Most of my women friends have mothers who they consider meddlers to some degree. These moms would love it if their daughters would listen, just once, to their advice, because then their lives would run so much smoother and they’d have the partners of their dreams and their careers would be more fulfilling and their houses would be clean and organized. I never had this kind of mom.
Growing up, my mom pretty much stayed out of my life. She (thankfully) didn’t read my diary, didn’t ask who I was dating, didn’t even try to stop a pretty bad drug addiction when I was 20, although she was well aware of it. She watched me make some super destructive choices and never tried to intervene.
The way I remember it, she was largely absent throughout my childhood in a physical way. She worked really hard from the ground up, and that’s why she’s a successful businesswoman and career role model today. To a kid, however, if Mom’s not around physically, she’s not around emotionally. So I never let my mom in, and at a certain point she stopped trying to gain entrance.
We needed to try to heal this dynamic somehow, as our interactions at the time featured screaming to the point of hysterics, as well as occasionally throwing things. It was getting embarrassing, two grown women acting like this, not to mention quite painful. Maybe if I invited her in, she would show up?
I wanted to know: What would it be like for my mom to get all up in my business? What if, together, we ran an experiment where she could tell me what to do for a whole week? Anything she thought would streamline, simplify, or enhance my life, I would do it. Even if it meant dating a man, quitting my job, moving away, cutting my hair. Whatever. I was game.
And surprisingly, so was she.
We began this experiment with her telling me to eat a banana. I hate bananas, they're super gross, though she thinks this is the key nutritional element missing in my diet. Fine. I put one in my morning smoothie.
And then I passed out.
Later in the evening I realized I had to ask her permission to go to the movies with my friends. “Sure,” she said. “What are you wearing?”
I sent her a photo.
Her response: “Do you feel good about yourself in that? Why do you look so unhappy?” That was the nice way of saying, “You are in your 30s, why are you wearing a belly shirt?”
It annoyed me that she'd intimate this, but she was kinda right. Or was she? Jury's out on this one. Still, I changed. And smiled.
She made me take a cab home, even though it was only 11:30. I was in Manhattan, heading back to Brooklyn, so it was expensive. She said she worried about me every time I took the train home at night. Oh, Mom!
I called her in the morning to share with her some crazy, sad news: The night before, my dear friend, a friend she also loves, was shot in front of his house. He was in the hospital recovering, and it looked like he’d be totally fine. She was the only person I wanted to talk to about this immediately, as it was too shocking and personal to discuss with anyone else. My mom totally stepped up and listened, asked questions, told me she loved me and made me feel better.
I called my mom after work to talk life theory. What was I doing? What should I be doing? Were there any tasks she wanted me to complete? Give me some direction, Mom! Take the reins.
She demurred for most of the conversation, until I basically demanded that she interfere somehow. “OK fine,” my mom said. “Write two lists: One of what you have to offer in a relationship. Another of what you want out of a relationship.” Plus, she said, “I really want you to have a financial plan for yourself. One for six months and one for five years. You have until the end of the week to complete this.” Oof.
I hadn’t heard from my mom for more than 24 hours. I had a first date that night, however, so I knew I should call her. I didn’t really want to, because it was starting to dawn on me that I was continually going to her. She wasn’t calling me. Come to think of it, she hadn’t checked up on me about how my friend was doing, or how I was feeling about it, and it was starting to hurt my feelings.
Here’s how our conversation went:
“Hi Mom. What do I wear on a first date with an actress?”
“Something you feel comfortable in that shows you’re fun but responsible. Something that if you spill a little soup on it you’re not going to be upset.” She was clearly doing something else, as she could barely articulate these two sentences. “I’m sorry, I’m trying to send an email right now.”
“Why don’t you call me back when you’re not distracted?”
“OK, I will, love you bye.”
A half an hour passed. I ate a snack, then took a shower, keeping the door open so I could see the phone in case it rang. (Don’t take your phone into the bathroom, folks, the condensation might ruin it.) It didn’t. I started to feel like I did in junior high, waiting for a phone call from a boy who didn’t even like me. I thought about what to wear. It seemed to me she was suggesting I go “business casual,” but I don’t have any clothes like that.
Trying to get myself psyched for this date, I began to feel like I had never been a priority in her life. Or in anyone’s. Conditioning is a bitch. Here is exactly what I typed out, trying to make sense of my intense feelings of abandonment:
It’s me, alone here, going about things solo. Everything. This has struck a nerve. I’m crying an hour before my date. This is the darkness that keeps me from connecting with people, why I can’t find lovers who will take care of me and value me above stuff like needing to send an email. It’s hitting me that I’ve never been with someone who I know how to let in and can reciprocate on that privilege.
At the same time, I recognized that I was perhaps being a little dramatic and unfair. My mom has to work hard because she’d set herself up career-wise and financially to be that way. She’d always taken care of all of us. And what, is she supposed to drop everything and be at my beck and call with all kinds of wisdom and advice and guidance after all these years of me screaming at her to leave me alone? But this is why I’d always asked her to leave me alone, because we’d get close, and then she’d drop me. And that’s another pattern in all my relationships.
I suddenly became very tired and didn’t feel like going out.
She called me back 42 minutes later.
Here was her first-date advice:
“Wear something fun but not like you’re trying to overdo it. You know on your first day of school you want to look good but not really good? You save your best outfit for the second or third day, when people are settled in a little and begin to start looking at who’s around.
“The first date should be about who you are on the inside. Wear a fun little skirt and maybe a T-shirt and not sensible shoes but not I’m-going-out-on-a-hot-date shoes. Look like yourself! Be yourself. Don’t wear your pajamas."
“You know, I haven’t dated in a long, long time but what I hear in most situations whether it’s dating, work, whatever, you want to stay somewhat neutral on hot topics. Avoid politics, money discussions, keep it light. Talk about where you’ve been on vacation, what kind of new music you like. You might want to avoid your whole food allergy thing. On a first date that might be something that’s like, ‘Oooh gee, I don’t know about that.’"
“You don’t ever want to talk about past romances, ever, even if they say, ‘Tell me about the last person you dated.’
“Be complimentary, if you find something to compliment this person about."
“As for kissing on the first date, if you think it’s appropriate and you feel compelled to do that, sure, why not? Let your past experiences guide your future actions.”
I heard my dad interrupt in the background: “No sex!”
My mom continued. “Do lesbians have sex early on because you know you won’t get pregnant?”
I told them yes, they do. But that I don’t, because I am too romantic and usually need to be emotionally involved before I get physical in that way.
“OK, that’s good,” she said. “But you don’t have to be thinking in the back of your mind, ‘What would my mom do?’”
I told her don’t worry, I won’t.
“OK, just wanted to clear the air on that.”
It was sweet that she texted me mid-date (sort of), but just to test my theory about me doing most of the leg work, I didn’t call my mom. And she didn’t call me. Wasn't she curious how my night went? This was always her response for her very hands-off approach to my life: I didn’t want to invade your privacy. And it always made me feel neglected.
Several years ago I told her to never ever try to tell me what to do, and to never make any suggestions about my life, because I wasn’t going to listen to her regardless. I asked to be taken off her “Thought of the Day” emails, because they pissed me off. I threw away books that she gave me about “wisdom.” Total cold shoulder. What could she possibly have to offer?
I could feel my wall going back up.
Again, no call.
I emailed my mom a link to an interview that came out with me as the subject, and for the first time in my life, what someone had to say about me was entirely positive and celebratory.
My mom didn’t respond.
I'd already told her earlier in the week I was heading to Rhode Island by train, so why bother checking in on this again? I had a work meeting there, and I also had… not quite a date, more like a slightly frisky yet also friendly sleepover with a lady 10 years my junior who I’d picked up in a Chicago airport a few months ago. I wasn’t even going to ask my mom about the appropriateness of this activity.
Still no word from Mom. She’d dropped out of the experiment and didn’t even bother to tell me. If it weren't for the hot girl's pancakes, I would've felt awful.
Still, I decided to continue with my end of the deal, and on the train ride back to New York I started working on those lists she had asked me to write.
I emailed these to her.
Not a peep.
The Day After
Right around the time my mom usually goes to bed, she called me.
“You spent a lot of time doing those lists, didn’t you honey?” she began, her voice sweet and apologetic. “I didn’t see that email until now. I don’t want you to think I was ignoring you.”
Well, thank you, I told her, but what about the last three and a half days?
“I’m sorry you feel like I neglected you,” she said, her voice turning stiff. “I’ve got other stuff going on in my life besides talking to you.”
“We agreed to do this, and you bailed on me halfway through without even telling me.” I was getting a bit shrill.
She took a deep breath. This is right around the time we would start yelling at each other, and then I’d inevitably hang up on her. “I’m sorry!” she said. “I’m really sorry!”
Wow. This was the first time she said that, like fully taken responsibility and apologized to me instead of saying, “I am sorry you feel that [fill in the blank].” Huge deal.
“I know we lost touch,” she continued. “I figured you were tied up doing stuff. Like how people get tied up doing things in their life.” She told me work had been hectic, a high-school friend had passed away, and she really needed to take care of some yard work.
Then she confessed that she worries about me a lot. “I am always concerned about who you’re out with and if you’re safe. I still think, ‘What if she was kidnapped?’”
Apparently she’d texted me at 3 AM after my date with the actress, and maybe I got it and deleted it in my sleep? Who knows. But that night, she woke up worrying about me. The next day, to make sure I was alive, she started searching the internet for anything new with my byline.
“I saw something and it didn’t have your name on it, but the way it was written, I thought, ‘I think that’s Liz.’” She was right, it was me. That is her methodology for making sure I still exist. I had no idea that my mom read so much of my output, and that she knew me well enough to be able to recognize me in this way. It was the sweetest, most flattering thing I’d heard in a very long time.
I realized there are some kinds of deep, deep love we don’t always experience directly. There are words and deeds unspoken, and that’s how it should be. It would make me insane to know my mom was waking up in the middle of the night obsessing over my mortal existence -- though apparently it happens all the time.
Writing this now, I realize I have been pretty hard on her, have demanded communicative flawlessness and emotional impeccability, even though I can't offer those things in return. And I think for her looking back, she's realized that she can safely act like a mom, even get a little nosey, that I want her to be there for me and I will let her.
Some time has passed since this experiment. It's transformed the relationship I have with my mother almost entirely -- and, as a result, some of my friendships, as well as the way I am starting to view romance. To hear her admit that she dropped the ball, and for her to hear me realize that she still loved me regardless, created a kind of security between the two of us.
We're not perfect, not as individuals, nor as a duo. And I don't expect it. We still argue sometimes, though we now know for certain that neither one of us is going anywhere. And this was the missing link: Truly living and believing in the promise that we love each other and always will.