When you begin to feel sympathy for Norman Bates, you know it’s time to rethink your relationship with your mother.
My mother, older sister to two male siblings, was a born caretaker. She married my father at nineteen and proceeded to have four children with him. I was the youngest. I almost wasn’t the youngest, as she wanted at least one more child. But my dad got testicular cancer after I was born, and that was the end of the baby-making. My father was an alcoholic. A binge drinker. Along with the bingeing, came raging and violence. He never hit my mother, that I recall. But he was physically abusive with my brothers. And later, when I was the only one left at home, he beat me on occasion. My mother used her children as a buffer.
Both my brothers would grow up to be severely alcoholic. My oldest brother died from cirrhosis in 2012. He was 56. My other brother, the second youngest child, died from AML (a type of leukemia) in 2013. He was 52. To my thinking, his death too was the result of alcoholism: the alcoholism caused mouth cancer and the chemo for the mouth cancer caused the AML. My father died in October 2012 at 83, six months after my oldest brother and five months before my younger brother. In the last years of his life, my father was in the later stages of dementia and needed constant supervision and assistance with the tasks of daily living. My mother took care of him, like she took care of my brothers after their wives divorced them. To say she relished the dependency of my father and brothers brought on by alcoholism and illness is not an overstatement.
I did my best to escape the dysfunction. I refused to work at the family business and instead went to law school. In 2000, I moved to a city 165 miles away. My mother didn’t bother with me much during those years. She got her fix from my father and brothers. And now they’re dead.
These days, instead of being the caretaker, my mother has flipped to being the dependent. She frankly admits she’s made this decision and she believes, at 78, it is her due.
“I don’t want to take care of myself. I don’t want to deal with anything. I want you to do it. I took care of everyone else for years. Now you need to take care of me.”
After a stint in the hospital and inpatient physical rehabilitation to recover from a blood clot in her leg (DVT), my sister and I moved my mother into assisted living last July. Now, she’s doing well and is ambulatory with a walker, just as she was before the DVT. Until a month ago, in addition to the AL staff, my mother had a caregiver. Because my mom is physically capable of doing most things for herself, essentially she was using her dwindling savings to pay someone to keep her company and do the things she believes she is entitled to have done for her. But the caregiver got fed up with my mother’s demands and quit. My sister and I thought this was good news as it would force my mom to be more independent. Instead, she’s now attempting to substitute me for her caregiver.
Her latest demand came on Friday when, between the hours of 2:00 and 3:00 p.m., my mother called me sixteen times. She alternated between my cell phone and my office phone, leaving nearly a dozen messages, never once telling me why she was calling. She merely stated, in an increasingly pitiful voice, that she needed to talk to me and demanded that I call her back immediately. In an attempt to enforce a boundary (no unnecessary phone calls during the work day), I did not call her back. But when her calls and messages did not stop, I ultimately relented. After all, what if something really was wrong? (In retrospect, I know this was stupid. If something was really wrong, the AL staff would have been calling me.)
What do you need, mom?
I’ve been trying to reach you all afternoon and you didn’t call me back.
Mom, I’m at work. I’m working. You cannot call me over and over during the work day. What do you need?
There’s something wrong with the cat. He’s sleeping all day.
Mom, he’s a cat. That’s what they do during the day. They sleep.
He’s licking himself a lot. And he’s shedding.
Mom, he’s a cat. He’s grooming himself. He’s shedding because it’s summer and it’s 80 degrees in your apartment. Brush him.
I have brushed him. There’s something wrong with him. He’s shedding more than normal. His hair is breaking off. You need to come down here and take him to the vet.
Mom, I am not driving six hours round trip to take the cat to the vet.
You can come tomorrow. Tomorrow is Saturday.
Mom, I am not driving to Houston to take your cat to the vet. I have to come next weekend for the engagement party. I’m not coming this weekend. I have things to do. Jenny (who works for my father’s business) might be willing to take him next week during working hours. Check with her.
She doesn’t know anything about cats. You need to do it. I can’t believe you won’t come down here for the cat. There’s something wrong with him.
And so it went, round and round. I hung up with my mother and called Jenny. Jenny had been to see my mother earlier in the day to get her to sign some tax documents. My mother never mentioned any issues with the cat to her, and Jenny said when she gave him some pets, he seemed fine. Jenny and I came up with a plan that we would call my mother’s bluff: Jenny would tell her she’d take the cat to the vet on Saturday if she thought it was a dire emergency, and if not, she would take the cat during the work week. Surely my mother would not impose upon Jenny on a Saturday. On me, yes. But not on Jenny.
So much for calling her bluff, Jenny said. I’m taking him to the vet tomorrow at 11:00. The vet didn’t have an opening, but your mom convinced them to fit him in.
The cat, of course, turned out to be fine. They updated his shots and cleaned some tartar from his teeth. They thought he might have a skin allergy, so they gave him an injection and medication to put in his food. As for the shedding, it’s summer in Texas.
And here I am, incredibly pissed off at my mother. I’m fed up with her incessant and repeated phone calls. The woman calls over and over and over, demanding in her voice mails that I immediately call her back. And when I do call her back, it often goes like this:
I’m lonely. I need you to talk to me.
Get our of your room. Visit with your friends.
No one’s around. They’re all with family. I’m the only one who doesn’t have family who visits.
Mom, there has to be someone else who, like you, would love some company.
I have diarrhea and can’t leave my room. Tell me you love me.
I love you, mom.
Will you call me again later? Just call and talk to me for five minutes.
Mom, I have things to do. And I need some down time.
You can spare five minutes. Call me back later.
I know. I know. I’ll miss her when she’s gone. I should be happy she’s still with me. I should take care of her and be grateful to have this time with her. But the honest truth is, I don’t want to deal with her emotional dependency issues. I don’t want to deal with her manipulations. She played the Cat Card, for fuck’s sake. The Cat Card! She’s sneaky and conniving and demanding. And this is not an old-person thing. This is a co-dependent-mother thing. The old-person thing gives her more ammunition to get what she wants. What she firmly believes she is entitled to. What she has always believed she is entitled to from her children: unquestioned acquiescence to her demands. My brothers did as she demanded. Always. After all, not only was she their mother, she was their employer. But she is not my employer, and I am not willing to do the co-dependent dance with her.
The trouble is, with an elderly parent, where do you draw the line? How do you know when there truly is a problem you, as the adult child, need to help out with, and when it’s okay to say no? How do you know when you really do need to call her back, and when she’s simply demanding to speak with you because she’s bored?
How do you know when the cat’s life is at stake, and when your mother is merely playing the Cat Card?