It takes two to tango. Doesn't it?
My mother and I have almost nothing in common. It took me many years to realize this, after extended periods of bumbling efforts to forge a bond with ingredients that couldn't be found in our reserves.
I am as expressive as an emoticon while my mother harbors the post-Holocaust mentality of keeping it all holed up, probably since she was brought up by a survivor of Majdanek. While I have always been blessed with the security of my mother's love, it was my mother's like that I yearned for but I felt I seldom achieved. After I got married and began my own family, my penchant for a blissful maternal/daughter bond amplified. But so did the fighting. Every visit turned into a verbal spar rooted in deep-seated personality differences.
Every visit turned into a verbal spar rooted in deep-seated personality differences.
My husband was rather manly about the whole thing. "Give it up," he said. "She'll never be who you want her to be."
"Ha!" I said. "I'm not giving it up. She needs to understand blah, blah, blah. She needs to see blah, blah, blah. She needs, she needs, she needs."
"Okay," my husband responded, wisely keeping quiet.
And so it continued. Each visit was a mixture of joy and incessant frustration. My mother didn't like the way I kept home, she didn't approve of my husband's choice of profession, and she thought that my children should receive their education elsewhere. She slathered hurt upon hurt that slid into my open heart like a burning salve. And I erupted in return, spewing my own molten lava that streamed down the insidious cliff of our relationship.
"I can't take it anymore," I cried to my husband. "I don't have to take it anymore. I don't want to visit her anymore."
"That's one choice you have," my husband sagely offered.
"One choice? It's the only choice. This is emotional suicide. What's the other choice?"
My husband looked at me. "Change."
"I know," I said. "We should both change. We should compromise. We should learn to accept each others differences."
"Nope," my husband said. "You change. Only you."
I looked at my husband, certain at that point that men were cretins from another galaxy. "Why should I be the one to change? She's the one who finds fault with everything I do."
"You can't depend on her changing, but you can depend on yourself."
I was skeptical. My university education and my master's degree in psychology had taught me that it takes two to tango. Change can only be implemented in a relationship when both parties are willing and able. If I enabled myself into a willing partner, then who would I partner with?
Apparently the Jewish view was different. Judaism posited that I was responsible for my part and held full culpability for modeling positive behavior within the relationship. Every person who is brought into your life is specifically tailored for you. Sometimes that person is there to help you grow in ways you never knew possible.
Honoring your parents is one of the cardinal tenets of our religion. Even the ornery parents. Even the ones who make mistakes.
Besides the fact that I disliked the acrimony, honoring your parents is one of the cardinal tenets of our religion. Even the ornery parents. Even the ones who make mistakes. By giving me life I was bound to my mother with an eternal and indispensable debt of gratitude.
Since I was fortunate enough to be blessed with a loving and selfless mother with many sterling qualities, could we possibly learn to iron out the kinks between us through the toil of only my own heart?
It couldn't hurt to try.
"Just keep a low profile," my husband said. "When she's negative, change the subject. If she's right, think about how you can change to smooth things over."
It was a Herculean effort, mired in disappointment. I felt like I was going up the down escalator. I would swallow three fiery comments and then detonate when it came to the fourth one.
I had to get serious. I valued this relationship too much for it to go up in smoke. If she wouldn't meet me halfway, then I had to go the whole nine yards on my own. I put a mental clamp on my tongue and started over.
It started to work. When my mother wasn't meeting my emotional needs I looked towards other valued relationships in my life to fill them. I realized I had been pigeonholing her into a space she didn't fit into. When my mother said hurtful things, I changed the subject or firmly let it be known that this topic was off limits. When she criticized, if the comment was extraneous, I set it free. If it was helpful, I tried to make the necessary changes. I became more considerate of the things that mattered to her in her home; order, cleanliness and sleep, even when those things were lower on my own priority list. I did an about face, and it was astounding what my new view provided.
Things improved dramatically and quickly. My mother's visits, once so bittersweet, became enjoyable. I learned to focus on the things we shared, and I filled the empty spaces in between with other people and other interests. Slowly, the barbs became less frequent and the work all that much easier. The relationship had evolved to a point of mutual understanding, only the effort expended had been one-sided.
In the last ten years my mother and I have had only one noteworthy argument over the span of much shared time together. I can scarcely remember what things resembled before my resolution. I used to think it takes two to tango, but now I know that one can accomplish an exquisite dance performing solo.