Archive for the ‘family of origin’ Category

Nutmeg and I have started a book club, and last night we had our third meeting to discuss Room by Emma Donaghue.  (I think Nutmeg and I loved it a little more than the others did, but we had a rousing conversation even with those who were a little less in awe of the book, which I still heartily recommend.)  In the course of our book talk, we ended up talking about The Bridges of Madison County, a book Nutmeg picked up the summer before she went to college, read without knowing anything about it, wept, and proudly announced that when she went off to college she would have a ready answer to the inevitable question, “What’s your favorite book?”  Easy, Nutmeg said; her new favorite book was The Bridges of Madison County.  To which Meta promptly replied, “That book is crap.”

It was a funny story, and it was germane to our discussion about whether Room is a gimmicky book like The Bridges of Madison County or some Stephen King books, or whether it’s something better.  But I took it another way.  As we laughed at Nutmeg’s story, she said something that made me a little sad.  “Yeah, she knew it was a dumb book.  That’s because Meta was the smart one, and I was the stupid one.”

That’s not exactly true, but it’s truer than I want to believe.  Meta was always super-smart, almost dysfunctionally so, and she was a tough act to follow, even for Nutmeg, who was really smart, too.  Meta always was reading, inhaling Shakespeare and Victor Hugo from a very young age, and Nutmeg liked books but had other things she preferred doing.  I tried to deny that we had typecast the girls quite so blatantly, but Nutmeg was insistent.  “Remember that card Dad made when Meta graduated from college and I graduated from high school?” she said.  “That was the running joke — she was smart and I was sporty.”  She smiled as she said that, and it looked like an  authentic smile — but this morning I’m not so sure.

I was especially sensitive to this whole idea of typecasting and favoritism at the book club meeting because I had, just hours before, had a long phone interview with a sociologist who’s spent the past 20-plus years studying the effects of parental favoritism, both on the parent and on the child.  She told me that almost every mother she interviewed (who were generally in their late 60s to early 80s) was willing to admit that she preferred one child over another along at least a couple of dimensions.  They were responding to questions like “Who do you feel closest to?” and “Who would you call in an emergency?” and “If you need caregiving, who would you most like to provide it?”   Just recently she started asking another question, an especially fiery one: “Which child has most disappointed you?”

And here’s the thing: the preferences are normal, and inevitable.  But the “kids” (who in this study were generally in their 40s and 50s) suffered as a result.  In families in which the favoritism was most extreme, the researchers found, kids were most likely to have psychological problems like depression.  And this was true whether or not the kid in question was the most favored one.  In other words, in families where it’s clear that Mother prefers one kid over another, it’s just as oppressive to be the chosen child as it is to be the unchosen one.

All of which makes me wonder: when we joke around with our kids about which one’s smart and which one’s sporty, when we make the suggestion to one of them that the other one’s driving us crazy, when we babysit more for one son’s kids than for another son’s or give one daughter a necklace that the other one wanted, are we doing more damage than we know?  In that same hand-made graduation card that Nutmeg referred to last night, iDaddy and I had included the line, “and they loved them very very much, and exactly equally.”  Because we did — we do — love them equally.  But is that enough?


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At first I wasn’t so wild about “Momma’s Man,” the indie film from 2008 that aired this past weekend on my local public television station, Channel Thirteen.  (Loved the title, though.)  It was so slow, the setting so weird, the dialogue so sparse — and then what WAS said by the main character, a young man named Mikey, was all a lie, and we viewers knew it.  But the story grew on me.  Mikey had come to New York on a business trip and to visit his bohemian parents in Tribeca, and he can’t bring himself to leave.  Gradually it becomes clear that whenever he tells someone —  his wife back home in California (left alone with their baby), his boss, his parents — that he’ll be heading home tomorrow, or maybe the day after tomorrow, he’s lying.  He seems to have no intention of going home.  He already IS home, with Mom and Dad.

What most interested me about the movie was when I saw the credits and realized that Mikey’s parents were played by a couple named Jacobs — hey, they must be married in real life!  And then I saw that the filmmaker’s last name was Jacobs, too — hey, this guy had cast his parents in his own movie!  Azazel Jacobs is a young filmmaker, and his father Ken Jacobs (Mikey’s father in the movie) is an older experimental filmmaker.  His mother Flo Jacobs (Mikey’s mother) is an artist.  This explains why their acting is so stilted; they’re not actors.  But it also explains why the film is so heartfelt, and why it manages to capture tiny truths about the parent-adult child relationship that don’t usually convey very well to the screen.

In an interview with New York magazine when the film first showed at Sundance, Azazel Jacobs said that the idea for the movie came to him when he woke up in his old bedroom — the actual apartment where “Momma’s Man” takes place, a weird multi-level Rube Goldberg contraption of a loft — and his mother had made him coffee and cereal.  “Why did I leave this place?” he thought to himself.  And from that question, he created the character Mikey (played wonderfully by Matt Boren), a young man who would much rather crawl back under the covers, read comic books, play old guitar riffs that keep his father up at night, and pretend that he intends to grow up soon, really, I promise, any minute now.

What I liked about the film was how well it captured the quandary the parents were in.  When Mikey first comes back from the airport, claiming to have missed his flight back to the West Coast and planning to just stay one more night, his mother, half-asleep, mumbles that it will be lovely to have him stay with them a little longer.  How well I understand that feeling — you’ll take extra time with your kids however you can get it.  The next morning she leaves him a note addressed to her “angel” about how she left out the cereal and the cut-up fruit for his breakfast, and he should put the fruit on the cereal.  But as it dawns on her that Mikey’s not leaving, it turns out that while she might have been thrilled to have him at first, she wants her old life back — and she wants him to get on with his.  That’s the way it’s supposed to be.

Mikey’s parents finally realize that, despite his airy insistence that everything is okay, everything is NOT okay.  They try to talk things through with him, and they do get him to admit that something’s wrong — though that’s a lie, too, when he starts blaming it on his blameless wife falling in love with someone else.  (“With a new baby?” his mother asks, no doubt wondering about the logistics.)  In the end, what works for Mikey, what makes him break down and somehow break through, aren’t words at all, but actions.  His mother forces him to sit on her lap, and after a moment of awkwardness (“Ma, I’ll crush you”), he gradually gives in, curling into her and letting her stroke his back as he weeps.  We watch her sense memory of having done this before — the kind of comforting, patting, stroking, loving with your whole body that we all do when our children are small.  (These moments are some of my favorite memories of cuddling and consoling Meta, who loved it when she was little, and Nutmeg, who only really let me hold her when she was sick.)  She is doing it again, one last time, for her big, unhappy child.

This time she holds and strokes him not because she longs to, but because she has to.  The son on her lap, with the chair audibly creaking (a lovely touch, Mr. Filmmaker), is a son in crisis.  I have no doubt that she hopes never to have to have this kind of intimacy with her child ever again.  And I have no doubt that when Ken and Flo Jacobs, in the role of Mikey’s parents, stand side by side watching Mikey go home at last, they are glad that the natural order of things has been restored.  And for me, there’s something about knowing that the Jacobs are Azazel Jacobs’ real-life parents that makes that last shot of them, sad and relieved as the door behind their son closes, especially poignant.

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As focused as I’ve been in thinking about being a mother to adult children from the point of view of the mother, I seem to have lost sight of the fact that I also have a stake in this issue from the point of view of the child.  My mother, God bless her, is still alive and opinionating at age 85, and our relationship in recent years has become a lot more mellow than it was at its worst.  (And its worst, contrary to conventional wisdom, was not during my adolescence, when I was a pretty placid and agreeable teenager, but during my young adulthood, when there was something about my sense of a self as a mother of daughters that poisoned the way I felt about myself as the daughter of a mother.)

But sometimes, even though our relationship is basically good, we flare up at each other.  We did today.  It seemed to come out of the blue with a phone call this afternoon, in which my mother — what should I call her as a blog nickname?  how about Ur-Momma — called to inform me that she was very offended by what she heard as “disdain” in the outgoing voicemail message I had left on her new cell phone.  “Don’t bother to leave a message, she can’t retrieve it,” I said in what I remember was meant to be a sort of joshy tone.  “Just call back.”

I was leaving the message on her behalf because I was giving her a different cell phone — my old phone, since I had caved in and accepted the hand-me-down smartphone that Nutmeg was offering me.  (This was a difficult decision on my part, which I arrived at mostly because whenever I heard myself saying things like, “But my own stupidphone works just fine,” I knew I was sounding just like Ur-Momma.  I didn’t want to turn into Ur-Momma.)  And here’s the crucial bit: on her old cell phone, Ur-Momma’s own outgoing voicemail message was, essentially, “Don’t bother to leave a message, I can’t retrieve it.”  She had made exactly the same joke.

Now, I told her that.  I told her I was only trying to imitate her own clever message.  She told me to listen to it again myself (three hours later, and I still haven’t, and don’t intend to) to hear how dismissive and disdainful my tone was.  It’s not funny that I don’t know how to retrieve messages, she said.  I know I’m a Luddite, but you don’t have to make fun of me for it.

I could tell that the outgoing voicemail message wasn’t what was really bothering her, but I couldn’t get Ur-Momma to tell me what was.  We hung up on bad terms, and I looked for a wireless retailer where I could re-activate her old phone.   I called her back to tell her I would walk down to her apartment, take the old phone and the new phone, walk the two blocks to the wireless retailer, and get her the old phone back so she wouldn’t feel like such a technoklutz.   No answer.  This happens sometimes when Ur-Momma is feeling “down” — she just ignores the phone.  I called her back half an hour later.  I made my phone-switching offer, and then I asked her what was really going on.  I’m down, she said.  Why, I asked.  And suddenly we were yelling at each other about what was really bugging her — that my brother (let’s call him Avuncular) had called me last night, and I had told him that I was in the middle of a meeting and we’d have to talk another time.  When Ur-Momma called me this morning to see if I had talked to Avuncular, I told her that he had called but that we hadn’t spoken because I was in the middle of a meeting.

Turns out she was upset because I didn’t follow that up with “and I called him back when the meeting was over.”  Did she really need to know that it didn’t end till 11, and that I sent him an email early this morning suggesting that we talk later tonight?  Is it any business of hers?  I’m 56 years old — am I not allowed to deal with my relationship with my 53-year-old brother on my own, without one of us calling the other “because Mommy says”?

Apparently she thinks it is her business.  (And in another post I’ll say wonderful things about how smart and funny and involved and generous Ur-Momma is; just give me this one, about how annoying and intrusive she can be.)  After we stopped yelling, Ur-Momma went on and on about her favorite topic — my brother and me.  “The only thing that matters to me in my life is that my children are there for each other,” she said for the gazillionth time.  Avuncular and I grew up with the sing-song in our ears of “Brothers and sisters are the closest thing in the world.”  Ur-Momma is the oldest of three sisters and they are extraordinarily close, so even without the relentless sloganeering, Avuncular and I would have gotten the message from their loving example that siblings are a lifelong commitment.  AND I HAD ALREADY EMAILED HIM.

I get it, sort of.  I want Nutmeg and Meta to be friends and to rely on each other; in fact, before Ur-Momma ruined my day, I was still smiling after a lovely lunch with Nutmeg in which she had told me in hilarious detail about an endless Twitter and g-chat exchange between her and Meta regarding live yogurt cultures.  (Meta had even included me in the discussion by g-chatting me, “your other child doesn’t know what YOGURT IS MADE OF.”)  Like my own mother, I’ve always wanted my kids to be friends, to love each other, to know they could depend on each other.  Sometimes their relationship is good, sometimes less good — like any relationship.  But I’ve learned that the worst thing I can do when it’s not going so well is to insert myself into it to try to make it better.

That’s what Ur-Momma has been doing between Avuncular and me our whole lives, taking the temperature of our relationship to make sure it meets her exacting standards — and if for some reason it doesn’t, to try to fix it.  That’s what she was doing today.  Amazingly, my brother and I love each other anyway.  I love my mother, too, but at the moment she’s pissing me off, and reminding me that with even the best of intentions, the parent of an adult child can sometimes make mistakes.

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Nutmeg was plenty angry with us when, just weeks after her high school graduation in 2002, iDaddy and I sold the house she grew up in and moved to New York City.  Not only did we sell the house, but we sold most of the things in it.  We were already in New York when the estates-sale coordinator we had hired put prices on all the furniture and tschosckes we’d had to leave behind, and I made the mistake of asking Nutmeg to go back to the house one more time (she was house-sitting for strangers in the neighborhood, since she had to stay in the area for a summer job before she headed off to college).  I think that was the moment that made her angriest — seeing price tags hanging from the purple sofa she had lounged in, and from the bowls and wall hangings and Central American sculptures that had decorated our kitchen and living room, turning the whole thing into one big, nostalgic flea market.  It was seven years ago, and I think she’s only now beginning to forgive us.

I was reminded of all this reading today’s column in The New York Times by the wonderful Michelle Slatalla, whose experiences as a mother of three growing daughters (ages 12, 18, and 20) always speak to me, and usually make me laugh.  Slatalla, it seems, recently decided to downsize, to sell the house where the three girls grew up (but where they lived for only 7 years, compared to the 16 years that Nutmeg and Meta had lived in our house, a full complement of girlhood in practically one place).  Two of the three girls were in college, and Slatalla felt like she and her husband and youngest child were sort of rattling around in their big old house.  The older girls weren’t happy about losing the old homestead, any more than Nutmeg was — and in Slatalla’s case, they were only moving two blocks, not two hundred miles.

I fretted, seven years ago, when our girls were 18 and 22, whether it was too soon for iDaddy and me to leave the family house, with its big front porch where we had watched the girls playing on the front lawn, and the big back yard where each of them had been bat mitzvahed, and the big kitchen table that had been the scene of many happy family dinners and more than a few melodramatic ones.  Was it too soon to close up shop and recreate a family home in a 2-1/2 bedroom apartment in Manhattan?  Slatalla had similar concerns, even though in her case she was still going to give each girl a bedroom, and a backyard — and, essentially, exactly the same neighborhood.

They say it’s a natural part of becoming an adult, when you start to realize — gradually — that the house where you grew up isn’t where you live anymore. You begin to understand that the phrase “childhood home” actually means the place where people tried their best to prepare you for your own life.

Some children take it gracefully. Others, like Jonathan Franzen, write thinly veiled autobiographical novels excoriating their parents.

“Do me a favor,” I pleaded, “don’t read ‘The Corrections’ until you give the new house a chance.”

But I was starting to worry. Was I being selfish? Would it scar my children for life if I disturbed the shrines of their bedrooms, transporting bulletin boards full of snapshots and little plaster handprints from kindergarten and desiccated flower bouquets from past proms to a new location two blocks away?

Now, seven years later, I know that it wasn’t such a big deal to close the door on the girls’ childhoods when I did.  It was a tiny bit premature for Nutmeg, I admit — it would have been kinder if we’d waited at least until her first Thanksgiving home from college — but there’s not really any need for bedroom shrines when your children are in their twenties.  In fact, speaking as someone whose own bedroom remained intact until my mother finally sold the house I grew up in when I was 51 years old, sometimes the shrine thing can go on for much, much too long.  I’m hoping that Slatalla and her husband, as well as iDaddy and I, have set good examples for our growing daughters,  showing them that parents go on, with their own yearnings and changes, even after the active-parenting stage of our lives has ended.

It’s the eve of 2010.  Time for all sorts of lessons in new beginnings.

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Kids and parents never really know what’s in one another’s heads, at least not when they’re arguing.  That’s the conclusion of a study summarized by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, co-authors of NurtureShock, in their Newsweek-hosted blog of the same name.  In a post from a couple of days ago, they describe the work of Alan Sillars of the University of Montana, who videotaped 50 family groupings (generally, Mother, Father, and adolescent son or daughter) as each of them had a 15-minute conversation about a contentious topic of their choice.  Later, the participants were ushered into separate rooms, a la the soundproof booth of The Newlywed Game, and asked to watch the videotape and say what they thought their spouse or child had been thinking at particular points in the discussion.

They were all, parents and kids alike, wrong an average of 76 percent of the time.

“The kids readily admitted that they were often lost as to what their parents were thinking,” write Bronson and Merryman.   “The parents, on the other hand, were certain that they knew what was on the others’ minds.”
This kind of disconnect is not limited to parents of teenagers.  I suspect that if you asked me to describe what was going on in Nutmeg’s or Meta’s head when we’re having a conversation — especially a potentially fractious one, about career goals or plans for motherhood or somebody’s weight — I might think I could.  But if I thought harder, and especially if I put myself into the role of daughter and asked myself whether my own mother has any idea what I’m really thinking about when we talk, I’d have to admit that I’m probably wrong about 76 percent of the time.
What to do with this kind of knowledge?  Surely we can’t stop talking.  But we just as surely can’t try to explain ourselves to one another.  Transparency isn’t the goal here; I doubt that I actually want to know EXACTLY what Nutmeg and Meta are thinking when we talk, any more than they want me to know.  What, then, IS the goal?
I’m not sure, but I think it has something to do with that old saw of keeping the lines of communication open.  As long as parents and kids are talking to each other, even if they’re not exactly telling each other everything (or interpreting everything correctly, due to inability really to intuit what’s on the other’s mind), there’s a relationship there.  Sillars found, in the same study that showed parents and kids to be talking past each other, that everyone in the family felt like they basically got along.  The kids gave their fathers an average score of 4 on a scale of 1 to 5; they gave their mothers an average score of 4.1  If iDaddy and I stay in the 4 range on our daughters’ radar, I think I’d consider that a pretty successful number.

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In a lighthearted column in today’s Washington Post, eternal style scribe Sally Quinn writes about the travails of holiday entertaining.  There’s dotty drunk Aunt Anna and boozy Daddy in a silent spat with Mother; there are all those aggressively crappy gifts sent by step-great-grandma, too.  Despite the infernal lyrics of the annoying popular songs, Quinn writes, it’s NOT “the most wonderful time of the year”; it’s the most miserable.  “Why?” she writes.   “Because we all have dysfunctional families.”

Now when anyone starts describing something universal as abnormal, my ears prick up.  All families are dysfunctional?  Really?  Then how do you define functional, exactly?  I prefer to think of families as idiosyncratic, quirky, difficult — but all of this is related to how they DO manage to function, not to how they don’t.

I think what’s really going on — or what is often going on — is that family relations tend to work pretty well when children are young, but less so when children become adults.  It’s too easy to fall into the trap of reverting to the roles we adopted in our families of origin — the good daughter, the mischievous son, the worried mother, the distracted father.  It’s a little unseemly to keep acting out, at the holiday table, the same little dramas that took place 30 years earlier at the kitchen table.  We all do it, of course.  In fact, even though iDaddy and I don’t even live anymore in the same town where our daughters were raised — we sold the house where they grew up and moved 250 miles north almost the day Nutmeg graduated from high school — we still actually have the same kitchen table (though now it’s crammed into one corner of the living room/dining room/family room/home office — sort of like the all-purpose room of the girls’ elementary schools or, as Ray Romano put it on “Everybody Loves Raymond,” our little Manhattan apartment’s cafegymetorium).  And when Nutmeg and Meta are both at home — is it even fair to call this “home” when neither of them has actually lived here?  I’ll let that question slide for now — we assume the position, each of us sitting at the same place in the table where we used to sit when we had dinner at this same table in our big kitchen in Maryland. 

In assuming the position, we assume the role, too: Meta talks more than Nutmeg, Nutmeg  interrupts and gets Meta irritated, I jump in and try to smoothe ruffled feathers and only make things worse, iDaddy tunes out when the girls and I seem to be heading into territory that’s a little awkwardly female.  With Wilco now also at the table, the gender balance has shifted ever so slightly, and since he’s just a son-in-law with no Family of Origin baggage, we all tend to behave a little bit better in his presence.  But give us a little while, and he’ll probably be drawn into the swirl of our supposedly dysfunctional family — which I prefer to think of as just plain family, flawed and fractious and 100% typical.

Merry Christmas.

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