I unfolded the topic delicately. Once my frustration had waned, and once she had veered from her chronic trauma back to an awareness of self. I gently handed her the feedback that moments before I wanted to slap her with. As caregiver you are expected to be soft, nurturing.
“You know,” I started, kneading the pressure points in her left palm exactly as she had instructed. “I think it can be hard for someone to be constantly corrected.” She grimaced and motioned for me to work now on her elbow. I obliged, and went on. “Because they might be trying to get in a flow,” she twisted and pointed to a new spot, just an inch from where I had been, “but they feel like they keep having to start and stop.”
“Mmmmhmm,” she nodded, her short, electric hair spiked straight with sweat and some internal, Aries spark. I moved up the arm to where she pointed.
“And then there’s some insecurity,” I continued. “Like it makes you feel like you’re doing something wrong.”
I was more aggravated than insecure with her constant corrections. And the gushing gratitude that followed each command did nothing to appease me. It seemed like a trick. If someone croons and chants appreciation, praises the universe for your love and presence, you can’t very well up and leave, even if they did just finish testing your last nerve. So I was confused. Aggravated and then appreciated. Was this manipulation? Or was it a cultural disconnect? Did she even know what she was doing?
But now she was crying again. I wasn’t alarmed. She’d been cycling between tears and prayers for the last hour. She squeezed her eyes and little drops popped out with the glimmer of sweat on her sun-toasted skin. I massaged.
“I just wonder,” she whimpered, “if I have made my daughter feel zis way…by controlling too much.”
I did not respond. I did not reassure her, or offer fake condolences. I imagined it could be true. Any child, or adult for that matter, constantly corrected or adjusted would feel inadequate or insecure.
“Well,” I offered, “has she said anything about it to you?”
She sniffled, “I wish she would open to me more.”
I thought of my mother. Of the first talks we had, the ones where I brought up all those mother things that got to me, that sent me into triggered, frustrated lockdown. All the old pains I couldn’t consciously understand until then. I was twenty-four. It was as hard for her as it was for me. Harder probably. Harder for a mother to hear the ways she might have failed, than for a child to say it. But then she never failed, because she was strong enough to stay and listen, and adjust how she listened, and help fix it.
Ten years later, and twice as many talks, each calmer and safer than the last, we finally sifted through the shit. It finally became not about you versus me, but about us working through our past as a team. Few other relationships would tolerate such a process. Friends and lovers would call it a wrap after the first few uncomfortable rounds, un-obliged to stick it out, or unconvinced there was an end goal. That’s where the parent-child bond can be so special and reaffirming, for it’s dedication to catharsis, no matter how long. It can show you that love is worth it.
I imagined life without the opportunity to say all the things, without being well received, without a willing colleague, without clearing the teenage shit and reclaiming my mother in a pure, more mature love. Without a best friend who knew me before I was a thought, who shares my cells and blood, my dream world and genetic memory since the beginning of our lineage.
So I said to this mother, ruled by her own hurting child, “How would you react if your daughter said something to you?”
From what I’d seen, her trauma was her excuse. Even as a near stranger, I felt timid to criticize, timid to reject, timid even to hold my own boundaries against her passionate fits. Because of how she repeated her deep fear of being rejected, I feared rejecting her, which pushed me away even more. She was too delicate, too easy to break, and I didn’t want to the be the one to drop her.
“If you want your daughter to heal, to open to you, you cannot break down when she tells you what she feels,” I said.
I pictured a dear friend, biting his tongue against his father’s overbearing criticism. A father who claims to just want his son’s trust and friendship. But a father unable to shuffle and shift his own shit enough to make a safe space for his son to open up. Families willing to ride the unspoken to the grave, rather than digging up the bones.
Wives afraid to cry to their husbands, husbands who only know emotion through anger. Mothers scared that they’ve already fucked up their children. I remind them none of it is permanent. I tell them to imagine if their parents had ever come to work through the past, to show vulnerability, take accountability, grant permission to open up. At any age, even now, how that catharsis would change their lives, would melt the stone they’ve carried forever.
It’s never too late. Nothing can’t be healed with the right conversations, patience, and a dedication to change. Relief is more powerful than resentment. We all want resolution. If we can just get past wanting to be so damn right about ourselves.
I went on. The woman seemed to be listening. How much would get past her furiously looping history I don’t know. But I tried. “If you really want your daughter to open up, you can’t make it about you. You have to listen, and accept, without excusing or defending yourself with the armor of your trauma.”
Then I repeated a phrase from my days of wilderness therapy. I said it slowly, to make sure nothing was lost in translation. Advice I need every day, with every piece of feedback. To help me grow rather than retreat.
As I finished up on her left shoulder, I said down to her, “Mama, you cannot be too fragile to be held accountable.”