The dilemma: What kind of relationship should I encourage Nugget to have with my mother, her Nona and the enabler?
Nugget’s sense of belonging when she visits her extended family is evident. The moment we enter their company, she squeals with joy and bolts for them, leaving us behind as if we’re her chauffeurs, and after arriving at her destination, it’s understood that we should make ourselves scarce.
Growing up in Texas, I traveled to Massachusetts for family visits every few years. To their credit, my parents attempted to foster a relationship between us kids and the New England family, but with the exception of an aunt and uncle on my mother’s side, no dice.
In hindsight, I think part of it was that I had heard stories about my grandfather, who softened in his older years but as a young man was an “SOB,” as my father would say. This was our family’s euphemism for a violent alcoholic. And, because he was Irish, his behaviors were romanticized as charming.
As a little girl, my grandfather handled me with care and tenderness, but I felt the remnants of his meanness and I was never comfortable with him. My feelings for him pretty much colored my feelings toward the rest of my family.
In later years, I tried to connect with two of my father’s brothers. Dad was one of five boys. Of them, three became violent, alcoholic men. The other two where regular guys with good jobs and families, and they weren’t violent.
In my twenties I desperately wanted to be a part of their families, but their rewriting of history when reminiscing was too much to bear. I didn’t understand the acceptance or the lack of acknowledgement that something was terribly, terribly wrong with our family. It had been wrong for them. It was wrong for my father. And my brother and I had been next in line.
As Irish Catholic men who married Italian Catholic women, it seemed that their family culture was forged with secrecy and silence on the issues of violence and addiction. When either were acknowledged, they were sensationalized for purposes of gossip or minimized to keep us all moving forward. Yet, my uncles’ surroundings where beautiful. Nice homes, cars, clothes, etc. By the looks of it, they had it alI. It was an illusion that I fell hard for. I resented them for their tight knit clan and myself for my inability to collude with the big lie.
My mom’s side was a little different. Close to normal. Comparatively. My mother lost her father to the same disease she would lose her husband to almost 50 years later – lung cancer. She was 10 years old.
With the loss of her father, she lost her childhood. The oldest of 5 siblings, she became the main caretaker of the other children. My grandmother was mean and she remarried to an even meaner man. Mom didn’t have a chance. She married my father at 18 and hightailed it out of there.
The point is that I’m not sure that I’ve ever felt the connection that I witness between Nugget and her extended family, so the importance of it didn’t weigh heavily until I saw it first hand. Most parents may say “duh,” and maybe I deserve that, but my obliviousness became obvious only when I witnessed her joy. Thinking that Sweetie and I would be enough for her, I had underestimated that she would need or want more roots.
Heavy into therapy, the focus on my mom’s role in all that happened to me as a kid has sharpened. She watched. She denied. She failed to protect my brother and me. My feelings about my mom’s relationship with Nugget are complex. The Mama Bear in me comes out and the 12 year old (Healer Lady calls this my inner child) in me aches when I watch their interactions. Talk about triggers.
As I type this, my mom and I are not speaking. I know she’s stewing. I know that she feels like a victim. Unappreciated, even.
Between my brother and I, you could say that she views me as the “good child.” It’s not a compliment as much as it is an obligation. (Also, it’s a judgement flung at my brother who was brutalized as a child, but that’s overlooked.)
There was a time when something like her extended silence would trigger me into action. I’d compensate for all that was wrong. She felt lonely, I called her more frequently. She needed compliments, I was sure to dish them out to her. She needed validation, I echoed her observations to assure her she was right. All this is to say that although I may come across as cold or harsh, it’s more that I’m trying to change a dynamic between us. (Note: I’m not sure I’m doing it right.)
As a parent of her granddaughter, I can’t help but to think “How dare she let her pettiness and ego get in the way of her relationship with Nugget?” That’s my Mama Bear surfacing.
In her shortsightedness, she doesn’t recognize that months of not talking to me also means months of not asking about, sending love to or showing interest in her granddaughter. It saddens me.
It’s during these times that I realize how little I trust her with Nugget. It mirrors my own experience with her. The silence when she felt she had been wronged. Sure, Nugget is only two-and-a-half, so maybe she doesn’t notice the absence of her grandmother now, but what will happen when she’s six and suddenly mom withdraws again?
And in some ways, I think Nugget feels a little distrustful of her. Once, I witnessed Nugget give mom the stare down. She’s done this once or twice to Sweetie and me. It’s a tactic she employs to have us comply with her agenda. She lowers her head and raises only her eyes toward us. It’s creepy. I hate to say this about my adorable, totally delicious child, but it’s true. It’s totally creepy. When she pulled out the creepy look on mom, I secretly rooted for her. Mom didn’t notice the look. Her obliviousness wasn’t surprising.
My confusion lies with how murky my feelings are toward mom, and Nugget’s need for connection to family. On one hand I think a superficial relationship is just right for both of them. On the other hand I’m concerned I’m not doing enough? For myself and the personal work I’m doing right now, I’m doing just about as much as I can. I wish I was far enough along in therapy that I could claim I’m not reaching out to mom right now because I don’t want to continue to play into our dynamic. The reality: I can’t muster up the energy. I’m worn down. I know in my heart that Nugget is also losing out on Nona. Where’s the line? What’s my role? Where does protecting Nugget become more about my own childhood than about her well-being? Am I assessing the situation clearly?