My mother was recently visiting our family for a little more than a week. Some friends have said that a week is a “long” visit. Though I understand that this statement is relative, the designation of the visit as “long” is both a gross understatement and completely untrue.
It’s untrue because saying the visit is “long” suggests that there could have been another length for it that was shorter, which is not the case. I did not buy my mother’s plane ticket for her but even if I had it would have been fiscally irresponsible of me to spend the $1000+ that would have landed her visit in the sweet spot for fish and relatives: 3 days [because after three days both stink, incidentally]. And since she was buying her own ticket I could not very well suggest to her that she pay almost double for what amounts to half a trip. The feeling, in my extended family and perhaps other families spread out over the country, is that if one is going to drop a significant amount of cash on a trip then it needs to be as long as possible. Maximize that togetherness. No matter that what made it possible for her to be here for nine days was that she didn’t have to pay for a hotel room because she was IN MY HOUSE. Then the calculus would have been different of course. Maybe the airfare would have looked significantly cheaper at $1000+ had there not been another $900+ of hotel charges and meals on top of whatever $600 the ticket cost [since, yes naturally, I fed my mother all the meals she ate but three during her stay]. But no, in our family you put your relatives up as long as they want and for free because this is just the family tax [other families probably also do this]. You are also supposed to willingly offer up 40+ hours of your own paid time off [which I elected to not do, working at least 30 hours while she was here because I would prefer to use my vacation time to actually have a vacation instead of being an AirBnB host who has to entertain their guest and potentially suffer verbal abuse]. I have, on occasion, also enacted the “family tax” on my relatives, staying in their house for a week, but I will say that in that case it still felt like I was being taxed in time and patience if not so much cash because in really none of those cases did I want to be staying in my relatives’ houses eating their food or sleeping in their guest rooms. No, I would rather have been at home or in Hawaii or even just a day’s drive away in a hotel room eating dinner at a nice restaurant beholden to no one [the dream]. I have in my life taken precisely two vacations where I got to do what the fuck I wanted and did not have to interact in some way with [extended] family [and they were both glorious events of personal freedom and joy]. I realize that this calculus suggests that I had some choice in how this event played out, and that is not untrue, but I assure you that I have run the numbers and this was the best case scenario I could manage after considering what costs I might have to pay for which benefits.
The idea that the trip was “long” was of course a gross understatement of the facts, from my perspective, for some reasons I went into above, but also because I have been almost catatonic since it ended [three days ago] which suggests that it was far too much to have put myself through in the first place.
Having said that: I achieved a tolerably pleasant visit where my mother enjoyed her grandchildren whom she has not seen in person since before Covid [and that was at her father’s funeral, so], my children enjoyed their grandmother, and no one yelled at anyone or suffered some irreparable harm that I would be forced to apologize for at some point [whether or not it was my fault].
Mothers are difficult creatures to share a house with at the best of times, which is a value neutral statement that I think nearly everyone can relate to on some level. I do not particularly care for my mother as a person which should mean that I do not have to interact with her and do not have to have her as a house guest, but because of the small detail of her being my mother those preferences are not particularly important. I do feel obligated to ensure that my mother has a good relationship with her grandchildren, because for whatever our interpersonal issues may be they have very little to do with what I feel is owed to my mother and my kids in terms of understanding their own places in our lineage respective to one another. So I feel obligated and though I know there is no particular reward for me personally in facilitating their relationship, I want to be the sort of person who doesn’t deny other people something of value in order to spare myself a temporary inconvenience. If I can politely wait in a TSA line, and I can make small talk in the grocery store, and I can serve on tiresome church committees then I can suck it up for 9 days so that my kids can see their grandmother.
And I was very good. But now I am very tired.
I think every adult child struggles with not being seen by their parents, with being judged [even slightly] by the metrics their parents use to evaluate a good life. As a parent I too will sometimes judge the interests of my own kids [as in “dear god, please do not become a herpetologist because I do not want to have to listen to you talk about snake venom for the rest of my life every time we get together and pretend that I care about it”], but I recognize that we are distinct humans with distinct interests and that not everything works for all people [I can feign interest in snake venom, watch me]. As a parent, I understand that what I say to my children affects their sense of themselves [especially when they are kids] and I take the responsibility to not crush their budding sense of self under my judgments so they can make up their own minds about things quite seriously. My mother understands this intellectually, but she necessarily needs to view her own way of moving through the world as essentially Correct to an extent that she constantly wishes to nullify my values and sense of reality. So that, like, puts a damper on her ability to view my full humanity and validate any parts of it that contradict her worldview. Sometimes I think my life looks like a personal attack to her, which is ironic because I have done almost everything she ever told me to do [maybe she was not specific enough].
Curiously, my mother and I agree on about 90% of things. You’d think that would make it easier for us to get along, but as with the political environment all around us, it’s clear that some people just spoil for a fight regardless of the substance of their convictions. That isn’t me saying that there are not real divides in our current political landscape [there really are] just that I still do think that most people agree about most things despite their great love of spending all their time arguing about the things they disagree about. However, my mother is a special case: she can argue with you even if you agree on every point. I have lost count of the times she has been vehemently arguing with me about a point where, if I stop and consider the trajectory of the conversation, I can tell our opinions never actually diverged. Usually the problem is that I said something insightful instead of her and she has not recognized that the thrust of her argument is that she feels insecure about possibly not being the smartest person in the room [not a valid premise, as it turns out]. In some of my more vindictive moods, I have been known to sometimes back her into a logical corner where she basically had to say something like “gay baby boomers caused the AIDs epidemic because they couldn’t keep it in their pants,” [this really happened on Facebook once, it was transcendantlyantly cringe] in order to defend her original objection to the insightful thing I said that she never actually disagreed with [it was about bodily autonomy, we are both vocally pro-abortion for everyone who wants a fucking abortion]. In my mother’s defense, she absolutely does not blame gay men for AIDs and she was among those nurses on the front lines of the epidemic in the trenches trying to save their lives [because she is an excellent nurse]. So it just goes to show you that attachment to ego in interpersonal relations is a destructive force that might just make you say something horrific that you absolutely will regret. If my mother were capable of apologizing, she would absolutely beg forgiveness from the entire gay community [but maybe don’t give it to her].
My mother has acknowledged exactly twice that I might know something about anything. That probably sounds like I am keeping score, and it’s not that I’m not, but it’s more that such a thing is so momentous that it’s like having incontrovertible proof of Bigfoot’s existence or like Men’s Rights Activists admitting they have white privilege on the internet.
Despite this entry, I do not actually need my mother to validate my life choices in order for me to feel like they have meaning. But, defending one’s life choices constantly [especially when they are urban farming and walking everywhere and eating vegetables and working in government service and not sodomizing baby seals for the entertainment of Russian oligarchs] is very tiring. Going into this entire event I told myself that I could handle whatever she threw at me and respond with grace and politeness because that is the person that I want to be [and am]. That all of her judgments about my life, my parenting, my diet, my word choice are really statements about herself and not about me at all [let’s say this all together, folks]. These are valuable things to tell yourself, and they weren’t worth nothing. This is the first time we have had to share a house together for more than 3 days where we didn’t have a fight with yelling and hurtful exchanges. I am supposed to view this as a success. My small army of emotional support humans assures me this is a great success of which I should be proud. But I am still too tired for that because I had to go put myself back into a headspace where I continually had to choose to just not assert anything that felt true about myself.
It seems like doing such a thing for 9 days would not be that bad, and in practice it wasn’t. It was not worse than having to do it for all of my life leading up to when I moved out of my mother’s house and then again for another 10 years in my ex-husband’s house [there was a brief stint of mostly being myself and not taking too much shit for it that was called “college” in between]. It was not worse than having to present a Me-Lite(tm) version of myself to the outside world every fucking day so that people don’t stone me in public [slight exaggeration]. But, and this is important, I have taken great pains to cultivate a life where I get to be the most me that it is possible to be, and having to get shoved back into someone else’s idea of an optimal me while living in my own house was far from ideal.
All choices have consequences. The consequence of allowing my mother and her grandchildren to have a 9 day in-person gathering for the least amount of actual money turns out to be two-weeks of lost work productivity for me, an inability to tell when I am hungry or thirsty, flesh-gnawing tiredness, a preoccupation with mindless fantasy romance audiobooks, and an irritatingly clingy need to pester the humans whose opinions I do value to over validate me to the point where I am concerned they need a break now. I am trying to be ok with the hangover of this choice because I planned and prepared for it and made it willingly. But sometimes even stuff you meant to do is harder than it should have been. This will not be the last time that I have to do this thing.
When I told my mother that I was autistic she had a hard time with it. I had spent over a year preparing her for the likelihood of my diagnosis but she was still surprised. She didn’t find any value [for her] in me having such a label and insisted that what I really had was PTSD and “daddy issues” and how could I not have thought about what this information would do to her hearing it in the middle of her work day. Somehow, against all odds, I had the fortitude in that moment to not say, “well I guess what you’re saying is that I meet diagnostic criteria for an impaired of theory of mind since I am unable to consider your perspective.” She has never apologized for this or the hurt that she knows it caused me. She acts like it didn’t happen and very deliberately walks around the fact of my having an autism diagnosis, mostly by normalizing the “quirkier” things about my presentation by comparing my behavior to other people in the family [who probably would also meet criteria for diagnosis], as if to say “see, that’s not without precedent,” presumably to spare me stigma.
As a person with a fairly bottomless memory, who has classified all the idiosyncrasies of my friends and acquaintances in order that I might better adapt to their needs [so that I do not have to reckon with their potentially conditional acceptance of me], I find it highly unlikely that my mother will ever apologize to me or acknowledge my reality. My pattern recognition suggests to me that as far as my relationship with my mother is concerned I will not ever get to be my real self when I am around her. This strikes me as a tremendous loss for us both and it makes me sad. The ways that I am deliberately unmasking myself these days around trusted friends makes it easier to understand my own worthiness, etc. I remain ambivalent about the arc of my relationship with my mother because it seems likely that we have to do some version of this dance for the next 20ish years. I would prefer not to do it, but I understand that she will feel very hurt if I don’t and I am not yet ready to really hurt her by doing something that I don’t think she’ll really understand.
This story does not have a moral. Maybe I will get time off for good behavior. But for now, I will just use my PTO, gift of organized labor, to rest over the long weekend hopefully creating enough reservoir of energy to get through some more of my life.
2 thoughts on “Masking Virtuoso Takes the Day Off”
As always, Jenna, I like reading your writing. I always feel I know you a little better (I think you’ve been unmasking for awhile now, but I wouldn’t actually know that because I haven’t known you for long. And do we ever really know each other?) And I also feel a wish to know the real you even more.
Being a mom of adult children, this hit home. I wondered if my sons feel the way you do, or something like it. A little. Hmmm. I just spent nine days at my 39 year old son’s house – in their guest room — visiting him, his partner and my 1-1/2 year old grandsons. My son and I are close and mostly we can say anything to each other. I was sad to leave but exhausted when I came back. Turns out that was for a serious physical reason and not because of navigating relationships although I know there is some navigating. It’s like peeling layers of family history off of an onion. Anyway, thank you for being the real true you and sharing your thoughts. Maureen
I meant Jemma! Gawd. My phone’s auto spell just can’t get your name right. Gahhh Maureen