Who’s The Boss: On being a mother in the house when your mother is visiting
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>
Oh, I can totally relate to this adult child with mother dilemma. I believe you have made more progress than I have, but I’m working on it.
I’m so glad you can relate to this. I don’t know how much further along this path I am… Some days it feels like I’m still at the beginning, pouting and stomping my feet. It’s a work in progress, anyway.
Your analogy of the two sizes too small coat being your child-like role in the presence of your mother was great. I felt your discomfort all the way through this piece.
Thank you, Sue!
Hahah I often go though this dilemma!!
I suspect it’s a universal…but nobody talks about it!
As usual, your writing demonstrates your insight and wit. 🙂 What a pleasure to read.
I’m visiting my Amma, who’s living with my sister, who’s nursing her newborn, and sidetracking the toddler, and rushing along the pre-schooler. The household dynamics are terrifying!
PS. Red noses are fun!
Good luck with all the wrangling of children and mothers! Enjoy the chaos.
This makes me wonder about extended families: do daughters who become mothers and share a home with their own mothers ever getting a chance to grow into the role?
That’s a good point. In my own family, I know that some of those mothers didn’t come into their own until their own mothers had passed away. Interestingly, they almost always took over the matriarch role, and became very much like their own mothers. I wonder if the same is true in other families.
Asha, I wonder if the balance would be different if you and your mother had more regular interaction? I’m fortunate that my parents are both living in the same region I live in, so I see them several times a year — sometimes even frequently. There isn’t a need to re-introduce ourselves with each visit because it may only have been a few weeks since the last time they saw me.
I also suspect that it is as difficult on your mother as it is on you. (((hugs)))
Thanks for your comments Courtney. My mother and I have regular interaction. We lived close to each other up until 2.5 years ago when we moved to the other side of the world. We still Skype a few times each week and see each other once a year. I’m fully aware that it’s as difficult on her — as I think I stated.
It isn’t a matter of re-introducing ourselves. It’s more a case of growing into new roles and not stagnating. That’s remains a challenge for anyone who aspires to be more than their teenage selves, I think.
I don’t have children, but I struggle with regressing to rebellious teenage behaviors when I’m around my mother. “You’re not the boss of me” is my ingrained response. It’s hard to ignore such well-known paths.
It doesn’t help to live so far away (and it really does help, because that circus is not part of your everyday life). But I’ve noticed that you have a better chance of reaching that equilibrium, the more exposure you both have to each other. Even though exposure is painful.
All of this is much more pronounced and painful when one of you is visiting and staying with the other. And for two months! I’m pretty sure you have super powers.
Hahaha. My cape’s being mended as I type! No super powers sadly, but there are some distinct advantages to growing older. Not least, gaining more patience and empathy.
I think a firm basis in love and respect for each other helps us out a great deal. I’m sure both my mother and I would have lost patience with each other long ago if it wasn’t for that.
The petulance of the teenage years is hard to escape. I hear you so loudly on your call of “you’re not the boss of me”!