A few weeks ago my father asked me if I would be willing to drive my mother to Utah. She wanted to attend "Time Out For Women" which is a conference intended for LDS women (one which, for reasons of my own, I abhor). I didn't want to, but I understand the risk of allowing my mother to drive by herself. So I said I'd be willing to do that. My mother offered to by me a ticket to the conference but I said I'd prefer to spend the weekend with Tabitha. Darrin and Adam were planning to come, but had to work. My sister-in-law also wanted to go, but called me the day we were supposed to leave to let me know she was ill. So it ended up being a road trip with just my mother and me.
Talking with my mother is challenging. Her memories have merged and she has no concept of time. A story that began in 1995 might combine with events of yesterday. In her mind we have always had cell phones and her grandchildren morph from childhood to teenagers in moments--and some of those grandchildren aren't yet in their teens. However, I allowed her to talk without challenging her fantasies and she rambled on for hours.
My mother has spent the last decade denying that she was ever abused. As she wandered from one topic to another with dubious chronology, moments of terrifying violence at the hands of her father slipped out. She told of his abusive words and punishing hands. She talked of seeing her sister beaten for defying that father. She told me that she was never allowed to have an opinion and there was no such thing as conversation with her father. Today my mother will have no memory of our conversation. Sometimes I think that's okay.
I left my mom with my eldest sister and went to a friend's house for the night. The next day I picked up Tabitha and we went to the airport to get my youngest sister (my mom had invited all the sisters in our family to join her at the women's conference). We joined my family for lunch--my mother, five sisters, three nieces, Tabitha and me. Then we took my youngest sister into the city to see a friend and rejoined everyone at a restaurant for dinner. Finally, Tabitha and I went back to my friend's house for some quiet time before I had to take her back to school.
I spent the next day and Sunday morning with Tabitha, then my mom and I went home. Another long trip with stories filled with startling honesty and false fantasies. At one point my mom mentioned one of my brothers. She feels slighted by his attitudes about mental health. He believes anyone who must rely on drugs or therapy to counteract the effects of depression is weak--not trying hard enough. This particular brother is so messed up mentally that most of us just ignore whatever he says, however, it was clear that his words had been hurtful to my mom who cannot function without antidepressants and anxiety medication.
I said, "He's very certain about his opinions, but please notice that his personal life is horribly unhealthy and he, himself, is emotionally unstable. I think you should consider the source."
My mom nodded, then said, "Do you think I take too much medication?"
I thought for a moment, then said, "Mom, can you imagine if you'd had access to that medication when your kids were small?" I began to list the benefits, the types of relief she might have felt, but she interrupted me and said bitterly, "I wouldn't have been such a horrible parent."
We've had this conversation before. My mother admits that she did awful things, that her parenting and discipline skills were often lamentable. I've accepted her words which are always accompanied by apology and requests for forgiveness, and pointed out that her life now is different--that she has grown past those things and become a very lovely person.
This time I stopped her. "Mom--that's not what I'm talking about." She looked at me blankly. I said, "You were in an incredibly stressful situation. You had eight children--plus extended family who often dropped in for visits--plus whomever I felt like bringing home with me. We lived in a four bedroom home with one bathroom. You were expected to cook three meals daily, keep house, care for children, work in a huge garden, sew clothing, do laundry, entertain whenever necessary, make certain homework was finished, and do whatever else might pop up. Add to that the fact that you were deeply depressed due to a chemical imbalance, you had no examples of good parenting in your past to use as a resource, and you suffer from an anxiety disorder. Without that last part, your life would challenge anyone. When you put it all together, I'm guessing your days were filled with stress and sadness--I know they were. I saw you crying."
I looked over at my mother who was weeping uncontrollably. She whispered, "I'm sorry. I don't know why I'm crying now," then made a quiet comment about how helpful it would have been to have the relief of an antidepressant and anti-anxiety meds. Then she said, "I can't seem to stop crying."
I said, "Anyone would cry, Mom. It was a sad, impossible situation. I think it's okay if you cry about it."
But I think more than sadness about her past, she wept because for the first time in her life I showed her compassion. I didn't just accept her apology and acknowledge that she was a pretty awful parent--I let her know that I understood. And while I don't believe that abuse is ever an acceptable coping mechanism, I do believe that sometimes good people are put in positions where they simply do not have the skills to cope with the stress presented to them, especially when they, themselves, have been abused.
I think my mom cried because for the first time I offered understanding and empathy rather than judgment and condemnation.
And maybe she cried because she knows that in spite of everything, I love her.