My friend Beth’s 81-year-old mother called her last month to say she was having some minor surgery to fix a cartilage problem in her nose. “No need to come down to Florida, dear,” her mother said. “I’ll be fine and back home in a day.”
Naturally, Beth, who lives in Chicago, stayed close to her phone during the scheduled procedure. When it finally rang, she was surprised to hear a nurse’s voice on the other end. The surgery had been more complicated than expected, she was told, and her mother would have to spend a few days in the hospital. Mom couldn’t talk on the phone at that moment but had let the nurse know she wanted to see her daughter.
Upon hearing this, Beth purchased a pricey last-minute ticket to Fort Lauderdale, threw some clothes into a suitcase and rushed to O’Hare. Nine hours later she walked into the hospital room braced to find her mother half-dead, only to find her propped up in bed, watching TV and eating Jell-O.
She looked up and with an odd look in her eye said to Beth, “What did you do to your hair?” And that, my friend told me, is when she knew her mother was going to be just fine. “She didn’t even say, ‘Gee, thanks for rushing down’ or 'I’m happy to see you.’ She went straight for the jugular.”
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Parents Say the Darndest Things
Here we are, squarely in our own adulthood, and some of our parents are still say things that make us feel like we’re 10 years old — or just make us crazy. Even if they're supportive and generous (as mine were), sometimes you want to whip your head around and say, "Whaaaat?!"
So when I hear stories like Beth’s, I can’t help but wonder why parents like hers say the sort of thing she described. One thought that occurs to me is that it’s because in their minds we are forever their little kids who need direction. But when that bossing leads to inappropriate comments, it’s hard for us not to feel hurt and be thrown for a major loop.
Here are some parental doozies I’ve heard recently from a host of friends. And in the spirit of keeping the peace, I offer some helpful, inoffensive ripostes. These are intended to get across the point that even though your feelings have been hurt, you’re mature enough to not engage. And hopefully they make it clear that you’d like to put an end to the patronizing barbs once and for all.
1. “Why don’t you try Atkins? Barbara’s daughter Janice lost 20 pounds on that diet in six months.”
What you want to say: “Way to go, Mom! You just managed to insult me and praise someone else’s child in the same breath.”
Count to 10 and say: “I know you’re telling me this because you love me and want me to look and feel my best. But it still feels like an insult. Plus I'd prefer to adopt more sustainable lifestyle changes that address all aspects of my health, and I'll be working toward doing that.”
2. “The reason you’re single is because you’re so smart, you scare off potential partners.”
What you want to say: “You used to be proud of how smart I am and encouraged me to excel and be successful."
Count to 10 and say: “I inherited my intelligence from you and really appreciate all that you did over the years to make sure I'd do well. I really need to be with someone who values my mind, my strength and my achievements — someone who's secure in their own and wouldn't want it any other way.
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3. “You should have married (or stayed married to) your ex.”
What you want to say: “Funny, you never had anything nice to say about him (or her) when we were together. I thought you want what's best for me.”
Count to 10 and say: “I saw on Facebook that the old coot just got divorced for the third time.”
4. “Sit up straight.”
What you want to say: “Are you kidding? I’m so exhausted, I don’t know how I manage to not drop my head on the table and fall asleep right here.”
Count to 10, square your shoulders and say: “I don't know, Mom. I guess I feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders.” Then say with a wink and a smile, "You're right. Were you thinking of giving me gift certificate to a spa? I could really use a massage right about now."
5. “When you’re in California next month, you should call your Uncle Bernie.”
What you want to say: “I could call Uncle Bernie anytime because this is 2013 and it costs the same whether I’m in New York, Florida or California. But the real reason I don’t want to call Uncle Bernie is because he’s a total bore — plus he’s half-deaf and yells at me for not ‘speaking up’ loudly enough.”
Count to 10 and say: “I’ve got a better idea. Let’s call him now. Here, I’ll dial and hand the phone to you.”
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6. “Did you hear your sister had a big fight with her boss at work?”
What you want to say: “Wow, this must mean you gossip about me to her. I guess I can’t trust you with anything.”
Count to 10 and say: “You set such a good example for us — we’re very close and tell each other almost everything. But we’re also like a vault with each other’s private affairs. If it comes up, I'll talk to her about it.”
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7. “You’re always on that stupid gadget.”
What you want to say: “Yes: always. And did you ever consider that it’s because you tell the same boring stories over and over?”
Count to 10 and say: “What if I was somewhere else and got a message from you? You’d get mad if I didn’t answer promptly. You taught me to be responsible about my job, and my work and my family are my two highest priorities, and that’s why I check my email regularly.”
8. “You’re too lenient with your children.”
What you want to say: “Next time one of them starts being unreasonable, I’ll send her your way because, you know, you were always a perfect parent.”
Count to 10 and say: “I’m sure I made some mistakes over the years, but I think for the most part I did a pretty good job and that your grandchildren will continue to make you proud.”
9. “You really should have been a doctor.”
What you want to say: “Right: I, who barely passed high school biology and still gets woozy at the sight of blood. And who would have supported me while I spent a decade in medical school and residency?”
Count to 10 and say: “Thanks to your wise counsel, I followed my heart in my career path. And besides, if I were a doctor, I’d probably be on call right now and wouldn’t be able to spend as much time with you.”
Here’s the bottom line. If Mom and Dad are still saying these incredible things to us, they’re not likely to stop now just because we ask them to. (And haven’t we tried a million times?) So maybe we need to focus on the positive: We’re lucky to still have them around. Many of our friends don’t and might even envy our less-than-Norman-Rockwell moments.
So when we feel the tentacles of irritation scraping up our necks, maybe we should keep my friend Beth in mind. That day in the Fort Lauderdale hospital, all she said was, “Glad you're up and able to talk!” And the rest of the visit was great.