I broke the stand-off with father and stepmother. I’m not sure if it was a good decision or not. On the one hand, I learned some stuff that is relevant, including some health history and more about how they want to interact with me. On the other hand, I’m not sure I can handle the latter.
It has to be clarified that father and stepmother are a unit and they are rarely if ever interacting separately with me or my sister. It became apparent shortly after they connected over 20 years ago that this was their preference — that every phone call and every visit took place with BOTH of them, and never with father only — and this position has been vehemently guarded ever since. There was even a reality TV-worthy altercation at the funeral of my paternal grandmother because the cousins wanted to place a small photo album in the casket and said album did not contain a photo of stepmother, yet did contain a photo of my real mother. The bickering at the wake and funeral, and the physical wrestling over this little album was intense. (Sister and I weren’t involved in these altercations at all; when asked by a cousin what I thought of the situation I mildly said I didn’t think it was worth fighting over and to leave the album out. I can’t recall what happened to it.) Both sister and I think my stepmother has a lot to do with my painful experiences over the past two months.
Over Labor Day weekend I felt like I was ready to deal with father and stepmother again. I finally got through to them on that Sunday while I was out walking the dog. There was a long conversation because they were imparting some family medical history they thought I should know, and there were several minutes where I did get a bit worked up because I was being questioned about the validity of information I was sharing. Stepmother was telling me I was wrong about what I knew about my maternal grandmother’s death, and I was insisting that wasn’t the case because I was there at the hospital and I talked to the doctors myself. When I realized I was getting argumentative I apologized and softened my tone. (But I wasn’t going to back down on the facts. I was in my 20s when my maternal grandmother died. I was very familiar with the health problems she had because I’d lived with her for several months after graduating undergrad. I wasn’t a child who was getting my information second-hand, which stepmother apparently thought was the case because she kept saying “Who told you that? Where did you get that information?” Ugh! I WAS THERE! I had to repeat that exact phrase about 10 times!!)
There were a few times during this conversation where father commented that they had been wanting to tell me this information, but that they were waiting for me to call them. So the last time this came up I acknowledged my lack of calling by saying that I had to take a break for a while.
The next day, I received an email from my dad. There was more documentation about the medical history, and also some other commentary that I’ve excerpted below.
Now on to another concern of mine: My feelings don’t seem to count or at least that was the way I felt when you said yesterday, “I needed to take a break from you.” About a year and a half ago, since you are one of seven children involved with my life, [stepmother] and I asked you to take one of the seven days of the week to simply make a very brief call early in the day to check that all is well here. Your response to me at that time was, “Well it goes both ways. You know my phone number, you can call me.” And when you were still in Chicago, I never heard from you on ‘your day.’ I only heard from you when you were upset with something. You do not have to do the brief weekly phone call. It is your choice to refuse. When a child becomes an adult, roles change. Older parents cannot continue to solve the problems their adult children experience. There are not enough hours in the day! I try as an older parent to not burden you with my minor day-to-day problems.
I thought this was worth responding to in a thoughtful and honest way, so I took my time to think about what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it. Then I sent an email response about a week later. I’ve edited out some of the message because it’s not relevant.
I really appreciate the thoughtful email. Very often I find it easier to communicate in writing and prefer this form of dialog because it allows me to reflect before I react. Conversations aren’t as easy for me; I find my immediate emotions to what is being discussed sometimes get in the way.
There is a lot here to reflect back on.
[edited out…] as to my not adhering to a schedule to call you, all I can say is: it’s complicated. It sounds like you think of these weekly phone calls as a short check in, while I think of them as opportunities to talk and share updates. I wasn’t feeling that you were interested in sharing anything about yourself (your health or whatever was going on) with me for a short while there and I found it distressing. I am trying very hard to change parts of myself and to let go of negative feelings like anger, sadness, etc. It’s not an easy process for me. Sometimes I need to just turn inward to attend to it. That’s what I meant by taking a break. Then when I feel strong again, I can pick life back up and move forward.
The crux of the issue really is that I’ve felt for many, many, many years that I’m only acceptable and loved if I’m doing exactly what you tell me to do. That if I do something outside of what you find acceptable behavior, I’m bad and not worthy of your love and attention. Maybe that is not what you intend at all, just as I don’t intend my withdrawal periods to be slights on your feelings. I guess this is a pattern that is going to be a very stubborn one to break. I’m trying, though. I’m really, really trying.
I thought that my efforts to really open up here could be a step in the right direction. I thought that expressing my feelings would be appreciated. And I also thought I wrote in pretty clear English that didn’t require any subtle interpretations. Apparently, I was wrong.
The response to this message came into my email box Friday afternoon, but I chose not to read it right away. I thought I was ready to read it yesterday morning, but I’m sure not sure I can even think of a time when I would be ready to read this response. (Again, I edited out some details that were irrelevant.)
I was glad to get your response. Sorry I didn’t get back sooner, but we had dentist appointment [sic] on several days and lots of Church meetings…etc., all out of town.
As to asking you to make a very brief call early in the day once a week to check that all is well here I did because you are my daughter and I thought that was not any kinda stressor [sic]. As I said in that email, you do not have to do the brief weekly phone call. It is your choice to refuse. But, still I don’t feel that expecting me to listen to all your ‘problems’ while you are walking the dog, is my responsibility either. Experiencing problems and solving them yourself is part and parcel of life. As I said in that email, I try as an older parent to not burden you with my minor day-to-day problems.
You also said, “I wasn’t feeling that you were interested in sharing anything about yourself (your health or whatever was going on) with me for a short while there”, yet you totally cut me off when I tried to tell you of some of my experiences in the Redwoods in California. We have been in California and up and down the West Coast quite a few times. We have had family living in California since 1988 and for ten years had a niece and her family in Napa. [I have no idea what any of this means as I have no recollection of a conversation where I was cutting off anything being discussed. This is all news to me.]
As far as health goes, I am able to make up my mind about what I want to do with my health concerns. Just because you were there when a doctor came in does not mean that you are making or have a say in my decision. I have a Health Care Power of Attorney (HCPA) to take care of that if I get incapacitated. And, several of those doctors are far from being competent about what I need in medical care. My Primary Physician disagreed with what you heard said while you were in the room. [This is a reference to my visit to him in the hospital back in late June. There were some doctors and specialists that came in while I was present so I couldn’t help hearing what they were saying. Again, it seems that by expressing any interest at all in his health I am making some sort of medical recommendation to him?]
I’m sorry you feel that I tell you what to do and that you question whether you are loved when I make a suggestion. Parents do things like that because they love their child and don’t want the child to experience some of the hurts and tribulations. At this point in my life, I must tend to my own problems! We all have to grow up and be responsible for our choices and actions. I certainly can’t spend my older adult years settling anybody else’s problems. I need to focus on my aging process and looking after myself. I love you and I always will!
I was devastated by this email. I couldn’t believe the huge gap that existed in what I had thought I was clearly communicating and his (their?) interpretation of it. It hurt to read that my attempts at conversation were seen as burdensome sharing of my “problems.” (That really floors me because I think I’ve talked mainly about how happy I am here and how well I’ve been doing with making friends. I guess talking about the health issues I was experiencing earlier this year were the burdensome part?)
My scary (to me) admission that I felt I was only loved by doing exactly what I am told to do was interpreted as “you question whether you are loved when I make a suggestion.” The difference may be a bit subtle, but it is there. No, I don’t mind suggestions at all. What does make me feel unloved and uncomfortable is inflexible insistence that I must be the one to make regular contact. Plus I’ve had conflicts when I was younger (pre-stepmother) where I received rigid instructions and was punished and denigrated for not following them. (Like the time I called to ask for a few more minutes on my curfew since I was running late and was told that if I was late I was grounded, no matter what. So I stayed out until 3 AM. Father yelled at me in the morning, pounded on the table, and called me a slut.) That’s what I meant when I said this had been going on for many, many, many years. I thought that by opening up in that way I’d hear a “water under the bridge” type response and assurance that wasn’t the case at all.
I cried so hard reading that email that Hannah dog moved into her “comfort dog” position right next to me. I called my sister and I read her the messages.
Sister and I both have opinions on what is going on here. We suspect that much of what is written was edited or dictated by stepmother. We know that she is a controlling person and her identity as a highly intelligent, highly informed person is very important to her. She is intelligent, but she seems to feel threatened by other people’s intelligence, too. I suspect that she is still angry and threatened by the fact that I was not only present during the doctor/specialist visits during father’s recent hospitalization, but that I actually asked a follow-up question or two of her and in subsequent conversations with father where she wasn’t present. And the recent conversation we had where I was correcting her information about my maternal grandmother’s death probably irritates her, too.
While sister has suggested that I try to call and ask for a private conversation with father, I’m not ready to do that. For now I’ve decided that I have to go back to a father and stepmother hiatus again.