I’ve given more thought to the reconciliation of my stepmother. I think there is more to the story then I originally thought. I think I may have laid the groundwork that made the moment possible — without realizing it.
Background: I wrote this post about my stepmother’s reconciliation with me. That one stemmed from an earlier post, which is my, er, treatise on the expression “they did the best they could,” and that one’s here.
Why right here right now?
What moved her to reconcile at long last? We were at a taqueria in the Mission. I had a gift for her; we were celebrating her birthday. We ate and talked, and then I told her I was sorry for an insensitive comment I had made the previous weekend.
The previous weekend we’d been on the beach of a lake, with a small group of extended family. A few people had started discussing the child custody issues of the couple we were with, and how the girl’s mother should be helping out more financially since she’s not raising her child most of the time (the mom and daughter weren’t there but the dad and girlfriend who take care of the girl were). The conversation became a monologue, a “people like that” kind of conversation once my stepmother began talking. The thing was, my stepmother had been in a very similar situation. She, in fact, was people like that. Each of us sitting there, to some degree, were people like that.
I’d been just listening, but suddenly turned and said, “Don’t forget, you made sure that not only would my mother never see me, but had no legal claim to me either.” It was like a slap. And it wasn’t what I had meant to say.
So at our lunch I said, “I’m sorry for that comment. It came out like an attack. I’m sorry about that.” I could see she got it, appreciated it, and her response was simple, “Apology accepted.” And then she said, “There’s something I want to say to you.”
That’s when she said, “I did the best I could, but it wasn’t good enough.” But just before she said it, she had said, softly, “My therapist told me to say this to you.” The ‘my therapist told me’ didn’t come off like “so this is just a script,” but rather, “I had some help with this.” It was like she was thinking out loud. I took it as, “I’ve been working on stuff about you and I in therapy.”
When my own therapist asked me if I felt that my stepmother had understood what she was saying, I told him that I think she wants to reconcile. I think she wants to address the conflict that’s been between us for 36 years. I think she wants that stuff to be water under the bridge. I think she wants to say the right thing. I don’t think she fully owned or embodied the words, no. I don’t think she completely gets what I experienced as a child or gets the wrongs done to me. (It wasn’t a long or detailed reconciliation.) I do think that she is using the full extent of her emotional abilities towards a reconciliation, and her limitations are her limitations. That is to say that it wasn’t perfect but it was absolutely heartfelt to the extent that she’s capable of. And that’s why I took it at face value. It’s why I felt the power of the healing and lift of the apology, the reconciliation.
I don’t remember it like that
The reason I’d made the comment at the lake was on account of an agreement I’d made with myself a couple years ago. It’s one thing to have lived through a childhood with alcoholic and co-dependent parents. It’s another to stand by while they recount what went on in a way that denies or makes light of what went down. When I hear, yet again, a story from my childhood, I now speak up. I now say, “Actually, the way I remember it, I longed for my mother and wanted to live with her, but was told she was ‘crazy’–and I was told so by you.” (I-statements, you betcha.) So, while I didn’t get it quite right at the lake (i.e., I totally missed the I-statement), I did speak my mind. I refused to collaborate in the continued fictionalization of my childhood.
So, there’s that. And that’s important because the question is, would my stepmother have discussed our relationship with her therapist if I hadn’t spoken up at the lake? If I’d said nothing (as was the case in the past), would there be anything to discuss?
Boundaries in play
The other thing is that two years ago I began a new Mother’s Day tradition with my stepmother, which is to go to a nice lunch together the Friday before Mother’s Day. (Longer story; this is a short version: we’d gotten into a conflict about her feeling neglected on Mother’s Day, and the solution has been to celebrate it but not on the day itself when I want to be with my son and, also, “be” with my feelings of missing my mother on that day. Again – longer story.) The point being, given that we celebrate Mother’s Day in a way that honors her but also respects my boundaries, is it possible that the tradition of that and what’s behind it laid some groundwork for reconciliation? Would reconciliation be necessary if I hadn’t started a new tradition? If things stay the same, why reconcile?
I’d like to think that if we can honor our needs and establish the necessary, safe boundaries with our families of origin that there’s a ripple effect — that if we say, “No, this will not do,” that the person on the other side of the old dynamic will, eventually, be forced to consider the past.