An Impervious War of Attrition

Once my mother believes she needs something, there are no alternatives. And she can’t consider the benefits of deferring to accommodate someone else. It’s a straight and unbreakable line from the emergence of her need and its fulfillment, typically at someone else’s hand.

So when she asked me to do her laundry on my wedding day, I knew what to expect from her – she never stops until she gets what she believes she must have – and even though I didn’t have time to do her laundry, didn’t want to abandon my kids or my guests to do her laundry and could hardly believe she was insisting on this business in the midst of such an important day for me, I wanted to avoid the emergence of the frantic face and the escalating tone that suggest I was refusing to let her come in from a raging blizzard as a surging pack of snarling wolves snapped at her paper-thin jacket, ready to drag her into the dark and forbidden forest and eat her alive. It would take more time and effort to override Mother logic with any other point of view than it would take to just do the damn laundry. 

It was the same dynamic when she arrived for the wedding. She landed at rush hour on the Thursday before the wedding and expected me to pick her up at the airport. She could have taken a cab, but I knew if I suggested this transportation option she would panic and act like I’d condemned her to crawling to my house on her knees.

And when she announced that I needed to do her laundry, I gave up pretty quickly and washed her unsoiled clothes. And, yes, when she asked what I had done with the “special bag” she brought her clothes in, instead of resisting, I just went back down to the basement to get the stupid plastic laundry bag from the Marriott.

My compliance with this sort of demand is the core of my relationship with my mother. I want to protect my relationship with her even as I resent the terms. You’re probably thinking that I should stop enabling her and then complaining about it. But it has not proved possible for me (or anyone else) to have a relationship with her unless I am meeting her needs through tasks such as the laundry, through solving problems for her or through conversations that are limited to the topics she likes. I learned to love baseball because my sons did; my mother just can’t do that.  

We are all supposed to be glad to do things for her. It’s not bossy or mean-spirited demands. She is not Cinderella’s step-mother. She executes an impervious war of attrition against our needs and our will, the existence of which are invisible to her anyway.

We her children have come to realize that she just isn’t capable of thinking of what’s best for other people or what is too much to ask of other people. She becomes anxious and irritable and censorious when she does realize that other people expect something of her or if she comprehends that they are annoyed by her demands. Other people are supposed to understand that she isn’t able to be a giver. I know what I am writing is harsh; I know she means no harm. But that lack of intention doesn’t cancel the effect of her behavior and choices. We still cling like boat-wreck survivors in freezing waters to a desperate hope for just one sign that she would reach out for us and pull us to safety and warmth. 

Copyright 2014 Sarah Meyer Noel. All rights reserved.

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