“I really did not feel comfortable coming here today.”
That was the first thing my Mother-in-law said to me when she walked in the door, arriving to look after my little ‘un this morning. I had been expecting some sort of “conversation” but not this.
Back story: Last Friday I arrived home to discover my littlie had a very unusual and extremely painful rash in her nappy. As she this was something new, and she was evidently experiencing considerable distress and discomfort, I quizzed my Mother-in-law when she came to visit the next day about what the cause might have been. I suspected it was the Varicella vaccination she’d had a few days earlier, but I was curious as to whether my Mother-in-law had noticed anything untoward or whether my little ‘un had insisted on eating or drinking anything different from the norm when they went out on their usual coffee date. I asked for her help: anything that might give us a clue as to why the rash might have appeared. Unfortunately, in the midst of this conversation, my sweet little girl was uncharacteristically limp and listless, and more than a bit clingy, sending my anxiety into overdrive.
Of course, in a few days my littlie was back to her usual cheeky chatty curious self and the rash faded and all was well. Or so I thought.
“I really did not feel comfortable today. When I arrived on Saturday, I felt like the room was full of tension and it was all directed at me.
It seems to me, your little one has three types of mothering at the moment. You, your mother and me. I try so hard to do things exactly the same way as you do, but it’s not always easy. And if it’s not good enough…
And anyway I happen to know that some things are known to make babies uncomfortable when they wee, so it wouldn’t have been my preference to feed her tomatoes and olives, but that’s what you wanted. And when I spoke to my son about it, he just insisted it was to do with the nappy and wouldn’t listen to any other suggestion.“
And on and on and on it went.
I bit my tongue. I stood politely. I listened. I affirmed that we had been tense last weekend, but only because of our concern for the little ‘un. I apologised if my preoccupation had been read as an accusation, because it really hadn’t been my intention. I acknowledged that I hadn’t really been aware of anyone else’s feelings at the time, because I was so focused on the issue at hand. I also explained that I had called my Mum a couple of times because I knew she would be working (at a hospital) later that week and could look up the full range of side-effects of the Varicella virus for me.
On and on it went, for a bit more.
I excused myself to clean my teeth and put my make-up on. My hands shook as I applied my mascara. Angry words lashed inside my head. I found myself nauseous at the idea that I would have to apologise for being upset that my little girl was unwell. I wondered how on earth I was going to concentrate when I got to work.
I kissed my little ‘un – oblivious to the stand-off going on around her – and wished my Mother-in-law a good day.
There was a bit more of the on and on. Ending with, “And I think that, at the end of the day, we all have to get on because we are like a big family.”
I agreed and reiterated that I was sorry if my behaviour had hurt feelings and that it really hadn’t been my intention. Which was received by a barely perceptible “humpf”.
Walking to the bus, assessed a few of many options.
As much as I love my husband and value his calm, big picture view in a crisis, I knew that calling him would push all his buttons. He hates conducting personal conversations over the phone, especially at work, let alone ones that put him on the back foot. These all contributed to his unsatisfactory response to his mother’s phone call about the nappy rash earlier that week. I knew he still felt bad about their difficult conversation but I also suspected that calling him to bitch about developments would make him feel worse about it, and possibly place him in the invidious position of defending his mother to his wife (which would also make me resent his not defending me). So that ruled him out.
As much as I love my Mum and appreciate her calm, wise perspective I suspected she’d feel bad for me and that would make me feel worse. Mum has a lot on her plate at the moment, but regardless of how burdened she is, she tends to want to “fix” things. I knew that this wasn’t something she could fix, and I wasn’t keen to hear that it wasn’t important in the scheme of things or not to let it bother me. Because I knew that for me it was a big deal. My stomach was constricting, my breath shallow, the butterflies running up and down my arms and legs were making them shake.
I also considered calling my sister, who is sweet and funny and loyal to a fault. But I suspected she would just take my side and say something wittily cutting about my Mother-in-law to disparage and dismiss her outburst. And that wasn’t what I wanted either.
So I called my friend. A dear lass of about the same age who has a son a month younger than my little ‘un. We happened to be in the same mothers group, but already knew each other through friends of friends. I adore her, but also knew she’d see all the nuances of what was happening.
After apologising profusely for calling so early (though, of course, she and her son were up already), I asked for her help in processing what had just happened. I needed her to help navigate my feelings and act as a sounding board for any actions I could take. She agreed wholeheartedly and as soon as I said, “Well, my Mother-in-law arrived this morning…” she said, “UH-OH!”. I told her the story and she listened. And she heard and she gasped at the right moments and was indignant on my behalf, but exactly the right amount.
This sweet friend told me what she heard. She understood that parents who ask their parents to look after their children are perennially in debt. She knew that making specific requests, resolving problems, receiving advice were more fraught in this situation than when the transaction was purely between a paying client and service provider (as in the case of childcare). We agreed that we were apt to receive suggestions as implied criticism, and that this situation had likely pushed similar buttons for my Mother-in-law. My friend saw my hurt and anger and shame, and she also applauded me for handling it the way I did. She reminded me that everything was motivated by love but we agreed that there was no happy ending to this story, and that nothing would “fix it”.
I thanked my friend profusely for hearing me and noticed how the butterflies were no longer coursing through my veins. My breathing had stabilised and I was no longer shaking. I knew I would still have trouble concentrating at work and that I would have to do a bit more work to process the “shame trigger” (as Brené Brown would call it) to lessen its hold on me.
As I got off the bus and walked to work, it occurred to me that I had done the right thing in calling my friend. She listened and she responded exactly as I needed. She didn’t belittle my feelings and she didn’t overblow them. She heard and she could relate. And she helped me see that I already knew what had happened (to me and to my Mother-in-law) and that I knew what to do.
Those of you who, like me, grew up watching BBC television may recognise the title of this post “Little Victories”. It comes from the brilliant situational comedy set in a prison starring Ronnie Barker called Porridge. Barker’s character Fletcher has been in and out of prison most of his life and gives the following advice to a first-timer: “You can’t buck the system: it’s mad to try. But, you can lift the heart with the occasional little victory.”
Families are not unlike prisons. History is not unlike prison. Impulse built on years of reactive behaviour, feeling victimised, being afraid is very much like prison.
I saw today that I couldn’t run from my new family and the differing world views of each of its constituents. I saw that I couldn’t lash out, hide from, or pointedly ignore the people or situations that pushed my buttons. I would have to learn and keep going. I would be OK. In that way, it wasn’t unlike my own little victory.
[Post-script: I feel compelled to add that it is not all sweetness and light right now. I know I’m feeling a lot better than I would have, had I pursued other ways of dealing with my feelings. But I’m not exactly all smug and zen about it. I still feel rattled and am having trouble concentrating. I am half tempted to run over to the campus bar and down a couple of gin and tonics, to take the edge of these feelings and silence the endless loop on replay in my head. Writing this has been another way of processing but it has taken me over an hour and I really should be working. I have no idea what my husband is going to face when he gets home this afternoon (he gets home before me) and I have decided against calling him to pre-warn him, for all the reasons I outlined above. Plus he needs to be able to unravel his own piece of thread in this big knotty ball! In any case, I’m just trying to keep it real here as another form of victory.]