At 5:30 this evening I was sitting up in bed, trying to achieve exit velocity from Netflix so I could go stare at the kitchen shelves before making dinner, when my mom walked into my bedroom.
This was no casual drop-in. She lives a third of the continent away from me–fifteen hours by car, although her flight was substantially shorter. I’d opened up to her this week about my current major depressive episode, and this weekend as soon as she was free from prior obligations, she flew out to see me. We went to dinner, and then she bought me groceries.
Well, first we hugged. And after we hugged, I went to grab my purse and shut my computer, which involved signing out of instant messenger. My mom just showed up bbl.
Then I paused, considered that sentence, and added a little 🙂 before actually signing out. Because with my friends, you can’t take that kind of appearance for granted as a cause for relief and joy.
The people I run with are really big about boundaries. My friends often fall into a series of overlapping groups that talk about boundaries a lot: feminists, mental health advocates, sexual assault survivors, survivors of childhood abuse, and people with disabilities, to name a few. A lot of them are deeply concerned with fighting the social pressures that take away their independence, autonomy, and agency; they want the right to make their own decisions about what they do, where they go, and who they do it with. I think it’s a good fight and I support it. But at the same time, I back off from rhetoric about boundaries being the ultimate social good, about how a stated boundary should be inviolably respected; the issue is more complex for me.
For a lot of my friends what happened tonight would be a horror scenario. Their relationships with their parents are deeply toxic, marked by years of emotional abuse–which means, parental attempts to dominate and control their children. As adults, my friends often struggle to establish autonomy–the right to go to schools of their own choosing, to date who they want, to get haircuts they like, all kinds of things, large and small. A parent showing up in their sovereign territory, unannounced (in fact, after a phone call earlier this week when I said now probably wasn’t a good time) would be the opening salvo in a barrage of boundary violations that spell out what you want doesn’t matter, I’ll decide what you get.
And yet. My mom walked into my bedroom and I flew to her and held on tight for two minutes straight. There are so many shades of human experience.
I don’t suffer, in my life, from an overabundance of people barging into my business and telling me what to do. My problem is that while I actually love the feeling of being taken care of, asking for or accepting help has become a major anxiety trigger for me. I no more think of it before I anticipate things like I’m going to ask for too much and be a burden; they’ll resent me for being so needy; it won’t be helpful but I’ll have to act grateful anyway. It’s hard for me to accept help unless I’ve carefully considered its probable effects on the resources of the person offering it and our relationship together, especially considering whether or not it would help enough for me to be believably grateful and gracious when the time comes for me to stop receiving help. So when Mom offered earlier this week to fly out, my automatic reaction was to say no. I wouldn’t want you to spend that much money, especially if I need you to help me out if I go on disability leave from work; it might be better anyway to wait until our schedules are clearer. I’m not going to get much done even if you do come. I didn’t feel up to the task of carefully considering all the aspects of that offer, and making sure I could offer the best possible return on investment. The next night I backed down a little and suggested that we both had some free time around the 20th, and not long after, I gather, Mom started making travel plans on her own without telling me. “I was afraid if I asked you’d say no,” she said. “That was a wise decision,” I told her.
I don’t know just what it is about my relationship with my mom that makes me feel so comfortable–actually, comforted–by her crossing that boundary, offering me something I really wanted but didn’t feel capable of asking for. I think a lot of it had to do with the wry, sympathetic look on her face when she walked in my doorway, the one that said, you might not want me but here I am; it said that I could tell her this wasn’t okay, and she’d go find a room at the local Best Western.
Maybe it’s all the years talking here. When I was thirteen we started going camping together for a weekend every summer, with a few basic rules: We don’t do anything we don’t want to; you can’t fail vacation; you don’t act like a mother and I won’t act like a daughter. For our own personal Carnevale, I was spared a motherly “Don’t forget your coat!” if I agreed not to complain if I found myself defenseless against the rain, and if I didn’t like an outing I had to say so and agree to leave instead of slumping along in a pout. Over the years those annual trips moved from being a magical weekend where all the rules were topsy-turvy into a natural expression of our adult relationship. I think they were good training for us.
I’ve proven myself willing to walk out on Christmas Dinner because I hated the argument we were having, and she’s proven willing to help me find an apartment and dedicate hours to helping me move all my stuff because we were fighting too much when we lived in the same house. That’s the kind of bitter work that, hey, turns out to have a payoff after all.
I go back and forth on family being sacred (and if it is, I think therapists in particular need to have the word desecration close to hand), but I think history counts for something. I’ve spent the past month drowning in painful memories of my childhood, and part of why I was so glad to see my mom was the persistent recurring fact of how much she had loved me the entire way along.