Change is difficult, for everyone–for the person changing, but also for the people around them. I am pretty attuned to the needs and desires of the people I love, and I suspect that that has contributed to my tendency to stay stuck in uncomfortable situations in deference to them. At the same time, some of my loved ones have expressed profound resistance to me changing, refusing to let me be anyone other than who I am or, in some cases, who I was years or even decades ago.
Lately, I have relished my delicious secret, that I am contemplating a whole new life for myself. Very few people know–there’s you, whomever you have told, and just a handful of others. I have not told my parents.
And then I did.
My mother is resistant to change, and she can be pretty negative when confronted with it. Here are three kind of devastating examples that will offer some context to the weary tone of my last post:
- I was in graduate school, miserable, and contemplating leaving with a terminal Master’s (it sounds like an illness, doesn’t it?) rather than push on for the PhD. I didn’t know what I would do, but I had the audacity to think that someone who had managed to get a full ride in a doctoral program might actually be employable. When I hinted at my plans, my mother’s response was to wail, loudly and earnestly, “But I don’t want you to end up a homeless person!” (No, she was not kidding.)
- I was in the fourth year of an emotionally abusive, live-in relationship. Like many people in that situation, my partner had skillfully managed to isolate me such that I had no friends of my own. I was so desperate for someone to tell me that I deserved better, to help me envision a life without daily humiliation in my own home. I told my mother how he treated me. She said, “Well, you’ll just have to try harder to make it work.”
- I had a job, a house, a lot of free time, and wanted something to love. I told my mother I was getting a dog–the same dog, mind you, that she now can’t imagine life without. She sneered, “You can’t get a dog. You don’t have time. Who’s going to walk it?”
The correct responses to these situations, btw, are:
- “You’re smart and capable and can do anything you set your mind to. It might be hard, but I want you to be happy, and I support whatever you decide.”
- “You have worth and deserve better than him. If you decide to leave, I will help you whatever way I can.”
- “Dogs are awesome!” (They are. I would share a picture of my dog here, but because she is so beautiful and spectacularly unique, it would out me. Sorry.)
With this in mind, I have been reluctant to tell my parents that I am thinking about quitting my job. I didn’t want to worry them, but also I didn’t want to hear that I would be homeless or deserve to be miserable for the rest of my life. (Mind you, it’s my mom who does this, not my dad, who tends to be cautious but supportive.) But then, I was on the phone with them, checking in after the surgery (Dad is doing well, thanks for asking!), and I had had a really bad day at work. They seemed so concerned for me, and the conversation started to turn towards what I could do to make things better. My dad offered suggestions, and all of a sudden it felt like I had parents again. So I told them I was thinking about going back to school to become something else. Much to my surprise and delight, both of them offered variations of “Wow, good for you, that would be amazing.”
I couldn’t believe it, and I am still in shock. I am sorry I underestimated them, though I also know that my mother’s response was keyed to my dad’s. It would be a neat rhetorical trick if this post now became about me letting my mom change, but that is not going to happen. She is who she is, and her illness has further limited her capacity for change. I have no doubt she will forget the conversation, and if it comes up again when my dad isn’t around to cue a compassionate response, she will default to her usual grim predictions. It doesn’t matter, though, because I will always know that there was a moment when I started to grasp for happiness and my mother helped to extend my reach. I’m sure she did so when I was little, but that was a really, really long time ago.