My relationship with my mother has always been Gilmore Girls–esque: witty dialogue, borderline-TMI communication style, but much less coffee and no Ivy League education. This has existed pretty much all of my life. Case in point: When I was 17, I sat her down to say I was headed to my boyfriend’s house to lose my virginity. A year later, she told me details of her divorce from my then stepdad, including his infidelity. From what I’ve gathered from friends, these aren’t things mothers and daughters openly share.
Personally, I wasn’t expecting to have a daughter — my husband is one of many brothers and no sisters — but I thought that if I ever did, I’d want the exact same relationship with my child. I wouldn’t be the person I am without my mother. But while our relationship has always worked for us, once I became a mother myself, I realized it isn’t always the healthiest.
Somewhere along the away, I became convinced that I needed to be the one to solve all of my mom’s problems — even when she doesn’t ask me to. Just a few months ago, after we began social distancing, my mother was a bit under the weather and coughed a little during one of our many phone calls. The coronavirus was a relatively new threat in our area at the time, and I began preparing for the worst. Within a few hours of the call, I told my husband I didn’t think my mom would take care of herself and give her body the rest it needed. I agonized for hours and ordered her a grocery delivery filled with medicine, Gatorade, soup, and crackers. It turned out she had allergies.
I’d become so intertwined with my mother in my own brain that I found myself talking about her life during my therapy sessions more than my own.
This came up in therapy when I started sharing with my therapist how I’m handling pandemic fears. I’ve been meeting with my therapist since December, and luckily the switch to virtual appointments in early March was seamless. I thought the pandemic would shift the tone of our sessions, but we kept trucking along, with the recurring theme of just how much my identity is tied to my relationship with my mother.
I’d become so intertwined with my mother in my own brain that I found myself talking about her life during my therapy sessions more than my own. As I talked, my therapist asked me to deeply consider why I take it upon myself to come to my mom’s rescue. “What words come up for you when you think about not being able to help your mom?” she asked. “Powerless and isolated,” I replied. My therapist helped me realize that I keep close tabs on my mom as much for her benefit as my own. I want to feel in control. The thing is, I can’t control my mom’s life (and frankly, I shouldn’t want to).
I’m not the parent; I’m the child. Right now, it’s my job to focus all of my caretaking instincts somewhere else: my toddler. This has meant setting some boundaries for myself.
“The pandemic really is the perfect time to set boundaries,” my therapist says. “You’re being forced to physically separate yourself from your mother, which changes the dynamics of your relationship and how you communicate.” It doesn’t mean we can’t talk—in fact, we still check in daily—but it does mean I’m more mindful about how and when I devote my energy to her calls and texts, and I’m more mindful about what I’m feeling when I reach out. In the past, I would immediately pick up the phone and see what she was up to when the slightest lull would appear in my day. Now, I’m learning to sit with boredom. I’m learning that it’s okay to be uncomfortable for a bit. I’m learning that I shouldn’t use my mother as a distraction; it’s better for us both if we are intentional about our communication.
These boundaries mean I’m trying to do more listening — at a time when she might need to be heard more.
These new boundaries aren’t just for me. They are made with my husband in mind, who I’ve come to realize probably doesn’t want his mother-in-law to know everything about our relationship. They are made with my daughter in mind, who deserves to be heard when she says she doesn’t want to FaceTime with Grandma (as much as we are trying to foster their relationship despite the pandemic) and needs more of my attention. They are even made with my mother in mind, who needs the chance to be her own person outside of our bond. She doesn’t need me to try to fix everything. In fact, I realized I’ve never once asked what she needs from me. These boundaries mean I’m trying to do more listening — at a time when she might need to be heard more.
We miss each other. She lives just 20 minutes away from me and my family, and since March, we have seen each other only three times for socially distanced family walks around our block. While things haven’t dramatically changed between us, there has been a small shift. It’s large enough for me to contemplate who I am other than my mother’s daughter — and I think realizing that will only make us stronger, together and apart.