It’s summer holidays, and my mother recently flew from Australia to spend two months with us. It’s disconcerting to be the adult child in my house when my parent comes to stay.
The intervening years of conscientiously constructing an adult persona, developing a relationship with my partner, becoming a parent, are scraped away. Instead, the roles we performed when I was still a child, still single, still living in my parents’ home, bully their way into my psyche. But it’s an ill-fitting coat, two sizes too small. The arms pinch, it doesn’t quite stretch across the back, and there’s no way I’m getting those buttons done up! Still, the coat of my childhood-self demands to be put on. Unthinkingly, reflexively, I stretch my hand into the sleeve, I revert to patterns of behaviour both familiar and repellent. I become, at least in part, someone I thought I had long ago abandoned, left languishing on the side of the road along with scrunchies and drop-waisted dresses.
My mother reverts too. She loses her otherwise independent feisty self, and becomes more conservative, less resourceful. She relinquishes her own agency, and is more emotionally dependent; a measure of both living temporarily with an adult child, and of being in a place where she’s completely out of her depth. This isn’t her home, we aren’t surrounded by her friends, the shops aren’t the ones she used to, she doesn’t drive here (on the opposite side of the road). Independence is hard to sustain under such circumstances.
Throw into the mix my own role as mother to Godzilla and the TeenWolf, and a disconcerting carnivalesque side show ensues. I become a comical half adult—half child, flickering between personas, trying on different polka-dotted hats, occasionally forgetting the audience, and behaving churlishly all ‘round. The transition from child, to parent, to adult child comes with a tornado of emotions, and I end up a version of myself I don’t particularly like. I’m less confident, less self-assured, less certain of my strength, and as a result, more reticent to admit my own failings. I become that ghastly neurotic teen I thought I’d shed in my… well… teens, spewing sarcasm and snapping at everyone.
It doesn’t help that my parenting style and approaches are so wildly different from my parents’. I had a perfectly adequate childhood, happy for the most part. There was nothing spectacularly bad about my parents’ parenting. There is nothing against which I set out to rebel, but I am a wholly different kind of parent to either of them. In many ways, my children have more freedoms than I did at their age. They have greater independence, too. Some things are similar, some are different, and for me, that’s more a measure of their personalities and the demands of parenting them as individuals, than it is any kind of rebellion or righting of perceived wrongs.
I try hard not to be the petulant child being asked to put her toys away and come sit quietly with the grown ups, but I fail much more frequently than I succeed. What is it about being around parents, aunts, uncles that makes me regress so uncivilly?
I watch dear friends around their parents and older relatives, and they don’t seem to have the same clown show going on. I’m jealous of their sophisticated adult interactions, the clear respect (and was that a hint of deference I saw?) from their parents. Am I the only one in a too tight coat, oversized shoes and a red nose here? <honk honk>
I’d like to say I have a zen-like calm as my parent continues to parent me while I’m parenting my own children. I’d like to say that we’ve moved to a new plane of understanding and acceptance. I’d like to say that I behave with grace, that I don’t flinch and grind my teeth every time my mother contradicts a parenting decision. I’d like to say all of that, but that really isn’t so yet. On the bright side, each time she visits us, each time we visit her, there’s a little more progress. I’m a little better at being who I am, without compromise. I’m a little better at not freaking my kids out with the sudden and dramatic change in personality. I’m a little better at wearing less grease paint. I hope one day soon I’ll be able to leave off the red nose, and graduate to a graceful calm. Till then… <honk honk>