Tuesday, February 23, 2010

My Own Parent Trap

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Another compelling episode of the radio program This American Life worth noting here—and if you know anything about my relationship with my mother (and surely faithful readers of my blog will know about it all too well), you'll perhaps be able to guess why I found this one especially resonant.

Called "Parent Trap," it opens with an anecdote about a man still living at home in his late 20s who somehow gets ensnared by his mother to get him to attend a church fundraiser. The man has a sneaking suspicion his mother intended to set him up with a specific priest and somehow push him into the church; his mother, however, denies any ulterior motive.

Right off the bat, I sensed (admittedly rather loose) parallels here with my own relationship with my mother—and not only because I'm still living under her roof. I can't tell you how many times she says something that implies a particular way of thinking she expects me to adopt, and then, when I confront her about it, she backtracks. In fact, that has recently become a consistent source of frustration when it comes to my (sometimes roughly and insensitively voiced) desire to move out of my parents' house and my mother's approval of such a move: She'll say she's fine with me moving out, but she'll also add qualifications like "But you know you'll have to do your own shopping and cook your own food, right?" or "You know you'll be saving a lot more money living here at home, right?" or "Are you sure you can actually afford your own apartment? Especially if you plan to live by yourself?" Which of course makes me wonder whether she really is okay with me moving out. This frustration just becomes more acute when I challenge her on that point and get nothing but denials: "No, go ahead! Do what you want; I'm not going to keep you if you are so unhappy living here!"

For me, the parallels to my personal relationship with my mother only strengthened in the episode's first act proper, in which one mother's well-intentioned final act before dying—writing a slew of letters, one for each year for the next 10 years or so, to be delivered by her husband to their daughter on her birthdays—hangs over the father and daughter in ways far more detrimental than the mother surely anticipated. For the daughter, especially, these words from beyond her mother's grave created expectations for her life that clashed with the way she herself wanted to live...and while her father was able to accept her reasons for, say, casting off Mormonism and marrying outside of the family religion, her mother, of course, wasn't there to be able to listen to her daughter's reasons. Her words—and by extension, her expectations—stayed rigid and unyielding.

My own mother, obviously, does not speak to me from beyond the grave. But you know, some people seem to have no trouble thinking for themselves and acting whichever way they feel is best for them, no matter what anyone, including their parents, might think. My younger siblings seem not to have that trouble. Me, I care about what she thinks of me or my actions—maybe a bit less than I used to (either that, or I just complain more often), but I still can't help but agonize whenever my mother puts out a point-of-view that I disagree with. It's not only the stigma of parental disapproval that hangs over me, but that deep-seated fear: what if she's right, and I'm wrong and just genuinely don't have the foresight to see it yet?

So you could say that my mother's expectations constantly hover over my head, influencing my actions, sometimes forcing me to do or resist things I don't necessarily want to do/resist just because I expect she will complain if I don't do it. Those expectations can range from something fairly small—the numerous times, for instance, I've reluctantly decided to forgo staying out too late in New York after work just because my mother has once strongly complained about me doing so—to larger in scale—studying accounting in college, for instance, or co-signing on a house that I feel I was more or less pushed into buying.

Sometimes I manage to work up courage to defy my mother's expectations; for one thing, I did drop out of the Rutgers accounting program to pursue a journalism major (and considering where I am now, I think I made the right decision in the end). And yet, even some of those major victories have turned out to be isolated incidents. Essentially, I still feel like I'm living in my mother's shadow, with a perpetual fear of displeasing her even when I believe doing so will quite possibly make me happier, at least in the short term.

I'm grateful to my mother for a lot of things in my life so far; really, I am. But there can be such a thing as perhaps going too far beyond the call of parental duty—because the consequences might be more psychologically draining than one would hope for. (I know it's time for me to finally move out and live on my own, for example...but boy, I reflect on the anxiety I feel whenever I think about the prospect of living and struggling by myself out there, and I realize just how pampered I've been all these years. I feel quite unequipped for the real world.)

Thanks to this week's This American Life installment, I can take at least a wee bit of solace in the fact that there are other people out there struggling with some of the same issues I am, even if the circumstances are far different from mine. Of course, that doesn't really change my situation any...

P.S. Oh yeah, and there is a second act to the episode: a story produced by the science-related public-radio program Radiolab about an interspecies parenting experiment gone wrong. It's also a pretty compelling listen—though, alas, you will have to wade through Radiolab's typically irritating ADD reporting style to get to the heart of the piece. Seriously, Radiolab: You may think you're making potentially dry science stories more palatable by juicing them up the way Paul Greengrass or (latter-day) Tony Scott juices up action with epileptic editing—but, really, all you're doing is just annoying the hell out of those of us who, you know, actually want to hear talking heads without the "benefit" of cutting up their interviews into soundbites, and interjecting all sorts of cutesy music cues and sound effects.

You can listen to the program here.

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