My mother is one of the most selfless, loving people I have ever met. She’s the sort of person who always leaves the last piece of fish for someone else. And shops with everyone but herself in mind. And worries if you don’t drop her a text every night that you stay out late.
She is also one of the people who has called me some of the nastiest names in my life. Over the years, my mother has spat some very hurtful words my way, calling me anything from a “proud, ungrateful bitch” to “worst daughter in the world” and “cheap whore”.
At first, it doesn’t seem congruent that someone with such a big heart can possess a tongue so cruel and vicious. But when you examine the circumstances under which such language is produced, the verbal lashings are actually consistent with her personality.
The world, through my mother’s eyes, is black and white. There is only good and evil, sacred and profane, beautiful and vile. The problem is that though most people can be placed on either end of the dichotomous scale she draws in her mind, to her, I exist defiantly in the space between the two poles. To her, I dance on the line between right and wrong and when I do that, I threaten the perfect balance within her ideal universe. She is a good and moral human being and would have raised a good daughter as a result. But I cannot be a good daughter if I say something that upsets her; I cannot make a mistake without being a bitch or whore.
This worldview has had significant impact on how my mother and I deal with conflict. Most fights take on the same tone: my mother stubbornly defends her beliefs, and I challenge them doggedly. Our arguments can be about anything, but really each time they escalate into a yelling match what we really are screaming to each other is always the same: “Why can’t you see what I see”.
I used to think I was being the bigger person because I would be the one to apologise after. It felt like I was being mature and considerate even when I didn’t have to be. Some times I would think to myself, if only she’d grow up already. My mother was the Betty to my Sally Draper, enslaved to the fantasy of a perfect life. Then I noticed that in thinking this way, I was claiming victory over her- my “willingness to lose the fight” was my win. How was being smug about giving in any better than remaining adamant about my point of view? Wouldn’t that make my mother right in saying I was just too proud?
I am not always right. I know that. I know I say things just to provoke, some times, and it works every time I do. My mother hates that I refuse to fit into the mould she has designed for me. I hate that she tries to force me into it with harsh words. But that doesn’t make her wrong. Yes, sometimes, there is a right way to do something, and let’s face it, it’s never easy to admit that what you did was the wrong way. I should not talk back to my mother in front of my relatives, I should not shrug and keep quiet when she asks how my day went and I don’t want to answer, I should not chain smoke or speak ill of a pastor, nor should I question the things that she does around the house. My mother is my mother. There is a right way to interact with her, and it doesn’t matter if you argue that this has been culturally defined or that it is universal. The rules will always apply.
To grow up is to understand that the world my mother created is one that I am responsible to protect. Along with my brothers, my dad, and her friends and family. We are meant to rally around her and preserve that ideal state of affairs, to fend off the grey spectres of amorality that float about the borders of her world of blue skies and calm oceans hoping to slip in and muddy the water. The version of reality my mother has invented may be far from the truth but its chimerical beauty is a thing worth defending.
I’m not choosing to be the bigger person here. In fact, the current approach I have towards confrontations with my mother are equally self-centred. I back down because I am terrified of losing her to the creeping imperfection around her. I apologise so that I don’t have to face the thought of exposing her to the wretched darkness born of humanity that she is not ready to accept. I lose the fight so that her world stays in tact.
There’s a saying: Act out of love, not fear.
I don’t know how not to fear. Isn’t existing all about self-preservation? If there is anything I have learned from my mother, it is that love is just the fear of losing what’s most important. Love comes with so much risk, of unintended consequences and pain and failure. We have everything to be afraid of. But maybe that’s why it’s so important to be fearful, so we are constantly reminded to love and to love and to not stop loving no matter how many compromises we have to make and fights we have to lose because otherwise we face the prospect of letting it all stray beyond our reach, forever irretrievable.