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The guilt-trip tango

I omit many details from my blog, carefully choosing words and phrases that will draw the most attention to what’s there and the least attention to what’s missing.

As I ran this morning, I thought about all the details I leave out here. I thought about the autobiographical book–memoir, even–I’m currently 12,500 words into writing, and how discomfiting it is to force myself to not only shoo away but embrace the details. I’ve become so comfortable navigating around them, it feels downright aggressive to be wrangling them up and commanding them.

Recently I imagined that “f*cks” are adorable, misunderstood critters we too willingly give away in anger and frustration (“In which I swear, quite a lot!“). I took the same approach to “details” this morning, imagining them as individuals with their own objectives and wants.

ME: You. Detail.

DETAIL#34: Wha? Me? No, you mean that other guy. The purple one over there?

ME: No, I mean you. I need you to come with me.

DETAIL #34: No. No, please, no. I just got married. You can’t take me from my wife!

ME: Oh, fine. Bring her along. No tricks, you hear?

DETAIL #34 [running away at a sprint]: You can’t catch meeeeeeeeeeee!

ME [using mind rays to pull Detail #34 back]: We can do this the nice way, where you come all willing-like, or we can do this the hard way.

DETAIL #34: Not the hard way. Please! I’ll play nice.

ME: Good Detail. Attaboy.

As my brain sped along much faster than my feet can run, I thought about some of the hardest details to write: those involving my mom’s less loving moments. So many people were so cruel to her, I fear that when I do address those moments, others will find themselves blinded to her many beautiful traits, which thrived–until the worst of her mental illness descended–despite perpetual hardships.

Then again, I’m recently discovering that my decisions made from fear are my least favorite decisions of all. I want my actions to reflect choices sprung from hope, and faith, not from fear that a handful of details will lock reader attention onto small, painful asides and erroneously exaggerate their importance so that the good details fade, leaving the hard ones all that readers remember about those beloved to me.

After everything you have supported me through, I should know better about y’all by now.

Running onward, I thought about one particular thing my mom used to do that drove me batty. Understand that it’s a small thing to share, but it’s a start.

If I went a week without calling my mom, our first catch-up call would begin, “Oh, Deborah? Is that you? I can hardly tell, it’s been so long since we’ve talked. You haven’t been by so long, I’m gonna forget your face sooner or later.”

I’d reply, “You keep this up, you’re really gonna forget my voice, too! Why can’t we have a little more conversation and a little less guilt trip? You know I’d call more often!”

Indeed, I sometimes went through multiple-week periods where I didn’t call my mom because the thought of doing another guilt-trip tango made me want to scream.

When the mood was right and both of us were feeling mellow, I’d tell Mom, “You know what’s going to get me here more often? Trusting that I love you and I will call and come by as often as I can. The rest is just, like, a roadblock to our sitting down and talking like this.”

As we spoke, I’d picture the woman I thought of as my second mom. If I went a couple of weeks without calling her, she’d say excitedly, “Oh! Deborah! How wonderful to hear from you!” Often, thrown off balance by her cheerful, guilt trip free greeting, I’d lose my conversation bearing and apologize for letting so much time slip away between calls.

“No, no, no. We’re all busy. I savor the chances I do get.”

As a parent myself now, it is one of my goals to ensure that my son knows a lot about his brilliant, outspoken, creative grandma Christine. It is still another of my goals to ensure he never, ever avoids picking up the phone to call me just to avoid the guilt-trip tango.

I love my mom. I am grateful for choices she made from fear, most notably holding on to life through abuse, persistent depression, and poverty so that her children would never experience custody-related hardships. I am even more grateful for the choices she made from love, because those choices remain the examples that inspire me today. They are the source of the joyous sense of eternal love I feel when I think of my mom today.

ME [sobbing]: Will I always hurt, Mom? Will it always be hard?

MOM [stroking my hair]: No, sweetie. It won’t always be hard. It’ll be hard for a long time, sometimes, but it won’t always be hard. You’ll have lots of joy, like I have in you kids. You’ll have that, too. And you’ll always have me. Always.

This was among posts accidentally deleted from this blog.
Reposted 7/22/15

  1. July 22, 2015 at 7:08 pm

    I wonder if some of your mom’s guilt tripping came from her own fear and insecurities about not having her daughter with her anymore. Our vulnerabilities can manifest in strange ways.

    • July 22, 2015 at 7:12 pm

      I wonder, too. I wish I could ask her. I do know I sometimes make guilt-tripping statements, remembering her as I barely suppress a smile until bursting into giggles one or two seconds later.

      I think she honestly feared we’d forget or abandon her without guilt. But honestly, it was all the anti-guilt things she did that kept me bound to her … all the love freely given; all the letting go without a chain to draw me back.

      It’s interesting to revisit this post three years later. It really did pave the way for mentioning she was abusive as well as an advocate. And for all that I feared how that would fare, all has turned out well in the end.

      Giving things a voice really does diminishes their fear factor.

  2. July 22, 2015 at 7:32 pm

    Wonderful post! I think my mom would say things like, “don’t worry, darling, I’ll be okay, but I miss you so.” Because she really did miss me. We both struggled becoming separate.

    • July 22, 2015 at 7:36 pm

      Thank you!

      I now can only begin to fathom how my mom must have missed me and my siblings as we started flying. I’m glad she already “absolved” me, as it were, through exchanges like those mentioned here and here. It’s not that normal flight should require forgiveness, but that it’s easy to feel guilty for what’s passed based on knowledge obtained since, you know? Having my mom already say it’s OK means even my saddest, guiltiest reminiscing is concluded with the comfort of knowing it really is OK. All of it.

  3. July 22, 2015 at 11:49 pm

    My mother made an art form out of guilt tripping me. And, klutz that I am, I fell for it every time.
    Faults on both sides. And I choose to put the negatives in the cupboard. I know they are there, but it doesn’t help me to display them. Or not often.

    • July 23, 2015 at 4:55 am

      Three years since originally posting this, I now think it’s important to display them, with consideration, occasionally. Had I not done so in this case, the way would never have been paved for some of my favorite, most loving posts. I could not have written those loving reflections of a(nother) flawed human being had I not embraced the okayness of occasionally presenting the fuller picture in a context of love and respect.

      Dear Mom,” far and away my most popular post, would never have existed if I hadn’t allowed myself to begin the journey of occasionally talking about the bad instead of only vaguely acknowledging that it existed. I love how commenters were moved by the totality instead of transfixed by fleeting asides. I learned more about people by releasing that, and seeing how beautiful was what came back.

      Of course, I get go-ahead to mention the negatives of those still around me. In principle, I am free to write whatever the heck I want. In actuality, doing so could cost me a lot of trust. So I check, because that trust is worth more to me than blog catharsis. So far, only approval to proceed! 🙂

  4. July 23, 2015 at 12:06 am

    As my son nears teenage, and is already beginning to retreat from me so that he may become his on person, a kind of fear of loosing him sometimes grips me. And I can see that the temptation to guilt-trip him into staying close is just around the corner.
    With all your mom’s been through, it’s a wonder how she had the strength to give love to her children at all…
    I like that your post give me something slightly more meaningful to think about before I dive into a day’s work ! x

    • July 23, 2015 at 5:06 am

      I wrote this post back when I had just the one child. Now, with two, I can plainly say I have NO idea how she did it.

      When visiting my sister recently, the two of us were stuck in the car with our four kids. Each was having his/her own mini-meltdown. We just looked at each other with pure incomprehension before saying the same thing, roughly: How did she do it?

      I don’t think I will ever understand, especially how she did it with (usually) so much love and joy. Her powers of love seems superhuman to me sometime. They are what I more often recall; her true heart, over an occasional exhausted aside.

      Thunder Thighs will forever remain my favorite superhero. Remembering her makes me know my mistakes are just blips on a landscape I believe my sons will remember mostly for its love.

      Try not to fret too much, if you can. The big picture is so much kinder than the small picture, with parents who have cared deeply.

      • July 23, 2015 at 7:24 am

        Hooray for Thunder thighs!

      • August 4, 2015 at 1:23 pm

        Hooray for thunder thighs ! 😉

  5. July 23, 2015 at 2:59 am

    My mother, the tour guide of guilt trips; that is until I stopped her in her tracks. Your relationship with your mother was so inspired and inspiring, I don’t think some of the small details are ever going to take away from the larger picture of love. It isn’t possible.

    The details are important, even when they hurt.

    • July 23, 2015 at 5:07 am

      I am so much more grateful to her by the day. Sometimes it still pains me that I can’t talk wih her about this, but–as you see–I find other ways to express it.

      Much, much love.

    • July 23, 2015 at 6:37 am

      Love that – “Tour guide of guilt trips.”

  6. July 23, 2015 at 6:40 am

    I think a woman’s relationship with her mom is perhaps the deepest and most complicated of all life’s connections. It’s where we get our most joy and our most angst.

  7. mgbmdri
    July 23, 2015 at 3:32 pm

    I’m very glad I found your blog however long ago it was now. You write beautifully and honestly. I look forward to your posts, even when I’ve been away from reading the blogs I follow. You put the postive and negative aspects of your life into such eloquent words. Being open enough to write of both is amazing and inspiring. I’d love to be able to express myself so well. Reading about your Mum, makes me appreciate mine so much more. We have had our own difficulties in our relationship but in the end, she’s always had my back. I’ll take the good and bad from her because in the end she is always there. She tries her best to be a good Mum/person and that’s all anyone can ask from her.

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