My parents are pushing my buttons. I suppose this is in a figurative sense since we are on opposite sides of the country, but I can literally feel a small, round button being pushed deep into my back, just on the outer corner of my shoulder blade, the pain radiating up to my neck and down my arm. It began as a pinching feeling, more intense but closer to the surface, dysfunction grabbing and choking my muscles with its metal claws. I tried to visualize the pain, and the image that came up was of my sister pinching me mercilessly as a child, her fingernails clutching as she hissed and spit like a cat. I started crying.
The pain has relaxed a little now into pressure and vibration, more achy than acute, its effect not quite so paralyzing. I know the pain is my parents; I’ve had it before, most noticeably after they’ve been out to visit. The last time I chalked it up to whiplash at Universal Studios while on roller coaster rides with my nephew, but I know it’s them. Or more specifically, it’s my disappointment at the state of my relationship with them. I keep expecting with each interaction that things will be better, that my parents will be interested and involved, and each time I’m let down. I’m nothing if not persistent; determined—a fighter, as Jeff says. One could also say I’m stubborn, too bullheaded or naive to give up even when every sign points to futility. I’ve been hoping, hope against hope, believing that eventually I’d do something right, and my parents would pay attention to me.
Marriage isn’t it. I thought it would be. What could be more traditional, more acceptable, more easy to understand and identify with, more likely to bring a family together than a wedding? Nope. In the last few years my dad has loaned me money when I was struggling financially; my mom has worried about my lack of a stable job; my sisters have called to commiserate with me after a breakup. All of the attention I got was when I was failing and needed help. Now that I’m getting married and have Jeff to support me, they don’t need to bother with me at all. They simply are not interested in how my life with Jeff is coming along or in our wedding plans. That hurts, particularly since I expected to have them falling all over me. I feel it as a loss of love from my family, but my therapist assures me that I never had the love I needed from them anyway. What ended is the dream that someday they’ll be there for me in the way I need. Now I know it will never happen.
Accepting that my parents cannot love me the way I would like and letting go of my hopes and expectations—I’m not quite sure how to do that, but I do want to do it. I cannot keep failing in order to fit in. And I have to accept the reality in my heart, not just by external appearance. I’ve always acted strong and tough when things bothered me; I never let on how much I was hurting inside. My family knew though; eventually I’d crack.
When I was going through a divorce from my first husband, who had cheated on me, my mother told me, “You’ll be fine, honey; you’re strong. You’ll get through this.” Not a bad comment in and of itself, but that was pretty much all she said. Case closed. Oh wait, before that she had stuttered that I’d find someone else. “I mean you’re … smart, and you’re … you’re … you’re … well-traveled …” The best quality my mother could come up with to describe me was well-traveled. (Thankfully, she never set me up on any blind dates.) Strangers offered more solace. That wasn’t as bad though as years earlier when I broke up with my first love and sobbed to my mother on the phone my fear that I might not ever meet anyone I liked as much again. “Well,” she said stoically, “You might not.” Who says that to a twenty-one-year-old?
I know that my mother’s responses have much more to do with her own lack of self-esteem than they do with me, much more to do with her own feelings of hopelessness and undesirability. Logically, I understand that my parents are limited, that they love me as best they can, with the wounds they sustained from their own childhoods. And to be fair, my father did call me regularly after my divorce to check up on me, though he isn’t calling now. But then, that was a failure, not a success. Still, emotionally, it hurts to feel abandoned, to know that I will never get the validation that I want from them.
I can start a new life with Jeff, one that honors each of us and lets us be free to support and nurture the other as adults. We both need to separate from our families to accept whatever love they do offer us (if any) without needing it to survive.