On a recent drive home from visiting extended family, my mom and I got into a fight, which isn’t surprising in and of itself – we can’t spend any real amount of time together without fighting. What is surprising is that on this occasion, instead of reacting the way I normally would (sighing heavily and shutting down), I used a communication technique from books about ethical non-monogamy.
The situation was this: She said something passive aggressive and meant to evoke feelings of guilt (“Honey, you must be so excited to go to DC so you can get away from your mom.”); in a raised tone of voice, I told her that it’s not okay to guilt trip me; she told me it wasn’t a guilt trip, then lapsed into the silent treatment.
I tried talking her out of it for a while, but nothing was working – then finally, a light bulb went off. “You’re a good mom,” I said, “and I love you. When you say things like that, it makes me think that you think that I think (confusing, no?) you’re not a good mother, but you are. And it’s okay if you need validation. I should say this more out loud: You’re a great mom and I love you so much. If you need reassurance, just ask and I’ll give it to you! We all need reassurance and validation from the people we love. I do, too.” And poof! Just like that, she came out of silent mode to tell me that she didn’t think that I thought she was a bad mother and that she loved me, too. We talked about how hard it is that my sister and I live far away from her, and she really does worry that we don’t want to spend time with her. Most of her friends have children who still live in my hometown and who have kids of their own; I know it’s emotionally difficult for her that we don’t.
Then she said something really interesting. When I told her that there were a lot of people in my life that I care about, she said, “I guess sometimes I just feel jealous.” And instead of saying, “That’s crazy – we’re both adults,” I held her hand and said, “Yeah, it’s gotta be hard to have someone depend on you for so long and then become completely independent. I understand why you feel that way.” Of course, being childless, I can never truly understand – but I can try. And trying makes a world of difference.
Even parents – those people who are supposed to be our rocks – need reassurance that they’re important and loved. Because they take care of us when we’re young, we sometimes see them as being impervious to feelings of inadequacy or jealousy, but they’re not. They’re every bit as fragile and vulnerable as we are, especially as they age and start losing their own parents, siblings, and friends; in the long run, it’s not only easier to be compassionate than stubborn, but it’s better for our relationships (and our mental health).