Did Your Mother Really Know Best?

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Witnessing our parents' aging process can be uncomfortable. Some people consider the pain so unbearable that they find reasons to be angry with their parents. Some use other distancing behaviors so they feel justified in withdrawing. Most of us don't go to this extreme, but many of us find that we will occasionally look at one or both of our parents and feel a shockwave go through us.

"They are getting old!"

I have experienced the shock of watching my parents age before my eyes. Even though I lived in the same community as my parents and saw them often for the greater part of my life, their aging came at me like punches to the gut from time to time. You may be experiencing a similar reaction.

These people once took care of our needs. Now they need—or may soon need—our help. While it's not a logical train of thought, we can feel a little betrayed when we find ourselves in this situation. The child inside of us rebels. We don't want our parents to grow old and frail, for their sake and for ours. We can begin to feel kind of "orphaned."

Reflections on Our Childhood

Nearly every person's childhood leaves them with mixed memories. Even siblings raised together by the same parents can have wildly different views on how their shared childhood played out. For most of us, there are times when we think, "Hmm, Mom was right about that." Other times, we know for certain she was wrong. The same goes for Dad, of course, but we'll focus on Mom in this particular article.

So, What Did My Mom Tell Me That I Now Think Was Right?

  1. Take Care of the People You Love
    My mom was a family caregiver. My dad's mother lived with us for a number of years, and mom was the primary caregiver for her own parents since she was geographically the closest of her siblings. I was blessed to grow up seeing that family caregiving is just something you do. It wasn't that nursing homes and other care options didn't enter the picture when there was no other choice. Her first option was to care for her elders the best she could until they needed more than she could provide.
  2. Vote
    Mom was an early member of the League of Women Voters. The League wasn't very political in those days; it was mostly about getting out the vote. I haven't kept up with it in recent years, but I do think that is still the main focus of the group. What I remember well was big "VOTE" signs in our front yard and in the yards of anyone else that would allow her to put them up. These signs literally just said "VOTE." She passed down her feelings about our right and responsibility to vote to her children.
  3. Give for the Joy of Giving
    Mom volunteered for Meals on Wheels. She worked on petitions to bring public television to our community. She volunteered at church. She taught by example that you don't give to get approval and you shouldn't expect anything in return. Giving of oneself is its own reward.

What Did My Mom Tell Me That I Now Think Is Wrong?

  1. Clean Your Plate
    I was an underweight child, so I was always pushed to eat. My parents meant well. They also grew up during the 1930s when food was scarce, so there was a bit of the "don't waste" mentality at work. But that didn't change the fact that I had a small appetite and I couldn't always "clean my plate." Now, medical professionals say, "Don't clean your plate. Stop when you are full." Mom would get that now, but I grew up with this edict, and it caused some conflict.
  2. The House Must Be Immaculate for Company
    I remember a time when my maternal aunt and her husband were coming to visit our Midwestern community. It wasn't as though they were strangers to the area, but they did live a much more glamorous life than we did. Prior to their arrival, one would think we were preparing for royalty. However, it was always that way. Mom hated anyone coming into the house unless it was spotless and in total order. She took the appearance of our home personally. I've had to unlearn that rule, and I've done that very well, thank you. It's about learning to prioritize, and my priorities have had to change.
  3. Having a Quiet Child Means Something Is Wrong
    I know Mom worried about me. I was a reader and a writer, but didn't communicate feelings well in other ways. Mom was very social and pushed me to be more outgoing as well. She had good intentions, and some would say she was right to try, but my basic personality was like my dad's. I was quiet and bookish. Social functions were not my cup of tea. Right or wrong, Mom's pushing me to socialize didn't take.

Our parents were products of the people who raised them, as their parents were products of the people who raise them. Most of us had parents who did their best to give us a good childhood. I know mine did. I'm sure my kids could make a nice, long list of the things I did wrong, even though I've always had their best interest at heart. That is the nature of parenthood.

Mom, you were wonderful—even if you did push me into going to prom with a guy I barely knew because you were certain I shouldn't miss such an important event. But all is forgiven.

Carol Bradley Bursack

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Over the span of two decades, author, columnist, consultant and speaker Carol Bradley Bursack cared for a neighbor and six elderly family members. Her experiences inspired her to pen, "Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories," a portable support group book for caregivers.

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38 Comments

It reads as if I wrote it myself. I, too, can't / don't feel warm & fuzzy...just empty and not too interested. When I do see her it will be out of my own sense of obligation and has nothing to do with her. I have just passed the 1 year anniversary of losing my own 30-year-old daughter ( to diabetes / renal failure ) and haven't heard a word of concern or acknwledgement about my own situation. I am now not just a childless mother, but also a motherless child. So fortunate for me that I have a wonderful man in my life and I have been warmly wlecomed into HIS family. They have become my own. ...Bless us all...
Have spent most of my adult life looking for a Mother's Day card that reads, "I love you, Mom. But sometimes you just make me crazy." Always a struggle to buy a sweet, sentimental, drippy card for her. This year I've finally realized that I've been angry with her all these years because she won't be the Mom I want her to be. I've built up this huge fantasy that someday she would wake up and be the loving sweet TV mom I yearned for. This year for Lent I gave up the fantasy. I'm setting her free to be who she is instead of demanding through my words and actions that she be anything else. I have the mom I have for better or for worse. She still has the power to make me crazy, and I'm practicing new, more loving, non-judgemental responses to her. It's a lot of work but my goal is to have made peace with this woman who gave me birth.
Is this a trick question?

A PhD in Child Abuse, Mom believed regular corporal punishment -- no reason needed -- and a myriad terror tactics were crucial for the proper development of her children. Some say she should have been "fixed" instead of being allowed to spit 14 children into a world beyond dysfunction.

Of the 5 children she had with Dad, I was the only male. As such, I was the target of her constant rage after they divorced. After all, how could you love something that reminds you of something you hate? For many years I tried the whole "forgiveness" thing in order to heal. But the psychological wounds were so deep I had no choice but learn to live with them.

Today, I don't hate her. I just feel sorry for for a woman who still chooses to find a pretext for her tyranny instead of admitting she didn't want to bother growing up alongside her children. ... I guess that's the only way her conscience will leave her alone.

She never had the desire -- nor the inclination -- to become a parent; nor a better woman or human being. Yet somehow she deluded herself into believing she's a quasi-divine martyr to be worshipped by 14 helpless slaves expected to pay tribute for the rest of their lives.

Did she know best? ... You have to be kidding me.

-- ED