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.