Mom, Mom, Mom #14

This one is scheduled to run in the March 22 issue of the Alameda Sun:

Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood

A visiting priest recently announced that the most common complaint he hears from family members in his flock when they come to talk to him is that no one understands them. “My children don’t understand me,” say the parents. “My parents don’t understand me,” say the kids. I bet the grandparents and the aunts and uncles and cousins have a say in all of this, too.

The priest’s comments touched a nerve in me. Just that day, when I told my kids how I was feeling about something as we were driving all over town for various activities, my oldest laughed and said she knew better. “You are my mother and I know you so well and I know that’s not true,” she said. “Who knows you better than your oldest daughter?”

After discounting the fact that she is my oldest daughter by only 45 seconds (a twin Cesarean section birth), I had to stop and think: Does she know me that well? She has only known me for 12 years. She missed out on all of my childhood and, frankly, most of my adulthood, too. Certainly, the lifeline that we have together creates a special bond—but does that include a thread of inherent understanding? She seems to think so.

On the flip side, sometimes I feel that I know my kids better than they do themselves. I have that omniscient author mentality, which is, basically, I created them, I know their back story, their ancestors and their DNA. I have known them since those first sonogram pictures and felt their kicks and hiccups in my belly. I can sometimes explain character traits that they didn’t know existed—“your grandmother use to do exactly the same thing!” or “that’s the same face my sister always made!” I already lived through being a kid and can relate to some of the things they feel and do. Lately, they have been sharing new insights that surprise and concern me at first, but I calm myself down when I really think it through. “Of course, that makes sense based on who they really are,” I console myself, relieved that I am still in charge, still the Mother.

Sometimes, though, you learn new things about your closest family members that calls into question this innate tendency to understand more than we consciously acknowledge.

When I was a kid, I never heard my parents say, “I love you.” I always attributed this lack of verbal admittance of feelings to the excuse that they were from a generation that did not learn how to express themselves. We knew these things—our love for each other, our understanding of each other—without having to talk about it. I accepted this as a fact of life. Well, until my own kids came along.

I started putting my girls on the phone with my Dad back in New Jersey as soon as they could talk and understand just who was on the other end of the line. He couldn’t hear most of what they said until the end when they chirped “I love you” into the phone before handing it back to me, standing there waiting. How sweet! I thought each time, a little concerned about how my father, the man who didn’t express his feelings verbally, handled this. I have always told my girls that I love them and they say it back to me and to the other important family members and people in their lives. It was natural for them to say it to their grandfather. I hoped he understood that and could accept it without feeling uncomfortable.

One day, when one of my little ones passed the phone back to me without the traditional love sign-off, I got the receiver to my ear and heard my father saying, “I love you.” He clearly did not intend this for me, but for his granddaughter. I was taken by surprise, and didn’t know how to respond, so I ignored it, of course, and just continued the conversation. I was struck with how natural it sounded. He was not uncomfortable saying it at all.

What threw me more than hearing him tell my daughter that he loves her was that maybe I didn’t know my father as well as I thought I did. That inherent understanding—that innate connection—had somehow lapsed. Did he have some sort of epiphany about verbally expressing his love for his distant granddaughters? And, if he did, why didn’t he tell me? Or, maybe it was just the fact that someone consistently telling him “I love you” made him feel good and he began to reply in kind, without really thinking it through at all.

In the end, I had to smile at the priest’s comments. There certainly will be a time when my girls and I don’t understand each other (their teenage years are approaching quickly) and we will have to work through it. But, with any luck, it will be the “I love you’s” that will help us reconnect naturally.

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