DEAR CAROLYN: I lost my dad in 2011, and my mom last month, after looking after her during a yearlong struggle with ALS. She lived near us for the last two years of her life because I thought it was important that my daughters (8-year-old twins) knew their grandma.
The strange thing is – I didn’t grieve for either of my parents. They died, and I felt nothing, except maybe relief that it was over. I could find reasons for that with my dad – he was a mostly absent, postwar father who never made time for me. But with my mom? She raised me as a homemaker and wasn’t a bad mother – she sat by my bed when I was sick as a kid (and I was sick a lot), she cooked my meals, washed my clothes and praised my school achievements. She also kicked me out at 18 when I burned a cigarette hole in the rug of my room ... and I never moved back.
But still, no abuse, no meanness. Why do I know in the bottom of my heart that I moved my mom to our town only out of a sense of duty – without having a need to spend time with her, talk to her, share what was important to me?
I feel monstrous.
DEAR RELIEVED: Why is it “monstrous” of you to have cared for your mom exactly as she cared for you?
Health tended, food provided, clothes washed, achievement praised. Dutiful. That was your childhood. If you were nurtured emotionally as well, then you make no mention of it. Were you?
The absence of neglect – or of abuse or of meanness – does not take you by process of elimination to love. With the possible exception of the sickbed vigils, your description of your childhood is a loveless one. Achingly so. And even the vigils themselves could have been dutiful for a mid-century American stay-at-home mom.
If this is accurate, and if you have not yet made peace with the legacy of such emotionally distant parents, then please make sure the first thing you do is recognize their failure to bond with you was within them, not you.
Then connect these two dots: You gave to them, no doubt unwittingly, as you received from them.
Then end this cold legacy in one stroke through your girls: Love them, and say it, and show it.
DEAR CAROLYN: My sister-in-law constantly criticizes my nieces, nephews, cousins and my children. She uses their faults to say, “That is why I never had children.” My brother sometimes agrees with her and has defended her viewpoints even when they are mean-spirited. When I remove myself from her presence, he tells me I have anger issues.
I would rather not be around her. How do I explain this to the rest of my family? –D. DEAR D.: “I find [sisterin-law] unbearable.” She – “Sally” – puts her ample charms on display for all to see, so you needn’t worry whether people will understand, and it’s your life, so they don’t have to like it.
There is another way to deal with Sallies, though: Be grateful they’re out in the open. Anytime someone is as overtly wretched, you can respond overtly, too, more easily than to people who are more stealth.
When she’s nasty to kids in your presence: “Oh it’s just Aunt Sally,” you say to the kids. “Carry on.” Think cool breeze, not anger. Repeat as needed.
When she says, “That is why I never had children,” she’s teeing this up for you: “And all your non-children say thanks.” Repeat as needed.
Again – breezy, not angry. Why? First, it’s her raw anger that offends you. Don’t stoop to her level.
Second, anger validates and escalates anger. To turn down the heat, there’s no better option than to brush her lightly away.
Third, kids will be hurt less by a kooky aunt than a hateful one, and how their parents respond to Sally will show them through which lens to view her.
Fourth, this leaves room for compassion. Maybe Sally didn’t actually choose to be child-free? Might explain your brother’s actions.