NPR logo A Mother's Love Sometimes A Bit Much

Opinion

A Mother's Love Sometimes A Bit Much

An orange telephone receiver dangles from a black cord
iStockphoto.com

Elizabeth Tannen wants her mother to know that she is very grateful to have such an excellent mom, even though it's hard for her to behave accordingly. Courtesy of Elizabeth Tannen hide caption

toggle caption
Courtesy of Elizabeth Tannen

A few days ago, my mother called me while I was in the middle of something. I shouldn't have answered, but I did. Predictably, it wasn't a good conversation.

When it comes to my mother, things always go better when they're on my terms. When I called her back the following day and enjoyed a perfectly pleasant, even langorous chat, I couldn't help thinking that the way my mother has to deal with me is not unlike the way one puts up with someone who is terribly moody. Which, I thought, is ironic because — with people other than my mother — my temperament is remarkably even.

In fact, my interaction with most people is governed by an overpowering desire to be liked. Whether its cooking for good friends in hopes that they'll love me just a bit more because my roasted lamb is so fork-tender, or agreeing to cover a shift for a colleague when more work sounds an awful lot like death because I want them to think I'm a team player, I basically embody the failure of feminism: I might explore avenues outside the purely domestic, but in most cases its someone else's approval that I seek.

Article continues after sponsorship

The exception to this rule is my mother. The problem is that I know my mother already likes me. More than that, I know she loves me with the singular, distinct devotion of a mother for her only daughter — the only child to whom she has given birth. It turns out that my response to this extreme brand of love — this powerful, unconditional adoration — is to treat her miserably.

With the rest of the world — those people who did not have to undergo an epidural because I was awkwardly posed in breech formation inside their bellies — I am pleasant: amateurishly witty, sometimes charming, in most cases quite accommodating. With my mother, on the other hand, I am difficult: moody, abrasive, easily and irrationally annoyed.

Sadly, I don't seem to be the only one who suffers this split personality: I've seen many an otherwise easygoing, kind-spirited female turn unattractively nasty the moment her mother displays what she deems an inappropriate glance, or poorly timed and constructively intended remark. It's as though we women — fully grown, mature and poised through the bulk of our daily existence — instantly regress to the behavior of petulant toddlers in our mothers' presence, just because we can.

And that's just it: The rest of the world, we presume, will not tolerate such childish behavior. Our mothers, well, they don't have a choice.

But of course, they do have a choice. They, too, could choose to be difficult, neglectful, irrational, psychotic even, if they like. I'm well aware that not a few mothers have embraced such a course. I am fortunate that my mother, despite no small temptation from me, has not.

And for this, I punish her by being impossible.

Sometimes I wonder whether, when I have children of my own, I'll posses the same tolerance for their turbulent behavior as my mother displays for mine. And then it occurs to me, in these moments, that — among the other fantasies I indulge about my future children — I do harbor a distinct hope that they will, in fact, like me. In which case, I probably will put up with no small amount of mistreatment. Which is a good thing, because — certainly by then — I will deserve every bit of it.

Related NPR Stories