I’ve gone back and forth for a while about writing this blog but after a conversation I had today I think it is worth writing. Too many people have vented to me or asked how I deal with this topic that it makes me believe there might be others out there with this struggle. I certainly don’t have all the answers (or really any answers) but maybe sharing my experiences and thoughts can be of some help to others. So, these are my thoughts about dealing people who have expectations for how you should live your life and pressure you to abandon what makes you happy to do what they wish. In my life this was my mother so it will be from that point of view but it could really be any family member, friend, or mentor. (Spoiler: Things between my mother and I are awesome right now).
Obviously I don’t know what it is like to be a parent but here is a quick run of my background so we are all on the same page. I am the oldest of six children and grew up mostly in a suburb of Portland, Oregon. I never planned on leaving Gresham until I joined the army and saw some of the world. After the military I started college in South Carolina where my ex-fiance lived. She lived within a few miles of her parents, grandparents, and all her aunts… basically generation after generation stayed in the same area. Because I started college when I was 22 I had a little bit different perspective on it. After college I moved to Washington DC where I worked in a couple non-profits for a few years and then headed out west to Los Angeles where I live now. Currently, I am living with my partner and her best friend, and the three of us are leaving in April for a 18 month bicycle ride around the continent.
So… that’s me. During my life (particularly when I was in DC and now in LA) many people have come to me expressing frustration about the way they interact with their parents. I guess they come to me because I live my life so vocally and openly, and clearly did not stay in the traditional, Christian, conservative life that I thought I was going to.
The tension between my mother and I really started when it became clear that I wasn’t going to be moving back to Oregon. My mother had a vision of all of her children growing up in the same area, getting married, and all of our kids being best friends. She had expectations, unfair ones that involved other people that were not consulted. Even if you don’t have kids it is important to realize that you do not have control over other people, only yourself. Your emotions are yours and if you base your happiness on the lifestyle of someone else (particularly someone who you haven’t discussed things with) you will end up hurt almost every time.
Tension continued to mount between my mother and I. It seemed she took every decision I made as a personal attack on her. Sex before marriage, not moving back to Oregon, not being religious, deciding not to have kids… these were taken as an assault on her motherhood. She viewed herself as a bad mother (and thought I viewed her as a bad mother) because my life choices didn’t match up to her expectations. In truth, she was a wonderful and loving mother. I cannot imagine having anyone else raise me.
Sadly, the tension, anger, and resentment led to us rarely talking and I dreaded returning back to Oregon to visit. We both felt attacked by the other, we both couldn’t find a way to resolve the differences in our life. Even the act of visiting seemed to make things worse, no matter how long I visited (2 days, 5 days, a week, etc) it was never enough, she always wanted me around more and thought my desire to leave was because I didn’t want to be around them. In truth, the real reason was much simpler. I didn’t want to be back in Oregon because I didn’t really have friends there, the only activity going on at my home was watching tv, and missing work was incredibly costly for someone just starting out.
As time progressed it got to the point where any real communication that was happening would be through my sister or one of my brothers. The conversations my mother and I had were superficial at best and rarely broached any subjects of importance. It didn’t help matters that I was openly blogging about my “sinful” life at this time. (Lesson: Parents have a right not to know things about their adult children, but they also have a duty not to look for things… so if you have a blog don’t tell your parents or if you do give them fair warning of the content and encourage them not to follow it. My mother no longer follows my Facebook or blog). Neither one of us wanted the distance between us that we had but we didn’t know how to fix it.
I don’t know exactly when but things eventually started to get better. I think part of it was I stood my ground and got to the point where I had to be very forceful, even issuing an ultimatum that basically said “this is my life, if you want to be a part of it you can’t be trying to guilt me into things or use emotional blackmail to control my actions. You have one year to be angry, upset, and to question me about why I view things the way I do but after that year is up if you can’t accept who I am then our relationship is over.” Through the year we had fights and great discussions and we came out stronger in the end. Now we both respect that the paths our lives took are very different but we are both happy and there is not just one way to happiness. Our relationship isn’t perfect but it is healthier, happier, and for the first time in a while I look forward to visiting my family in Oregon.
I’m not sure why this tension seems to exist between parents and kids. Maybe it is compounded by the changes society is going through. Our generation is very comfortable communicating primarily through email, skype, and cell phones. We have seen pictures and videos of people all over the world and we want to visit. We have had study abroad opportunities and can connect with people from around the globe with the click of a button. We also seem less interested in committing to a life time of kids in a single relationship until we have explored the world more. We see an opportunity to have it all and see no reason to settle down until our 30′s or later (or ever). Life is to be lived, and for me that means new experiences instead of the path so many have already been… and I don’t think I’m alone in that.
PS: I will probably add more to this. I had a lot more ideas running through my head when I was biking today but some seem to have slipped away.
“Your emotions are yours and if you base your happiness on the lifestyle of someone else (particularly someone who you haven’t discussed things with) you will end up hurt almost every time.”
My mother and I had/have a similar relationship to what you describe, and it’s taught me a lot about what to expect (and not to expect) from the people I care about in my life. I’m glad things are awesome between you two now – I think my mother and I are still figuring out how to balance our wants/needs to get there.