Thursday, April 19, 2012

Being a Good Daughter

This post is going to be extremely painful to write.  It's also not about my Catholicism, my homeschooling, or anything else I've written about here previously.  It's about the most difficult relationship I have in my life: my relationship with my mother.

My sister called me this afternoon, and since the kids were at Tae Kwan Do I had a few uninterrupted minutes to chat with her.  She told me something we'd been expecting for nearly a year had finally happened.  My stepfather has left my mother.

My mother and father were married for forty-four years, until he died from a heart attack in 2003.  (He passed away five weeks after my wedding, but that's a story for another day.)  I never thought my mother would remarry - I wasn't opposed to it, as I knew she was lonely, but I just didn't think she'd find someone who'd adore her the way she always wanted.  As the youngest of four children, and the only one at home after age eight, I had a significant amount of insight into my parents' marriage and knew it wasn't particularly happy.  I loved both of my parents and was glad they never divorced, but it wasn't easy growing up in a home that was too often full of conflict.

Anyhow, four and a half years ago my mother mentioned that her old boyfriend from high school and the early years of college had called her out of the blue.  It seems he'd carried a torch for her all those years (fifty, I think), and when he heard my dad had passed away he jumped at the chance to court her again.  Either they didn't remember why they broke up in the first place, or they didn't want to talk about it, because neither of them gave us a straight answer when we (my siblings and I) asked about it. 

So we took it on face value - a fairy tale, a once in a lifetime love story, two lovers reunited after five decades of separation.  I hoped against hope for a happy ending; above all, I wanted my mother to be happy.

They got engaged in the spring of 2008, and immediately I began seeing things in my mother that I didn't quite now how to handle.  My father was a government employee, and due to her age we learned that she would not lose his pension even if she remarried; added to her own Social Security income, and her income from her full-time job as a university professor, she may not have been wealthy but she certainly didn't have anything to worry about financially.  However, she harped on how much money she thought her future husband had; she insisted on a two-carat engagement ring and a monthly clothing allowance that nearly exceeded what I spend on clothing in a year.  I tried to shrug off my doubts, thinking my future stepfather had plenty of money and didn't seem to mind spending it on her, so who was I to get involved?

Their wedding in the summer of 2008 was beautiful, and they seemed truly happy that fall.  However, in January my mother called with some startling news: my stepfather had not been completely honest with her regarding his income, and had in fact taken out a very large mortgage on his house to buy her the engagement ring and keep up with the extravagant allowance she demanded.  I was taken aback by this dishonesty, but knowing my mother's fundamentalist Christian values, I assumed she would put her material desires aside, find a way to forgive him, and work on their marriage.  Either that, or she would send him packing.

She did neither.  Instead she kept him around for three full years, and never let him forget for a day that he lied to her and she was now the one with all the income in the relationship.  She harped on him to get a job (the man is 78), and complained about every single penny she spent on him - from buying him a plane ticket so he could go with her to a conference where she was speaking to picking up the bill if they went out to dinner.  It was almost physically painful for me at times, because it was reminiscent of the kind of arguments she'd had with my father, but while I knew my dad loved her and would never leave I wasn't so sure about my stepfather.  By last summer I had watched him go from a happy-go-lucky, carefree guy who liked to fish and enjoyed spending time with my family to a harried, stressed old man who seemed on the verge of snapping.  When she complained bitterly about the cost of buying him a plane ticket to go see his dying brother in another state, he responded by getting in his car and driving almost twenty-four hours to go by himself.  He stayed for nearly two weeks, and I was afraid he wasn't going to come back.

But he did, to my surprise, and I thought things might get better - but she complained more bitterly that he'd gone without her, and now truly nothing he did could make her happy.  On her 75th birthday, he bought her a lovely pair of diamond earrings, and she sneered at them in front of all the friends and family he'd gathered for her surprise party because she'd wanted something else.  I tried to talk to her about it, approaching it as delicately as I could and saying that perhaps they should go speak to a pastor at their church if they weren't happy (which everyone could see they weren't), but she refused.  I wonder if it's because she didn't want to hear that her behavior was partly (if not mostly) to blame for the situation?  I don't know, and now I think it's too late.

My sister lives very near my mother (they're about a day's drive from me), and my stepfather volunteered at the school where my sister teaches a few times a week.  She said he told her on Wednesday that he'd started shipping things to his daughter's house in another state and was packing the rest of it in the car; he'd tried to talk to my mom about how they could better the relationship after a particularly poignant sermon at their church on marriage, and she'd said she was too busy and couldn't be bothered.  When he asked if there was anything he could do to improve things, she just harped on the finances once again.  It's like she refuses to admit that anything else could be wrong in their relationship - she blames it all on him, and won't admit any other possibility.

My sister drove by their house today and saw that his car was gone; she doesn't know for sure that he's left, but judging by the last conversation that they had, she thinks it's the likely possibility.  Our mother is oddly private about some things, and her relationship with my sister is even more challenging than her relationship with me, so it's unlikely she'd talk to her about it first.  I'm going to call her tonight and see if she mentions anything to me. 

The problem is going to be giving her a proper amount of sympathy.  I know this will be a shock to her; she probably believed he would never leave her unless she asked him to move out, which I honestly doubt she ever would have done.  She's a bit of a manipulator, and one of those people who isn't really happy unless they have something to be unhappy about, if you know what I mean?  My father could never do enough to make her happy (she still says she wanted twelve children but he would only let her have four, among other things), and in retrospect I should have known it would be the same with anyone else. 

But I truly see my stepfather's side of this story; it's not like he ever confided in me, we were not especially close though he was always quite nice. I just saw the way she treated him and the way it changed him, and I can understand why he wouldn't want to continue living like that.

But I need to be a good daughter.  I need to listen to my mother and give her a shoulder to cry on, if she wants one.  I need to bite my tongue and accept that it is not now, and it may never be, the time to tell her this is probably mostly her fault - that if she had lived out the Biblical principles of marriage that she gives lip service to in church, she would have sought to give him love and not just take things from him. 

I need not to judge.  I know this, but it is hard for me.  Though I wasn't especially close to my stepfather, in some ways this feels like losing my father again, maybe because I'm going to have to put aside my own feelings for a time to help her deal with the loss.  I also get to explain to my kids that their beloved Papa, the only grandfather they've known on my side of the family, won't be there anymore when we go to visit Grandma. 

Pray for me.


  1. Oh, I am SO so so sorry. Death is never easy, but sometimes it is so complicated. And, when kids are involved, it is that much harder.

    You can do this for your mom, and you ARE a good daughter. Even that you are thinking (and writing!) about this shows how much she means to you.

    Hang in there!

  2. My relationship with my mom was extremely complicated. I can sympathize with your situation. You are handling this way better than I would. Im so sorry that this has happened. Will keep all in my prayers.