The dilemma I am a 50-year-old gay man. When I was young I was cast in the role of the âgoodâ child â my motherâs antidote to my rebellious siblings. I behaved well, did fine at school and sought my motherâs approval and love. As a result I hid my sexuality. I was left in no doubt from her that being gay was âdirtyâ. She frequently told me I should not go to her if I had any worries as she would not be able to cope if all her children had problems. I came out to her when I was 19 . She sought to control the narrative, requesting that I didnât tell anyone until she felt the time was right. Relieved, as she told me she still loved me, I complied.
I donât know if my motherâs love for me was conditional, because I didnât test it. I recognise that she worked extremely hard with four young children and a husband setting up a business. I am still bound up in many of the same patterns of behaviour as when I was a child. She just wants to hear I am happy, but doesnât if I am not . I smile, regardless of how I am actually feeling. So she doesnât really know me and loves a vision of me that isnât who I am. I wonder if I have the right, at this stage in our lives, to change a relationship that she appears content with?
Mariella replies Certainly you have the right. Itâs not your responsibility as an adult to be compelled to present a fictional life in order to maintain the status quo with your mum. But, although it may assuage your frustrations to have it out with her, changing the dynamic may create insurmountable problems.
You have reason to feel frustration and anger, having had to compromise your sexuality and curtail your self-expression in order to âprotectâ your mother. But the consequences of that must surely have ebbed as you grew older and embarked on a life lived on your own terms? Philip Larkin famously wrote, âThey fuck you up, your mum and dadâ but, as we grow older, we can also choose how much we allow their influence to prevail.
The complicated relationship you describe sounds like itâs remained in stasis throughout your life.
Itâs worth pondering why it continues to be a preoccupation for you that she confront the ârealâ you. Could it be that we overload the parental bond with heightened emotional expectations when parents are simply human like the rest of us? Love is a remarkable force, capable of inspiring extraordinary self-sacrifice and delivering untold pain but, for most of us, our lives play out on a more micro-scale than the epic tragedy.
My mother is so far into the grip of debilitating dementia that Iâm sadly at liberty to share indiscretions. All my life Iâve waited for just a nod that she noticed my uphill trek as I dragged myself from ignorance to autodidact, from poverty to self-sufficiency, from the smallest life to a sometimes uncomfortably public one. Now itâs too late and sheâs barely able to follow her own thoughts let alone look beyond them. So when my brother revealed recently that she has a secret trunk of my press clippings, I was floored. My mother has never mentioned a single article Iâve written, anthology Iâve compiled, programme Iâve madeâ¦ and yet sheâs hoarded my entire careerâs worth. I offer you that to highlight how common it is for us to not get everything we want from our parents â and sometimes not to get anything at all.
Your mother has developed a way of coping familiar to many, turning away from emotional challenge rather than exploring her prejudices and feelings. Of course you have the right to drag her from her cosy fictional corner and present the reality of your life and the price youâve paid for keeping it palatable to her. But to what purpose? I imagine all she wants is to know that you love her and she doesnât have to worry about you. Her failings are her failings and sheâs probably just as aware of them as you are. What youâll achieve by such confrontation is unlikely to be the denouement you imagine â where she admits that whatâs sheâs given you has been too little and what sheâs expected of you has been too much.
Most animals are happy to raise their young only as long as they are entirely dependent â after which the cut-off is complete. Anyone whoâs seen a dog with puppies will have witnessed the brutality of the moment the mother loses interest. We, on the other hand, have evolved into the most demanding species on the planet. We want lifestyle luxuries, emotional understanding, complicated interaction and that most unfulfillable of goals, closure. The most rewarding investment for your energies has to be in your own emotional life right here and now, ensuring that the bad habits youâve been forced into adopting are not recurring themes in your relationships. Your mother has loved you as best as she is capable of and you are in the majority in finding fault with what you had. But to paraphrase LP Hartley, the past is a foreign country where they did things differently. For most of us the change we can make is in our future.
If you have a dilemma, send a brief email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @mariellaf1