I have a toxic mother.
After receiving a breakup letter from my mother, I waited for about a month and called her. I should have waited two months, or maybe I should have started our break from each other right then and there.
She began the conversation by saying that it was sometimes necessary to get really angry at someone, and went on to describe how she had marched into the dentist’s office and yelled at Fleur, the dentist’s wife, and head receptionist. I’m not sure why my mom was so angry, but it’s an emotion she’s very comfortable with.
My mother will plead old age if she forgets someone’s name or can’t read the restaurant bill, but she makes no excuses for expressing her anger.
She thinks that she’s earned the right (by getting old) to speak her mind, no matter how hurtful it might be. If screaming at someone makes her feel better, then it’s a good thing as far as she’s concerned.
Before my mother decided she was done with me, she had been somewhat incommunicado. I kept trying to call her using her code of ring once, hang up, and call back, but had no luck in actually getting in touch with her.
I was alarmed that I didn’t know if she was OK or not, but relieved that I didn’t have to actually talk to her.
She has one of those Life Alerts, but she doesn’t always wear the pendant if it doesn’t go with her outfit. She may be old, but she’s still vain. Sometimes even the snappiest dresser can’t rock a Life Alert with a tweed skirt.
I can never be sure if she’s fallen and can’t get up, or if her Life Alert console is plugged in, working, and she’s just not answering it.
After calling various family members, I finally called the dentist’s office, which happens to be next door. My mother lives in a really small town and everybody knows her (and I suspect, avoids her). The dental staff confirmed a mom sighting that morning.
When I finally got ahold of her and told her that I had called the dentist’s office, she was furious that they hadn’t come over to tell her and/or check on her. She thought they should have investigated further.
Her logic was that they had made sure that her two real teeth and gums were healthy, so why hadn’t they made sure the rest of her was, too? Though even if they had come over to check, there’s no guarantee that she would have opened the door, or even responded when they called her name.
My mother’s point in the “yelling at Fleur” story was that it’s always better to get your feelings out than to keep them to yourself.
Another of her theories is that people who keep their emotions to themselves have strokes. Oh, and people who are too kind to their fellow human beings have heart attacks.
She has quite a litany of medical theories. If her theories are correct, it’s unlikely that she will have either a heart attack or a stroke. Her combative personality has possibly elongated her life.
After giving me a full report of all her animals inside and out, she finally came to the topic that I had been dreading — me and her assessment of my behavior during our last visit when we visited her future grave.
In case your parent suggests a family trip to the cemetery where they wish to be buried, I highly suggest you try to get out of it. Our field trip to the boneyard wasn’t exactly fun — more like horrible, actually.
She wasn’t happy with me, as her letter had indicated.
I pointed out to her how she was wrong in said letter about a number of things; for instance, how could she have seen the “petulant” look on my face when I was seated in the front of the car and she was seated in the back? Then there’s the fact that she only has one good eye.
Our conversation was getting heated as my mother listed all my supposed crimes and to top it off, she then called me a “pissant.” I ended the call quickly after.
The next day, I looked up the definition of pissant and the online dictionary confirms what I suspected — pissant means insignificant. Having a parent call their child insignificant seems extremely mean and hits me hard.
I was sitting at the computer at work crying about how my own mother believed that my life meant nothing, and I started to get angry. I hoped that she actually meant pissy, which wasn’t great but would be easier to take.
I called her when I got home, as I was furious. I was glad she had previously commented about how much she respected anger because she was about to get a huge dose of it.
“I’m not insignificant!” I yelled into the phone.
“I never called you insignificant,” my mother said, confused.
“Well, that’s what pissant means.”
She then went on to say if she had meant insignificant, she would have said it or another word. How was I supposed to know that? Sometimes when my mother speaks, it’s like a foreign language and there isn’t a translator nearby.
I felt as if I was on trial and had to make a plea for why I deserved my mother’s respect and love. But my mother had already shut down and hung up the phone without saying another word.
I told my niece, who also has a complicated non-relationship with my mother, and my niece said something very wise: “Your problem is that you think of your mother like a mother.”
When my mother sent me a card (snail mail is always her favorite way to stick it to anyone) in which she said, “I was bemused at your indignation. I was not, am not, critical of your life — just your crappy way of behaving here,” I’m not exactly comforted.
I’m always on my best behavior around my mother and try not to get into arguments or in any way enrage her. I would call my behavior nice, but my mother doesn’t like nice people either.
She signed her card, “I would say I love you, but the word love has lost its meaning for me.” She sure had no problem saying it when she told me, “My animals are the only thing I love.”
My mother may not understand love, affection, and family, but she does respect anger.
I just don’t feel like wasting any kind of emotion on her or on fixing our relationship — our relationship is too insignificant for that.
Christine Schoenwald is a writer and performer. She’s had articles in The Los Angeles Times, Salon, and Woman’s Day. Visit her website or her Instagram.