Parents as Doormats
My brother and I, both MBA’s, often viewed family events akin to corporate conferences. We sought different ways to minimize chaos and maximize the quality of our time together. Although Thanksgiving Day is a prized group celebration, we decided that other days in the long weekend are best split up in smaller breakout sessions so as to have more personal interaction. Group-breakout-report back.
Thus, over the Thanksgiving weekend my brother and I took turns ferrying my parents across the Bay area, giving us each ample opportunity for coveted ‘alone time.’ On Saturday, I met my parents in the bustling Ferry Building where the Farmer’s Market stands overflowed with samples of their most prized fare. For once, I had more on the agenda than food. In my parental ‘alone time’ I had hoped my mother would review my final book proposal draft before I wrapped it in a bow and sent it off to New York.
My mother had the perfect arsenal of reviewer tools; science (as a Chemist), art (as a Sommelier), and a strong command of the English language (as a prior National Merit Scholar).
I presented her with my beat up Macbook in hopes she could easily read through the 33 pages and provide insightful commentary. We all sat down in a coffee shop and she read my well-spaced type while my father and I chatted about nonsensical things, free of emotion and strife.
Out of the corner of my eye I watched my mother nod while reading the overview and the target market portions of my proposal. I noticed a smile emerge when she came upon the author biography. However, as quickly as clouds overtake the sky during a storm, her face darkened halfway through the chapter outline. After a brief scan with fierce eyes, she hastily shut the cover of my laptop and indicated we should all take a walk.
As my father and I struggled to keep up with her long legged strides, I thought back through my outline to understand what could have upset her. She must have taken offense to the references of struggle in our mother-daughter relationship. Granted, it only made up a small thread in the book’s chapters. But just as people narrow in on their position in group photos to ensure they don’t look fat or cross eyed, so do they examine narratives to ensure they are portrayed favorably.
As we walked through the ferry building, my father and I stopped to sample cheese and taste truffles while my mother walked stiffly beside us, lips pursed and eyes distant. She wasn’t even seduced by the 12 year aged goat cheese, which concerned me. Knowing a discussion was in order, we all decided to sit down for a drink in a nearby pub. Alcohol always seemed to make things better.
“Ok, mom, you didn’t like something I wrote, right? Is that why you did not join our festive food sampling?”
She looked at me shaking her head of soft curls. Her light eyes were dewy. “It’s like you took an eraser to all the good things I have done for you,” she said. “You never referenced all the stormy Saturdays I braved black ice to drive you to Orchestra School. I didn’t see any mention of the care packages of homemade cookies and jam. Or how I would talk to you for hours on the phone after you were in tears over that nasty breakup,” she looked at me intently.
“But mom, no one wants to read that stuff,” I argued. “A nice parent is a lousy story. People need conflict and resolution. And you know there has been conflict between us. You know about the dark phase and the struggle. Plus this is my story about a road trip across the US, not an in-depth account of my childhood. And it was overcoming the darkness that I want to write about.”
My father ordered a beer and became suddenly very interested in a far off television screen showing a college football game. He likely would not sign up for a family break-out session again.
“But the good stuff is also part of the story,” she said. You cannot just write about the harder elements when I wasn’t there. The only word you used to describe our relationship was ‘eggshell fragility’ and I do not think that word accurately covers the expanse of our relationship.”
“Umm…well no one needs to know about the less fragile parts when I was an Orchestra geek,” I said. I have been ridiculed enough for spending my formative years with a cello as an accessory when all the cooler girls had pom poms.
“You know, she said, “If you are going to paint a true picture you cannot just illustrate the hard parts of a relationship. You must depict a balanced view with the good parts.”
I started to think about the things I had blamed my mother for in my life. She was right. I had spent so much time focusing on what had NOT been done, that I neglected to focus on what had been. I had been the ultimate hypocrite; busy preaching having a glass half full attitude and not carrying this view out with my own family.
I thought across my span of girlfriends and found many as narcissistic as I had been. We always expect our parents to be there for us and shoot them down at the first sign of falter. Our selective memories overly focus on injustices done, and not the attention labored. For example, my mother’s dedication to wake me up at 7am on Saturday for cello school was only a temporary agony that now affords me the appreciation of symphony, commitment, and thumb position chords.
Perhaps I had mastered some of life’s darker paths solo, but if I ever let down my guard enough to ask for support I had a prompt shipment of homemade jams with the hand scrawled label, “From Mom, with love.” Gooseberry, my favorite, was brought over for Thanksgiving.
I am not sure I had ever sent my mother anything outside of the required birthday, Mother’s Day, and Christmas gifts. As children, I fear we often use our parents as doormats, demanding full attention and never giving it back in equal portions. Although my parents eagerly went to every theater and orchestra performance, I never was interested in attending their empty nester events. The one time I went to one of their ballroom dances I complained endlessly about being paired off with a thin haired old man three inches shorter than me. But perhaps that didn’t matter. After all, they sat through multiple off key performances of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, pretending it was the most marvelous spectacle they had ever seen.
I’m no longer a child that needs handholding and constant attention. I’m an adult that should be able to walk alongside my parents and give equally. As I allowed my admissions to be voiced out loud I saw the darkness is my mother’s face disappear. She took my hand. “This is the first time in a long while you have listened to me,” she said. I realized how easy it was to make our parents happy. All we have to do is be appreciative. I went back through my book proposal again, determined to show a more balanced approach to the love I had been given.
My mother wanted me to be her wings, to fly as she never quite had the courage to do. I love her for that. I love the fact that she wanted to give birth to her own wings.