Although my week of self care was improving my life in general, I had a stressful weekend situation to deal with. It was my dad’s 59th birthday party—really, a great thing to celebrate, considering he’d almost died last year, only it was just I was so burned out on talking about anything to do with the stroke…and really, burned out on more than just that, as TC would later point out.
I had a really hard time with the birthday party. The caregivers had been calling me and trying to get me involved in things for the last week, and I kept making excuses. (Later, I would learn from TC that I don’t need to make excuses, I can be honest and say, “I’m worn out from this, I really need you guys to handle this on your own this time around”…but I hadn’t learned that tool yet). I felt pressure from all sides. I had just moved into my apartment the week before, and was still yearning for my own time and space. My mom arrived on Friday to stay for the weekend and really wanted to spend time with me. She was asking to stay in my apartment with me, and I kept suggesting she stay in the spare room at my dad’s instead. “All the furniture’s still a mess here…” I kept finding excuses.
The party was grueling. I was happy for my dad, but I was emotionally exhausted. Living with a suddenly brain-damaged parent for a year and basically being their “parent” had taken its toll on me. All the people at the party were caregivers, friends of caregivers, Dad’s PT doctors, and other friends of my dad’s. Everyone was making small talk, and everyone was talking about the stroke. I couldn’t think of two worse conversation situations for me right at this moment.
With my emotions running on overdrive, I couldn’t do small talk. Not at all. Certainly not small talk about the stroke – the very thing that had caused these huge emotional barricades in my life! I tried to busy myself helping with food and music so I didn’t have to talk to people. But my mom kept coming up and trying to hug me and connect with me. She would come up and say really off-the-wall stuff in attempt to talk to me, like “What an interesting pattern on that seat cover!” And she has this really passive, hippy way of talking, with lots of soft “oohs” and “awws” that just drive me nuts. I couldn’t handle it. I dealt with it by not dealing with it. I felt bad, but I pointedly ignored her. When she’d come up and say something weird and put her hands on my shoulders, I’d turn to someone next to me and strike up a conversation. By the end of the evening, I was exhausted.
This was Saturday night, and Sunday, she and my dad were going to be having dinner and they invited me, but I excused myself. “I’m just so busy, sorry…” again, more excuses.
That Monday morning I couldn’t wait to tell TC about all this. I couldn’t possibly think how to solve this problem of dealing with my mom, and things just seemed to be getting worse. TC immediately pointed out the essentials to me. “You can’t change your mom’s behavior,” she said. “But you can change yours. And when you change your behavior, you will also change the dynamics of your relationship with your mom, so your mom will have to change.”
TC pointed out that my mom’s passive, 50’s upbringing was affecting the way she communicated with me. But then she pointed out that my communication style was just as bad. “You’re both skating over the ice with each other, avoiding anything real that might be under the surface. When confronted with your mom’s clinginess, instead of telling her how you really feel about it, you skate away, you make excuses or change the subject—you don’t address what really matters.”
She was totally right. But I felt I’d been really straightforward with my mom in the past, and that hadn’t worked either. “I’ve told her I needed my space, and she was being too clingy, and nothing changes,” I said.
We talked about expectations and relationships. TC pointed out how everyone has expectations about relationships with other people. This is a natural thing. But sometimes those expectations are unrealistic and we need to readjust them. I realized since my dad’s stroke, I had been actively seeking that strong parent figure from my mom. But she had never been that person for me, and, as TC pointed out, certainly couldn’t right now. “She’s dealing with a lot too,” TC said. “She went through a divorce with your dad just six years ago, then the stroke…she’s trying to figure out her life too. Maybe you need to change your expectations of what you need from her. What you want is a parent figure. But what do you really need?”
“I guess I really need…to be able to talk about real things with her,” I finally said. This also connected to my abhorrence of small talk right now, and cutting out friends who couldn’t support me emotionally. “I really need her to be able to have meaningful conversations with me. I don’t want to have this avoidant, surface relationship anymore.”
“There you go,” said TC. “Can you tell her that?”
“I wouldn’t know how…”
Forty-five minutes later I hung up from our session, brushed up my make-up, and went to meet my mom for lunch. I used every tool TC had taught me. One secret of life coaches that she had just revealed to me was to use questions as much as possible. This not only gets the point across without sounding so aggressive, it also forces the other person to involve themselves and participate. So this is what we did.
I sat down and sipped my Chai tea, and said, “So, Mom, what do you think of our relationship lately?”
TC had totally prepared me for if she tried to be avoidant, to steer her right back to my question, but to her credit, she met me straight on. “Well, I think it’s pretty emotionally rocky and we’re not really communicating,” she replied.
I was pleasantly surprised, and continued with the tools I’d just gathered from my session. “Why do you think that, and what do you think we could do to make it better? What do you need out of our relationship?” And finally, “I feel like you avoid me a lot. It seems like you try to avoid upsetting me. What are you afraid of?”
At this, my mom burst into tears. “Oh honey, I’m afraid of losing you!”
What?? I was shocked. “Losing ME? Mom, I’m your daughter! You’re stuck with me for life! You’re never gonna lose me!”
We hugged, and she opened up and talked about how the divorce six years ago had totally shaken up her world. “I thought that marriage was forever, and if that could fall apart, anything could. If I lost my husband, I could lose anything.”
“I’m slowly realizing differently,” she went on. “But it’s my greatest fear. And that’s what I’ve been so scared of with you for so long.”
“But Mom, I’m your daughter. You’re like my right arm! You’re never going to lose me.”
We talked all about what I’d talked with TC about. How I’d felt like we were always skating over the surface. “What I need in this relationship is to be real. I want us to be able to talk about our feelings, and meaningful things,” I said. “I want you to be able to get upset with me. I don’t want us to be always avoiding important issues. If we notice each other doing this, can we remind each other?”
She agreed. After we’d talked all about our relationship, I even brought up the life coaching sessions, and what a help TC had been to me. My mom was fascinated by the things I’d learned about boundaries, standards, and tolerations. I gave her the papers TC had given me on the subjects, and told her how to make a Tolerations Checklist, and how that would help her create boundaries in her life. She was so impressed she was taking notes on everything I said, and is now seriously interested in also taking life coaching from TC.
I came back from lunch feeling like I’d reconnected with my mom, and really been able to talk to her for the first time in years. What an incredible breakthrough! This communication stuff really isn’t so scary once you have the proper tools…