I have a friend who is hobbled by her well-meaning mother.
Her mother, we’ll call her Maude, is a woman used to being listened to and respected. She raised her children impoverished and single-handedly, and they become doctors and professors. I once complimented her ex-husband on how much I liked his daughter and he told me it wasn’t him, it was all Maude. I repeated it to Maude and she proudly lifted her chin and said, “That’s damn right!” She was a teacher. She was formidable, and does not wish to cede any of that well-earned respect.
But now my friend is a grown woman, formidable in her own way. She and her mother cannot find a power balance. Maude micro-manages when and how the cake should be put in front of her grand-baby at her first birthday, and my friend clenches her jaw and mutters, “Yes, Mother.” Maude complains as we watch our children taking gymnastics that the routine is “too bouncy” and will damage the children’s tendons. My friend stares straight ahead, apparently doing breathing exercises toward achieving peace.
Recently Maude gave her grandchildren cold medicine that they didn’t need, without asking my friend. It bothers my friend, but she has no way to express it. If she tells her mother to stop, they will fight, her mother will be deeply offended and defensive and it just isn’t worth the pain.
So here it is. I have a secret for having confrontations. Useful confrontations, kind ones. It doesn’t always work, but…actually I can’t think of a time when it hasn’t worked.
I learned it from my own mother, whose stock and trade was guileless blatancy. I tweaked it into bewildered huffiness, as that fits me better. Same idea tho.
This is all you have to do. It’s a single word.
Start your sentence with “Woman!”, and then exaggerate your misgivings.
“Woman! Stop doping my kids without asking me! Next thing I know you’re gonna be slipping them Xanex in their juice boxes!” Keep your face open and a tad confused while you speak.
The feigned, humorous toughness, combined with the exaggeration has never failed me, no matter how humorless or defensive or damaged the person I’m talking too. It establishes me as non-threatening, and though my confrontation is loud, it somehow doesn’t carry judgement. They weren’t stupid to do what they did; I’m just acting playfully petulant. But the command has been spoken. My wishes have been declared, and I’m free to lay them on even stronger.
When dropping the kids off next time, “I’ve given them what they need. Seriously, if I smell Dimetapp on their breath when I come back, so help me, woman.” Hand to god, it works. The person feels like they are liked, teased, safe.
It is remarkable how reasonable and kind a person can become when they feel safe.
I’ve done it with Maude, who tends to secure comfort in her surroundings by finding problems with them. For example, complaining about our spot on the parade route (which she didn’t know I picked, but still…) would be met with my saying:
“Woman! I hauled my rear out in the hottest heat of the day to reserve this spot for you yesterday! See that rope? I TIED that rope with my own tired stubby little fingers. You should be feeding me peeled grapes and anointing my head with precious oils for the kindness I’ve done!”
And she laughed, stopped complaining, and we both continued on in comfortable assurance that there were no hard feelings.
My friend says she just can’t. My approach is akin to laughing at (WITH!) the person you’re irritated with. Her mother has taught her her whole life that she’s to be respected, not laughed at. The thing is…that’s the only way to drain the tension out of the room. Laughter. Remembering we’re friends or family and wrinkles in that strong cloth do not tear or stain, they’re just wrinkles.
Warmth causes wrinkles to relax.