I was online one morning, when I came across an interesting article titled “Handling Controlling Elderly Parents.”
“Ha!” I thought half-jokingly. “Here’s my breakthrough guide to fix all of my control issues with my 89-year-old mother Ginny.”
Very quickly, however, I wasn’t laughing. I was thinking. Hard.
With some parents, an overly critical, authoritarian parenting style is handed down from generation to generation. The dynamic of a child trying to please a parent who can never be satisfied is so entrenched in the relationship that family therapy could be the only option for improvement.AgingCare, Carol Bradley Bursack
That first line came barreling down on me like a level IV white water rapid. I found my mind getting pushed over the edges of the well-worn topic of my mother and I towards thinking about my mother and her mother instead. And a very recent conversation I had with Ginny broke through.
First, here’s what I’ve always known. I’ve known that Ginny was a daddy’s girl. She adored him. I’ve known that my mother refers to her mother stiffly as “Mother.” Never anything but “Mother” and never warmly. I’ve known that her mother was quite focused on her career; a modern concept for that time. I’ve also known that Ginny was dropped off for summers with family while her parents traveled. Entire summers.
But what I didn’t know until recently was that Ginny’s mother had told her when she was little that she was “in the way” of things. Here is an 89-year-old woman who remembers that. It begins to percolate that my grandmother (who died before I was born) did not have the best motherly instincts. It’s possible that she, in fact, had an authoritarian style about her. I had never examined this idea. I guess I didn’t spend any time thinking of her because I never knew her. But let’s say she shaped Ginny and Ginny grew up, and she became someone who was finally in control herself. And she would never, ever relinquish being in control, particularly with her own daughters – no matter their age. If true, she didn’t break the cycle, she embraced it.
This is a moment. I’m re-forming the mental landscape with new and old information. Maybe I can’t entirely lay our relationship at her feet. I’ll admit that I had assumed that since she was an only child, she had been doted on, forming her ego. There had to be some explanation for her “it’s all about me” vibe. (Click here for previous post). But what if she had significant mother-daughter issues herself? What if she is only guilty of continuing a pattern to which she was exposed? Or, her ego is a result of her fighting for her own self-worth, to be heard, when she was young?
I’m not sure my heart is exactly ready to instantly forgive here because I know patterns can be broken. Hailey and I are both proud of the relationships we have with our sons. We are open, loving and very close. But understanding that her behavior is possibly a generational torch that was passed on gives me sympathy for her.
I read on and consider something else.
“Think about how you would act if you had people swoop in and begin making decisions for you. Even if they had the best intentions, you would probably wind up feeling like a spectator instead of a participant in your own life. Consider your own behavior and determine if you are taking more control than you need to. Many caregivers make the mistake of taking over, even if it isn’t necessary, because it is the most efficient option.AgingCare, Carol Bradley Bursack
Guilty. There are times I want to take over. There are times that I do. I do it because it will make things easier, but I also do it because the very act of being efficient makes me feel good. It’s part of my personality. I can’t help it. So we will clash when her way is not the efficient way. Being the way I am, if her way doesn’t make any sense then I will feel the need to point that out. This leads to instant escalation. Why have I not learned to avoid that trap? Because it’s a pattern that has played out over a lifetime.
But that doesn’t mean in her final years that I can’t try. The next time I want to open my mouth, maybe I’ll leave the room for 20 seconds and come back. I can empathize with “people swooping in and making decisions for you.”
There is a whole lot to ponder here. Maybe for the next 10 years. And then I have a thought that’s just enormous to process. What was my grandmother’s mother like? How far down the rabbit hole does this mother-daughter history go?
And in the end, I realize something else. With two male children, this mother-daughter line is officially ending. This muddled history will not continue. And that’s the biggest insight of all.
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Have you had any sudden insights regarding an aging parent that improved your relationship? I would love to hear them. You can comment below or email email@example.com.