Every now and again, I indulge in a little trashy reality TV. Like any guilty pleasure, I only mention it in the company of qualifiers aplenty; in this case, I'll cite the fact that I'll only watch VH-1's “Love & Hip-Hop” at the gym, in the course of doing some rigorous cardio on either a treadmill or an elliptical machine. It’s a trade-off that I’ve made make sense in order to indulge in the most virulent of garbage programming.
That garbage often provides a simple smile, perhaps in the form of a humorous catchphrase or even an outlandish outfit that one of the cast members wears to the club. I suppose everyone’s guilty pleasures hold their own unique joys for them, which is what keeps us coming back.
Many of these reality shows, however, have been getting more and more “real,” i.e. intentionally serious in both content and tone, particularly the VH-1 canon of (allegedly) unscripted entertainment. Of course, there’s always been a maudlin plotline or two injected into even the silliest of shows, complete with dramatic slow-motion and distinctly stagy music cues, but in my viewings, I’m seeing far more arrests, illnesses, and tearful goodbyes lately than I had bargained for from my frivolous guilty pleasure.
These moments catch me off-guard in that context, and never more so than on the recent episode of “Love & Hip-Hop” wherein cast member Mariah Lynn has to go bail her mother Tasha out of jail. The charge is petty theft, and apparently shoplifting is a known problem for Mariah’s mother, who also deals with drug addiction.
As Mariah Lynn, who’s a rapper, is shown in a cab lamenting that she has had to cancel a studio recording session and spend her rent money to bail her mother out, we are given a glimpse of the striking conundrum of being the adult child of an inept or irresponsible parent, one I know all too well.
I never had to bail my mother out of jail for shoplifting, but I did have to call the authorities or deal with fallout when others had, as a result of her behavior. Much of it was horrific violence while in the midst of a manic episode or psychotic break, as she often chose to go without her prescribed medications, as I’ve previously described here.
Even the phrase “adult child” is a bit of an oxymoron, and that is never more evident than in those moments of questioning a parent’s poor life choices or destructive behavior when coming to their rescue. One can’t help but scold, and yet that carries with it its own guilt at even being in the situation, at possibly losing respect for one of the two people we’re taught to respect and honor above all else.
On the show, things went from bad to OMG for Mariah Lynn when her mother also told her that she’s pregnant. Mariah Lynn wondered incredulously how she thinks she could raise a baby now when she’s getting into so much trouble and wasn’t there for her and her sister, as Mariah Lynn has spoken about growing up in foster care.
This is not a show recap, but rather an observation that as Mariah Lynn looked at her mother in disbelief, I was brought back to my very similar experiences of the past, and I’d like to cut myself, and anyone who’s been through or is going through this type of thing, a little slack.
Many of us are hesitant to complain about things that are totally out of our control, since that can fall firmly under the umbrella of whining. Of course that doesn’t stop us from sometimes whining anyway, but situations that are more serious might actually call for some structured complaining, to spare our psyches additional self-inflicted pain.
When we understand logically that what should (or should not) happen has little to no bearing on what actually does (or does not) come to pass, we very often simply soldier on, especially in the case of helping out or caring for a parent. I’m here to pause that impulse; to take a breath and say that it isn’t OK to find yourself in circumstances like Mariah Lynn’s or mine regarding your mother.
No adult child should have to spend their rent money bailing their mother out of jail for shoplifting. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, and I could never dictate how anyone else feels about situations they find themselves in, but I know when I had to come to my mother’s rescue at times or pay for property damage or talk someone else out of pressing charges against her, I often mentally hopscotched over that fact, out of pure survival.
It wasn’t fair.
If I had stopped and thought that thought, I might have focused on myself a little more and saved my mother a little less. I also might have collapsed in a heap of self-pity; who knows? What I do know is that I was handling a lion’s share of adult responsibilities when I should have had only an adolescent portion, and it wasn’t fair. I just charged ahead, doubling down on the cards I was dealt, and I’m repairing that damage decades later.
I was not emotionally equipped at the time to acknowledge the absence of fairness and still do what I had to do to take care of my mother, my brother, and myself; to see the truth in the situation but not give in to it.
So I told myself it didn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what should be, here is what is. Deal with it.
That phrase, "deal with it," is often spat out in a pejorative tone, particularly in the realm of negative self-talk. I've never experienced it as gentle or encouraging, as in "[you can] deal with it" or "[you're strong enough to] deal with it" or "[it sucks that you have to] deal with it [and it's OK to feel that]."
OK, maybe that's a bit much to project onto those three words, but those are things I know I wish I had heard growing up, and that I hope Mariah Lynn can truly feel. However scripted, or at least enhanced, the particular "reality" of this show may be, what I saw was a young woman taking care of her mother in ways that she should not have had to.
However compromised the gravity of the circumstances might have been by the jittery gesticulating that has become the signature of such shows' "confessional" scenes, (which have grown increasingly obvious in their unnaturally coached manner), when Mariah Lynn said that she shouldn’t have to mother her own mother, it hit me in my gut.
This is not, by the way, the sometimes downright heroic caregiving by an adult child for a parent with only medical or clinical illness, or permanent and terminal conditions. And because life is more nuanced than strictly either/or, clinical diagnoses and poor choices can sometimes overlap and intertwine.
But for the adult children who find themselves posting bail for their mother, or not (which is an option as well), you shouldn’t have to parent your parent. Especially if they didn’t parent you when they were supposed to.
It’s up to you how you respond in each situation, but it’s OK to pause and acknowledge how indisputably you shouldn’t have to. It might even help you deal with it.