Mother Love


I grew up with a boy bias. I took after my father and didn’t like to hang with Mom. She was into shopping and fashion and recipes and gossip; I preferred Dad’s philosophy, science, and math puzzles. Mom didn’t read comics. She wasn’t thoughtful.

Even before then, my father was the doting patient parent. Mom always loved tiny babies, but once a child could sit up, she lost interest. She was abrupt, impatient, always on to the next task. I think some of my needs were not met.

I had two younger brothers. Most of my first cousins were boys. I grew up around people who liked to shoot air rifles and watch “Combat.” I understand belching and peeing contests. I early learned to knee my brothers when necessary, to get them to leave me alone.

In school I was disruptive. I spent lots of time in what would be called detention. All of the other detainees were male.

I didn’t like girls in groups. Their squeals put me off. Their policing drove me nuts. I was much more comfortable with a set of guys. In my opinion, they were more trustworthy. I could tell a boy friend a secret and he would keep it.

I had an accidental career in business consulting. I established my small firm and collected a few hundred clients. Rarely did I experience sexual discrimination. But when I did, it came from another woman.

So maybe it’s no surprise that I didn’t like my mother-in-law. Or that I have strongly disapproved of the mothers of a few of my friends. I have a tendency to be hard on narcissistic moms. It’s not okay with me if they put their own emotional needs ahead of the parenting job.

Lately I’ve been softening. A month ago I felt a glimmer of love for my ex-mother-in-law, a woman I may have hated, and who has been dead 30 years. Recently I’ve been feeling fond of my 91-year old mother.

I really did despise my mother-in-law. She was cold. She always seemed stern. I can’t remember a smile from her, let alone a laugh.

The only activities that seemed to give her pleasure were baking, decorating for holidays, and sewing. She did make the best chocolate chip cookies I ever tasted, but she steadfastly refused to share the recipe, and took the secret to her grave. Her house was well-embellished at Halloween, Easter, and especially Christmas, but never warm in spirit (overwarm in temp, especially in December, which was one of the reasons my husband and I took frequent walks outside during the mandatory Christmas Eve overnight – to escape the heat and company, and to smoke dope).

She was opinionated about small things. According to my mother-in-law, Halloween was not a time to collect for UNICEF (“there are 364 other days for that”). She nearly took the head off any child who dared to ask for other than candy that night.

She had other small but strongly held beliefs which I have chosen to forget, but whenever my father-in-law or husband dared to disagree with her, they got the silent treatment. For at least several hours and sometimes for days. I was blown away (I’ve tried to stop talking to someone as punishment, and it always seemed harder on me than on the offender, so I gave it up).

My father-in-law was a perfectly lovely guy. Overweight and sedentary but amiable and affectionate. He’d had a diligent but unremarkable career in a number of activities – managing movie houses and building homes in Wyoming and then getting a job with a big construction firm in San Francisco – but I don’t recall him ever sharing an anecdote about his employment. He seemed to live for crossword puzzles and food (he cooked the meals, like a scientist – all measuring cups and timers and the resulting acceptable but mediocre plates). He and my mother-in-law had separate bedrooms, and as my husband and I discovered, his closet was where he stashed years of Playboy magazines.

I didn’t love my mother-in-law. I didn’t even like her. I thought she was the most spiritually stingy person I’d ever met. After I divorced her son, she wouldn’t speak to me of course. The one time we encountered one another in the street, in SF, she actually spit toward me, turned her face away from me, and stalked off. Wow.

She died a decade later. I rarely thought of her after. Until recently.

A month ago, I challenged myself with a thought problem. What would my present be like, I wondered, if I had stayed with the father of my children? We divorced after 11 years of marriage, our kids then seven and one. What if we were still together now?

Well, of course I can’t know. But I’ve had years of experience writing stories. Anyone who does that knows that the characters take on a direction of their own, bound by their personalities and the narrative arc to proceed naturally, often in a direction or to a plot point the author doesn’t choose. In this particular thought problem, the husband achieved more happiness than was the actual case and the wife more anger. Both eventually grew more silent. The wife’s dissatisfaction resulted in a room of her own. By the time the couple reached their 50s, their relationship closely resembled that of my in-laws.

And with that, I began to understand my husband’s mother. I plumbed the extent of her bleakness. I saw how she made the best of an unsatisfactory bet. And I wished, briefly but sincerely, that we had been able to see one another.

Maybe that episode readied me for what came next. I witnessed a set-to between a mother and daughter last week. I’ve described the scene to my mother, my daughter, and a few close friends. We’ve been disagreeing about who was wrong.

The explosion occurred in a small Thai restaurant. I was there with my partner, having a quiet meal. Their party consisted of an older couple, a pair in their 30s, and an infant in a brand-new stroller. The baby looked very young; I got the impression the older couple was visiting a new grandchild. Their voices were impossible to ignore, so I started active eavesdropping. It became clear that the older couple was from the east coast. The young mother was their daughter.

They ordered food and then lowered their voices, so I’m not sure what triggered the first disagreement, but all of a sudden the daughter was visibly upset. She said something about a “sidebar” to her husband, and he immediately shifted the table so she could exit. They stepped outside, leaving the baby asleep in the stroller and the older couple looking dismayed.

A few minutes later the young couple returned and took their seats again. The women were on a banquette against the window wall and the husbands were opposite their respective spouses. I had a side view of the women and a pretty good angle on the men’s faces.

The young woman voiced a light apology to her mother. “You know I love you,” she concluded.

“Sometimes I wonder,” murmured her mom.

The daughter exploded. “What the fuck?” she said three times, emphasizing the last word more powerfully with each repetition. “What the fuck did you just say?” She was turned away from me, but followed with some phrase that included the word “hateful.”

Her mother seemed about to placate, but then the daughter got a little control of herself and tried to explain something. Her father interrupted her.

The young husband said, “Let her talk.”

The father put his right hand on the young husband’s left shoulder and said something about “making nice.”

The young husband enunciated, “Don’t touch me.”

The father persisted with some sort of peacemaking.

“Get your hand off me!”

It was weird. The father kept his hand on the young husband’s shoulder, the young husband spoke with increasing volume, and neither man looked at the other. Each seemed to have his vision trained across the table at his own wife.

“Get. Your. Fucking. Hand. Off. Me!” from the young husband finally produced a result. Then the young couple rose, spun the stroller around, and stormed out of the restaurant.

The older couple was still there when we left, trying to do justice to too much food. The wife had stopped crying but neither looked okay.

Sure we were shocked. Our first amazement was at the language and tone from each of the young folks. The abruptness. The power of the anger. Amazing.

But as time passed, other considerations surfaced. It was crazy of the older man to keep his hand on the young one. What was that about? Talk about not respecting body space. Odd.

The mother’s behavior was even more debatable. At least, there are more debates about it in my circle than there are about the men (all agree the old guy should have removed his hand but, basically, that there was way too much testosterone in that dining room for any enjoyable meal).

The mother exhibited insecurity about her daughter’s love. “Sometimes I wonder.” That was either an affectation or a true revelation of insecurity. If it was affectation, it was bunk. No debate there. The question: is it okay for a mother to reveal her maternal insecurity to her adult daughter?

The answer: no.

The fact is, it’s a parent’s job to give and give and give to her kids, and then give some more. The kids didn’t ask to be born. When a parent acts needy, and the neediness is about the strength of the child’s love, expressing it puts the child in a cruel fruitless position. What’s an offspring to do? Reassure the parent? Go ahead: play that script. The reassurance doesn’t work, and the kid just got saddled with an inappropriate task.

There has been a minority opinion. Some have argued that a parent (read: woman) has the right to express neediness and to have that neediness soothed. Interestingly, the folks who have exhibited that opinion happened to be raised by narcissistic mothers.

The leader of the opposition, to put a big term on a little discussion, is starting to come around. “Maybe you’re right,” she said yesterday. “Maybe you have the healthier perspective. Your mother may not have met your needs, but she wasn’t emotionally damaged like mine.”

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