If the Jeans Fit …

“Mom, there are things about you that annoy me, but we get along.”

It was a relief to hear these words from my daughter’s lips one night last week, as we stayed up late working on a project together. Truth – even unflattering truth — feels especially sweet these days.

Mothers do annoy their daughters; it’s written in stone somewhere. We help them too much or too little or in the wrong ways. We are too loving or too distant or simply too old to know what they need all the time. Our dirty little secret is that we are just people, living our own lives and falling far short of the ideal of perfect motherhood.

It’s good that my daughter and I can talk about this. She’s old enough to verbalize it, and I’m young enough to hear it. I want it to be part of our shared truth for as long as possible. Now that my mom has dementia, this is a truth I do not speak with her. I work hard not to let Mom annoy me, and not to show it when she inevitably does.

Just the other morning, as we were shuffling into Waffle House for breakfast, Mom made her usual generous offer to take me shopping. “I want to buy you some new jeans,” she said sweetly. “The ones you’re wearing are too tight.”

Wow, I thought. Thanks a lot. But I kept my thoughts to myself. “Shopping sounds like fun!” I said, heading for a booth.

Mothers shouldn’t comment on their daughters’ bodies, even – especially! – when their daughters are over fifty. We know this now, as a society, having experienced decades of eating disorders, fad diets, and ridiculous expectations. But as my sister wisely says, in Mom’s day, appearance was one of the vital things a woman had going for her, and raising attractive children was a sign of good parenting.

Mom valued a sleek form, neatly groomed. No make-up, no fancy hairstyles, no high fashion – my sister and I didn’t have to deal with any of that. We just had to be thin (but not too thin), keep our hair neat, dress attractively (but not too attractively), and have good posture.

“Stand up straight,” she told us. “Brush your hair a hundred strokes a day. And I really think you’ll feel better if you lose that little pudge.” She didn’t mean to annoy or hurt us. She was trying to help us succeed in a judgmental world. I guess she thinks she still is. She doesn’t know she’s helping too much.

If Mom had commented on my jeans ten years ago, I would have winked and said, “I like these jeans just fine, Mom, and so does my husband, so mind your own business.” Fifteen years ago, I would have bristled and said, “Mom, you are not in charge of what I wear.”

Twenty years ago, she thought I was too thin, so the whole conversation would have been different.

Now I take her comments in stride and say nothing, for my sake as well as for hers. It’s not worth it to react. I can’t waste my precious energy fighting her, and it’s pointless to try to change her mind. I register her criticism (she’d call it concern), and if she didn’t have dementia, I’d call her on it. But she does, so I don’t.

Still, I don’t have to sugarcoat the past. I don’t have to pretend that Mom has never annoyed me. I think it’s important to acknowledge my mom’s imperfections, not to her – heavens, no – but to myself. I can treat her with deference now, because I saw her as a real person for most of my adult life – a complex, imperfect person. A person who loved me but did not exist for me. A person in her own right. A person who had strong opinions about the right way to live . . . opinions that were sometimes different from my own.

That was then. Then, I stood up for myself. This is now. Now, I take care of myself in other ways, and let her have her say.

There are things about my mom that annoy me. But we get along.

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