You probably can’t relate, but sometimes my mother drives me crazy. She sends me lengthy emails in ALLCAPS even though my sister and I have repeatedly told her that’s like shouting. (“Not to me, dear.”) My sister shared a recent conversation in which my mother called to chat, and my sister said to her: “Mom, I’m feeling really sick, and it’s excruciatingly painful to even talk.” “Oh poor thing," my mother replied, "tell me all about it.”
What is it about mothers that presses our buttons like nothing else on the planet (except maybe our children — but I don’t think so)? Many of us strive to be kind, patient, compassionate people. And when we’re around other people’s mothers — even angry, forgetful or narcissistic women — we just allow them to be. We don't raise our voices or say things we regret then stomp into the kitchen and pour a glass of wine.
The spiritual teacher and ’60s consciousness pioneer Ram Dass liked to say to students: “You think you’re enlightened? Go spend a week with your family.” The guy lived in India, had a guru, has been a spiritual mentor to two generations of seekers, and even though he didn’t specifically say “mother,” I know that’s what he meant.
There’s a psychotherapeutic approach called Family Systems Theory that holds that “individuals cannot be understood in isolation from one another, but rather as a part of their family, as the family is an interconnected and interdependent emotional unit.”
The late Randy Gerson, a psychologist who did a lot of work in this field, once told a lecture hall full of his students that even the most healthily individuated adult, upon visiting his or her home or parents, has a maximum of 36 hours from the time the foot hits the tarmac until being sucked into an emotional time machine — returned to that old place in the family system's cogs and wheels and push buttons. (I'm paraphrasing here.)
Gerson isn’t around to explain why we tend to blow a gasket within 36 hours of being around the 'rents, but I asked someone who was in the lecture hall that day: Marsha Lucas, a neuropsychologist and author of Rewire Your Brain for Love. As she puts it: “Your mother is the one in your implicit memory connected with all kinds of deep-seated emotions. Those emotionally tagged memories hold a special potency. Layer on top of them years of repeated experiences — which get expressed as neural pathways in your brain — and when something happens today, it can get blown way out of proportion because it’s triggering one of those old, unresolved emotional memories, without your even being aware that it's from the past.”
Nice. So what should we do, after perhaps years of therapy, when Mom asks for the 42nd time what’s new with her grandchildren (the 41st iteration having come just 15 minutes earlier)?
“Cultivate bemused tolerance,” suggests Lucas, who understands. “When I was little and wanted a snack, my mother would unerringly miss by a mile what I wanted,” she recalls. “For example, if I said I was in the mood for something cold and wet, like grapes, she'd say, ‘How about a slice of meatloaf?’"
Lucas went on to say that what worked for her — years later, when confrontations with her mother brought these issues to the fore — was to stop in that moment and bring her attention to her breath (“a quiet exhale longer than the inhale”) and remind herself that she was however many years old and didn't need to assert her individuation anymore. Then she’d make herself find the silliness in the whole thing.
I used to go to a great therapist; more of a spiritual teacher, really. Once, when my mother was really frustrating me, my teacher gave me an exercise that I still try to practice to this day. She knew I had framed pictures of some inspirational women in my home. She asked if I had any photos of my mother that I’d be willing to cut up. This is getting interesting, I thought, envisioning some creative anger-management trick she’d learned from one of her own wise teachers.
She sent me home with a simple instruction. Cut out a picture of my mother’s smiling face. Tape it over the face of a saint or a deity or a goddess. "Look at it every day, and say something in gratitude," she told me. “She is your greatest teacher, you know.”
Easier said than done, but I still make efforts to practice this simple exercise. Now every time my mother forgets to follow up on something important or asks the same question yet again, I look at my mother/goddess and remember that the woman who taught me to tie my shoes and bake a chocolate layer cake is still teaching me things.
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