I remember the moment I made the decision. My son was at the dinner table bummed about having to finish his broccoli while my mother, visiting for the weekend, kept staring at my little boy, her eyes narrowed in judgment.
Finally she turned to me and said, "What's wrong with him?"
"Nothing is wrong with him," I responded.
"Well then why is he making a fuss?” she pressed. “I think there’s something wrong with him.”
"He’s doing it,” I said, “because he's a normal kid who doesn't like eating vegetables."
"Well you always ate your vegetables without a fuss."
"I know," I said, "because you would have punished me if I didn't."
My mother briskly pushed away from the table and announced she was going for a walk. Just like that, she disappeared—the same way she would disappear decades earlier, when I was just a kid who realized I couldn't trust her to be there for me emotionally.
There are some things about my mother, who passed four years ago, that I remember with immense fondness: she had a big, raspy laugh and made a great roast chicken. She would send me care packages when I lived out of the country and always write funny cards for my birthday. But one-on-one, or in any situation that required her to demonstrate some thoughtfulness, compassion, and equilibrium, she simply couldn’t. She yelled, judged, mocked, and spanked. And when my son was born, with huge brown eyes and the most lovable nature, she treated him with the same indifference that she had treated me as a child.
"Isn't he great?" I would say.
She never seemed to agree.
It was less shocking, than heartbreaking. The realization that my mother, in her late 70s, wasn’t going to change. How could she not fall in love with this beautiful baby, her first grandchild I kept wondering, even as she managed to pay him little attention? And even though she only lived two hours away, she also managed to avoid coming to visit more than once a year. When she did come, she would claim to be “too tired” to read him books or take him for a stroll.
I just let her walk away, deciding that I would no longer get emotionally involved in what was truly her loss, as a mother, grandmother and human being.
“What is it?” I asked her one day as she sat on the couch leafing through the newspaper, while my son played at her feet.
“What is what?” she snapped.
“Why do you come up, if you don’t want to do anything with us?”
She gave me a sneer so familiar from my own childhood that I almost couldn’t look. Finally she said, “If that’s your attitude, I’ll just leave.” And she did.
When my daughter, a blue-eyed pixie, was born two years after my son, my mother’s interest didn’t pick up. In fact, claiming a busy social schedule at the time of the birth, it took her a week to come meet her first granddaughter.
I tried to understand and be more welcoming. I tried bringing the kids to visit her regularly and prompting them to “ask Grandma to play.” I encouraged them to behave around her, to be as pleasant as possible, well-mannered, extra polite. It was exhausting and yielded no results. She still judged my parenting and complained about my perfectly delightful kids.
So I finally decided, as my son stirred his broccoli and my mother stormed away mid-meal to go take a walk, that if she couldn’t have a loving relationship with my children, then I had to let it go.
I didn't say anything. I didn't have to. I just let her walk away, deciding that I would no longer get emotionally involved in what was truly her loss, as a mother, grandmother and human being.
I'm not sure she even noticed.
I never stopped my mother from seeing my children, but I stopped promoting the relationship that she was unwilling to have with them. There came a point when we would visit my mother, and beyond the expectation that my son and daughter be polite, I didn’t care if they made any effort at all. I had already endured my own childhood of longing. I had already futilely invested too many years in hoping my mother would someday turn attentive. And I didn’t want to spend the next two decades waiting to see if she would finally grow up.