I’ve heard the saying, “Expectations are the root of all evil”. This resonates deeply for me. When I have an idea of how people should behave, react, engage, and then they disappoint me I find myself feeling frustrated, even angry. And guess what? People almost never behave the way you expect them to, and if they do, you might find yourself feeling shocked, or at least, pleasantly surprised. When expectations are not met this typically leads to resentment. So, why not just stop doing this? For me, it’s the hope that it could be different. But it’s the letting go that I can’t seem to grasp. I can’t get out of my own way on this one.
This idea of expectations is haunting me as I prepare for a trip home to see my Mom this week. There are no greater expectations than the ones we hold our parents too and my Mom lets me down time and time again. The sad thing is that I’m conditioned to be let down and I still manage to sucker myself into believing that it might be different this time. It’s never different, and these days it’s even worse than different, it’s impossible. Don’t get me wrong here; I’m not putting this on my Mom. She has her own baggage to deal with and her own story to tell and it’s a story of suffering and sacrifice and triumph. So this isn’t about my Mom being a bad Mom, because she’s not. The anxiety is about me wanting things to be a certain way and the selfish view that it would be nice if that way positively impacted me.
Growing up my Mom was the sun, the moon, and the stars. My world revolved around her, she was the light and the warmth and she helped me to see how big the world was and encouraged me to make my place in it. My Dad was this ridiculously cool and interesting guy that seemed to be good at everything he ever did (expect marriage and not leaving). So when I was nine and he moved out, my Mom was left to be the daily parent and when he died in 1997 she was left to be the only parent. My Mom was the strongest person I knew. She was beautiful, intelligent, warm and ambitious. She had overcome some major adversity as a child and survived to “do better” with us. I thought she was invincible. As a child, I thought I would live with my Mom forever. I considered her one of my best friends and she was for sure “my person”. When something went well in my life she was the first person I would call and when something went really really bad she was my lifeline. She was the person that would never judge me or turn me away. She was always there. I felt so grateful to have her since I knew what losing a parent felt like and I was well aware that my friends didn’t have the same relationship that I was so incredibly fortunate to have.
When you put someone on a really high pedestal, the fall is devastating. In 2004 when I had Madison my whole world changed. Everything shifted in me and for the first time in my life, I loved something, someone, more than I loved myself. My Mom was there to help me during the first two weeks and when my friend Angela came to take her to the airport I wept. I begged her not to leave me and she fell apart not knowing how to walk away. She did go back to Colorado and I realized I was more capable than I thought but that was one of the last moments that I remember being 100% vulnerable with my Mom.
Once I got the hang of parenting, which basically meant I could keep Madison alive, I started to get cocky. I was going to prove to the world that I was in control and could handle this massive responsibility. This is when the judgment started and I could see all of my Mom’s parental flaws. Now that I understood parenting, my expectations were higher and when I looked back I had a lot of questions for my Mom. All of these questions were accusatory and unproductive but now I understood what it felt like to be a Mom, I felt like it was my responsibility to impart my new found wisdom. The reality is that the pressure of raising a child was so heavy I was looking to avoid judgment in any way possible and holding my Mom to an impossible standard seemed just as good a way as any to soothe my insecurities.
With so many miles between Colorado and Maryland, I could temper my behavior and bite my tongue when we were visiting until I couldn’t and then I’d usually show up like a giant asshole. Mentally I found myself discrediting my Mom to protect myself and slowly I felt us drifting apart. She was now, only “my person” for the good things, and I reserved my failures, for well, pretty much no one. This was the slow road to loneliness and my inability to ask for help was more evident than ever.
Fast forward to 2015, I now have three children, ages 12, 10 and 7 and they are all thriving; which means they are alive, doing well in school, and have some interests and some friends. Not the highest bar;-) My Mom and I are more disconnected than ever and I’m having a very hard year. So many things in my life seemed to be out of sorts. Greg, my husband, continues his battle Multiple Sclerosis and was struggling with his mobility. My brother was in need of help and living with us that summer to work on his recovery. My best friend was a new Mom and in need of a lifeline and I had my first real scare with potential breast cancer (which I did not have). I was in over my head and wanted more than anything to have “my person” but my Mom was fighting her own battle. This was the summer she was diagnosed with Dementia. When my Step Dad told me it took my breath away. I Googled, I cried and I felt completely helpless. The good news was that my Mom did not have Alzheimer’s, the most common form of Dementia, but it was Dementia and that was enough to bring me to my knees. The first thing I thought was how is this capable, confident, independent and completely in control woman going to handle losing her mind (literally). Then, probably too soon, I thought about myself. This solidified that my Mom would never be the person I wanted her to be. Truth is, there really was no chance of this in the first place, based on my expectations, but I still had the hope that it could be different. I was devastated, for her and for me.
You would think with this news I’d be more kind and understanding and start to support my Mom in a different way. I’m embarrassed to say it didn’t happen that way. I acted like a child that wasn’t getting their way. We’ve had some of the worst fights ever in the last couple of years because I’m struggling to rise above my own needs and expectations. There was this part of me that just wanted to hug her and cry and tell her it was going to be alright. But I was angry and I was grieving and the person I was losing was standing right in front of me, how are you supposed to do that? I wanted her to tell me that everything was going to be alright and she couldn’t. So I made sad attempts to resolve old issues and I started to villainize my Mom to justify my anger. It felt awful and I felt ashamed. It was not getting better, I was not getting better. I stopped reaching out to her and buried myself in my own life in Maryland, which was not hard to do.
Then one snowy day this last winter I pulled out these DVDs of some old home movies. The kids and I sat down to watch but they quickly got bored of seeing their baby selves lay on a play mat for 25 minutes or play with a sweet potato in their highchair for what seemed like an eternity and they left the room. I, however, was mesmerized and I watched and watched and watched for hours. I was so grateful for those videos and the beautiful memories they held. They were from 2004-2010, prior to my Facebook addiction, and having a camera on my phone, which is hard to remember. Suddenly, I find myself watching a scene of my Mom playing with the kids. I think it was in the summer of Madison’s 3rd birthday so Liam wasn’t even a year old. She was singing and laughing and playing and engaging and they were LOVING her. THERE SHE WAS, my Mom, that was her, the Mom I forgot about that was so fun and easy and warm. I immediately began to weep and couldn’t stop crying. It hit me like ton of bricks. I had forgotten her. The Dementia had been so slow that I didn’t even realize the impact it had on her, and me, until this very moment. My Mom was right there, but at the same time it was clear, the Mom in that video was gone. It was devastating but at that moment I completely altered the way I was seeing the situation. No, my Mom would never live up to my expectations; she never could have, even without Dementia. She was different now and I could choose to see that person differently. This meant I also needed to be different; I needed to change and come to terms with this new reality. It all made sense.
So the story continues. I’m heading to Colorado this week to spend four days with my Mom. It will be just my Mom and me FOR FOUR DAYS. My Step Dad had a conference in Vegas and was concerned about leaving her for so many days alone. My Mom doesn’t need full-time care but she has a lot of anxiety and her short-term memory is almost all but gone. I’m nervous because my Mom deserves to have someone that shows compassion and support during this difficult time. She was my sun, my moon, and my stars; the least I can do is provide a safe place where she feels love. I want to be better and do better. The funny thing is that I don’t think she expects anything from me, not now.
What’s really scary is that I’m sure my children all currently have unrealistic expectations of me and I will inevitably let them down. I think this is just how it works with parents and children. We think our parents are supposed to have it all figured out, be better than the typical human. I hope that I can be vulnerable enough with my kids for them to see me as the broken imperfect person that I am. I know there’s a chance that they will hold me to great expectations, as I did with my parents, and I’m afraid they will also be greatly disappointed. All I can do is my best and maybe just maybe they’ll give me a hug one day and just let go.