.”

It may be evident at this point that my family’s native tongue is therapy speak, and our conversations are peppered with references to issues and confronted emotions and owned feelings. While other adult children might be complimented by their parents on their new car or job, I’m heralded at family gatherings for my boundaries. And as I got off the phone I started drawing them out.

Don’t impose your emotional paradigms on me, mom! It’s not appropriate for you to tell me what issues I do or don’t have with a situation — those are my feelings to own, not yours to assign or pass judgment on. I was ready to draw the line in the sand as I have had to for years with my mother. She can push, and I can stand my ground. She raised me to be independent, and that includes from her and my estranged grandmother, I huffed to myself, ready for a fight.

But slowly, a reality dawned.

This wasn’t about my grandmother at all. It wasn’t about my supposedly suppressed non-existent feelings for her. What my mom was trying to say was simply this: “I want you, my daughter and only child, here with me as my mother dies.” My mother, for all her loudness and therapy speak, didn’t seem able to articulate it, but all she was really saying was “I need you.” So quietly I almost couldn’t hear it. A whisper from mother’s mouth to daughter’s ear. I need you.

Luckily, I was able to quiet down just long enough to hear what she wasn’t saying.

Comments on Of mothers and daughters and loudmouths

  1. This article speaks so strongly to my own experiences with my family. Much like you, my mother raised my sister and I to be loud, outspoken, fiercely independent people. From early on, we were able to non-verbally make it clear when we needed one of the others, though my sister and I are still working on how to verbalize when we need help and from who. It’s probably been one of the most difficult things to realize about ourselves in the year since our mom passed away. Thank you for this article, because it really helps a lot.

  2. Fantastically written Ariel. It’s so often that we need to stop and think about what the other person might actually be wanting or needing even though they might be saying something completely different.

  3. Ariel (and other self-described independent loudmouths), I’m curious about how being “a self-sufficient island of hyper-competence” has affected other relationships in your life. Do you find it hard to reach out for help because you’re not used to needing it? Does it make relationships easier (because you’re not “needy”) or harder (because you’re not vulnerable)? Do you connect more easily with friends who are also really independent, or not? Just curious, if anyone feels include to share.

    • Great questions… I certainly have perspectives on this, but really, you’d probably get better answers out of my husband and friends. ๐Ÿ˜‰

      From my perspective, I think being independent makes me a way better friend and partner. I don’t rely on people to make me happy (although of course my loved ones contribute most of the happiness in my life! ….but I hold myself accountable for my own happiness), which I think creates stronger relationships.

      To make it about sex, it’s kind of the same philosophy I have about masturbation and marriage: everyone needs to be responsible for their own day-to-day sexual needs, so that when you have sex with your partner it’s not just because you have a physical need to get off, but because you have a true desire to share an physical/emotional connection with them.

      I think being independent makes me a better partner and friend… although again: you’d have to ask my partner and friends if they agree. ๐Ÿ˜‰

      • While I’ve always been pretty independent, I’ve seen a lot of growth in my own emotional stability in recent years (yay therapy!). And I agree with you–it’s made me a better partner and friend. (I think my husband would agree, too.) I get to bring the very best of myself to my relationships, because I don’t have as many needs or expectations for other people to make me happy, to give me something I’m missing, etc. I’m also able to be more forgiving because their shortcomings affect me less.

        But just as you wrote, it can be a little harder to clearly say, “I need you now,” because I’ve gotten less used to saying it. It’s easy for us to overvalue our independence and cling to it as Some Great Value even when we’re in a really hard time and need, or just want, more support than usual.

    • Colleen, I’m a quiet independent, not the same thing, but I have found it crazy difficult to ask for help when I need it. But I found I’m surrounded by other generous, independent folks who also find it hard to ask for help but always offer it. Somehow it kind of works because we all insist on challenging each other to accept help.

    • I wouldn’t say that we don’t need help. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I know I need help maybe “less often” than someone else might. As Ariel said, our friends and significant others could tell you more, but I also know that my girlfriend has learned some of my tells of when I need help, whether it is with something small and mundane or something larger and more life-important.

      I do know that I have a much harder time making and keeping friends who were raised in a very sheltered environment and that it is easier for me to make and keep friends who are also independent-ish. I say -ish, because I have come to realize that no matter how independent someone is, they will always need help and support in some way or another.

    • I am also a quiet independent, though I was raised by an outspoken and very independent mother. I struggled for soooo long to a) recognize that I needed help b) be able to ask for it and c) able to accept it. My mom was also a single mother, and I learned through observation that relying on other people mostly only set you up to be disappointed. So I became fiercely independent, didn’t need help from ANYONE!!! (except maybe my mama cause she knew all my weaknesses), and thought was a sign of strength.

      It took several years for me to realize that asking for help was truly a sign of strength. Before this, I limited my own romantic relationships because I was only willing to “give in” so much, as to not put my independence at risk. I didn’t want to ever need someone because that meant I was vulnerable to being hurt or disappointed.

      It’s still hard for me to accept help from some people. I’ve come a long way since then, and I’m so glad that it happened before I had a child! My independence is a large part of what has defined me, but I’ve learned to trust and to rely on others, without it being something that will make or break me. All of this influenced who I chose as a partner, and how we chose to design our relationship. We are each independent, and can take care of ourselves, but I have learned to be vulnerable in a way that does feel sometimes like I need my husband.

      Bottom line is, I’m still fiercely independent at heart, and that allowed me to be selective in my partner, to not feel like I needed someone else to complete me, and to be really conscious about the choices I made in regards to our relationship.

      There’s so much more I could say about this, but I’ll stop. What a great question!

  4. I can strongly relate to this, Ariel. Very much.

    My mom said something to me once that stuck with me. She used to say, “I was usually not the mother you wanted, I was always the mother you needed.” My mother is usually described as uncompromising, uncomfortably blunt, unyielding and, at her worst of times, cold. She could be critical of us. When I wanted my mom to praise me, she’s sometimes only offer, “This was not your best effort, but I think you’ll do better next time.”

    I was raised to be independent, critical and self-sustaining. Sometimes, I used to think my mother got it wrong. However, that changed when I finally got to meet her family. My mother is Irish. One of the things I didn’t know is that in the Irish culture, there’s a strong belief that the achievements and well-being of a child are imputed to the parents. Thus, parents tend to value instilling independence, ambition and self-reliance moreso than ensuring a strong relationship between themselves and the kids. My mom always felt that way and raised us in that model.

    I’ve always wondering if my mother is actually vulnerable. I’ve never seen it. Maybe my father has. I always wonder if she’s ever going to allow herself a break. But then I wonder if that’s unfair to her. There are people who just aren’t really emotional or “feelers.” I’m not sure if she is. Although I will say it’s been slightly disconcerting to see how “cuddly” she can be around my daughter. I suppose she thinks since she’s the grandmother, she doesn’t need to be strict or demanding with my daughter.

    I too have a mother who is devoted to her own career and happiness. But I think that was critical for me. So much of motherhood is framed as the “sacrifices” we make for our kids. But I’ve wondered if that can breed resentment. My mom has made clear that she’s sacrificed – time, money, etc. But she has never apologized for wanting those things that make her happiest. I knew that when I wanted to continue mountaineering after having my daughter, my mother would never question that decision. I’ve come to realize how radical it can be to be a woman – especially a mother – who doesn’t apologize for one’s own desires and wants. One of the benefits of that was that, unlike some of my friends, I grew up largely free of guilt. My parents could never say “Look at what I gave up for you.” Because largely, they didn’t!

    I love this article because it keeps reminding me that I still need to listen to my mother. I’ve passed the age when the traditional “mothering” has ended, but the relationship we have now is no less valuable or in need of care. Maybe I need to listen for her needs now that I’m older. It’s tough to admit when somebody you’ve grown to see as the Iron Lady might be asking for help or reassurance. Maybe I need to keep stuff like this in mind.

    • “One of the things I didn’t know is that in the Irish culture, there’s a strong belief that the achievements and well-being of a child are imputed to the parents. Thus, parents tend to value instilling independence, ambition and self-reliance moreso than ensuring a strong relationship between themselves and the kids.”

      I’m Irish and I’ve never seen anyone here characterise that as a cultural thing (the more common stereotype is the “Irish Mammy” who more tends to cultivate dependence in her children:) ). But it’s certainly true for my family. My parents are almost comically uncomfortable talking about feelings (theirs or ours), but I know they love us and are extremely proud of us. Love is just expressed through actions, and praise of us to other people, not by talking about feelings ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. I remember when my Grandmother died. I called my sister to ask when we should pick her up to get on the road for the funeral. She said she wasnt sure she could go. In her case it was the opposite. We had all been so close, and she doesnt handle death well and she just didnt know if she could, emotionally, handle all the people and hugs and family stuff she finds overwhelming at the best of times when her grief was still so raw.

    And i kinda snapped. “Your grandmother died. Get over it. Our mother just lost her MOM and you will fucking be there for *her*” And I felt her straighten up over the phone and tell me she’d be ready by six or seven. She was still a teenager; still in the phase where your parent is defined almost exclusively as the person who comforts/helps/saves you. I think one of the big halmarks of growing up is that transition into realizing that sometimes its your job to help *them*

  6. aww. I absolutely loved this. thank you for sharing. I love to say to my mom that it is her fault for telling meu opinion is important and valid and that I should share. that said my mom is much quieter and not as brash as I am. sometimes I think I’m who she would be if she wasn’t raised in the 50-60’s.

  7. Wow. I’m struggling to hold back tears at my desk at work right now. It’s a scary but amazing thing to see our parents as fully human people with emotions and needs and fears.

  8. My father also had the same childrearing technique of “benign neglect.” Up until a few years ago, I thought he was always saying “deny and neglect.” It’s a family joke now.

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