I Didn’t Speak to My Mom for 18 Years
What happens when you don’t manage resentment? It manages you
In 1997 my mom and I had an argument, and we didn’t speak to one another for nearly 18 years afterward. It took the unfortunate event of my dad’s passing in 2014 to final provide a catalyst for us to speak again.
We didn’t re-establish our connection overnight; it took quite a bit of work and some time. But now I feel like we have a relationship that is stronger than it ever has been. Let me tell you what happened, because there are several lessons to be taken from this unfortunate reality.
My (now ex) wife and I were on a fast track to realize the “American Dream”. We got married, saved money, bought a house, got two dogs and a cat, then had our first baby in 1994. I was 26 at the time.
During that time my relationship with my parents was what I would consider to be average. Not super close, not distant, just “normal” (if such a thing exists). I haven’t ever asked her directly, but I do kind of wonder if my mom didn’t much care for my ex-wife from the start.
My parents lived close to us, one urban sprawl over. We saw them occasionally and they babysat our first son.
During this time my mom and I had a few arguments. Never anything majorly significant, no goings-on in the crime, drugs or physical or emotional abuse categories that so many families experience. Mostly hum-drum miscommunication over whether we were having birthday dinner on a particular night, or something equally insignificant seeming now.
Those fights resulted in stopped communications for some time. The fix was always me calling my mom to apologize and extend the olive branch.
The thing is, I took exception to the fact that it always had to be me that initiated an apology. Even if we ultimately mutually agreed that we each had a hand in causing the rift, it was always me that had to start the ball rolling to make up.
I resented that.
I felt that, at a minimum, there should be a 50–50 split of responsibility for mending fences. And I felt (and still do, but perhaps fodder for a different story) that the parent has arguably more responsibility for taking the first action in a lot of parent-child relationship scenarios.
Probably not hard to see this coming as the reader here, but I let my resentment manifest itself.
Just after the birth of my second son we had another argument. It was at his baby shower/birth celebration event. The whole family on both sides were present, and there was a miscommunication about whether my mom or another family member might take my toddler son overnight for a stay-over.
My mom got mad and left. I never called her and made up. It was that simple, and that tragic.
Weeks went by; I stood firm in my resolve. Boundaries are important, aren’t they?
Months went by. I was right, she was wrong, everyone knew it. By God I was sticking to my guns this time and waiting for her to make the first move.
When we started counting time in years, I began to wonder why my dad didn’t covertly reach out just to touch base or check in. I developed some resentment and anger over that as well.
At some point I considered the fact that enough time had gone by, and maybe the original argument wasn’t even a factor anymore. However, I just didn’t have the courage (and it took me a lot of years to recognize what I lacked was courage) to attempt to make things right again.
One of the rationalizations I made at the time was that my kids didn’t need to have grandparents that were there one day and gone the next. Perhaps it was cleaner and better to have separated when they were both young.
That rationalization and many others (we are just so busy with work, kids, trying to make ends meet; you name it) let me continue to believe that I just didn’t have the time and emotional energy to invest in trying to resurrect this relationship.
So, I didn’t.
There are many tragedies here. First, I had no relationship with my dad for the last 17 years of his life. Even worse, my two sons were deprived of an entire set of grandparents during their childhood.
I also missed out on a relationship with my mom for all that time. Fortunately, that has been reestablished, and for that I am very thankful. But there is no going back to make up those lost years.
Plus, eventually, and as it usually does, resentment turned to guilt. My feelings, so passionate in 1997 about sticking to my guns and not giving in has melted into a puddle of regret. I got to live with that regret and guilt for many years as well, a completely unwanted bonus.
So, there are some take home lessons for those of you willing to consider:
Boundaries can be important, however they aren’t “set and forget”. Be acutely sensitive to when it might be time to deconstruct and reposition a boundary so as not to wall yourself off completely.
Consider the big picture. It is easy to let your passion and emotion control a situation. But don’t let them define who you are going forward. 1997’s immovable line in the sand will blur with time. Don’t let petty issues become mountains you never get over.
Be brave. It’s not all about you. Don’t be so narcissistic or vain that you can’t apologize — even if it “isn’t your fault”. Make the first move, even if it is scary, and be willing to do it repeatedly if necessary. Some relationships ARE that important.
Communicate. This falls a bit in the brave category as well, don’t be afraid to use your words. Even when the event is over. It is okay to take some time to gather your thoughts, but when you do, share them. Don’t let the silence languish.
Weigh the importance of being right against being happy. Just consider what I gave up to be “right”. Take it from me, it often isn’t worth the cost to be right.
This wasn’t easy to write. It is hard to admit when you are wrong (especially to yourself sometimes). It is also too easy to have tunnel vision and not be able to decode what is happening when it is happening to you.
That is the case for this story. I saw something similar in someone else’s relationship and it finally made the light go off in my head. Not that I was unaware of the facts of the situation, but it took seeing it elsewhere to be able to develop a narrative about what went on.
So, the parting lesson is this: Periodically step aside and look at your life through the eyes of others. It is too easy to get tunnel vision and let things that you will ultimately define as minor happenings overtake your life.
If you like this, you might like some of my other writing:
Why Compassion is the Only Skill that Truly Matters in Medicine
Insight from 24 years as a pre-hospital emergency medical professional
I Walked Away from the Best Job in the World, and I Have Never Been Happier
Shedding the Golden Handcuffs on your own terms
Timothy Key spent over 26 years in the fire service as a firefighter/paramedic and various fire chief management roles. He firmly believes that bad managers destroy more than companies, and good managers create a passion that is contagious. Compassion, grace and gratitude drive the world; or at least they should. Follow me on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, and join the mail list.