The Mama Daughter Dynamic

There are two things I have grappled with most of my life.

One: I have always had hair angst. If it is long, I want it short. If it is short, I can’t wait for it to grow out. And, I have always wanted bangs. That thick fringe that sets off your eyes or the side swept bangs that frame your face.

The second, and one that is most shocking, is I have always typically done the complete opposite of what my Mama has wanted me to do. Pretty much every big decision – from marrying the first husband to not going to law school– has been the polar opposite of what she has wanted and demanded of me.

Both – the bangs and the Mama – have given me fits throughout my life.

And the horror of both is that Mama has always tried to dictate what she thinks I should do with my hair.

There was nothing quite like going to the salon as a teenage girl, with dreams of how you wanted your hair only to have your mother standing behind the chair telling the stylist, “Just give her a perm. And she’s growing out her bangs, so don’t cut them again.”

“I don’t know why I can’t do what I want to my hair,” I would protest.

“Because I know better,” she said.

In a moment of desperation, I once cut my own bangs the night before going to a school competition at the state level.

I think I placed out of pity.

“Why did you do that to your hair?” she asked me.
“You wouldn’t let me get bangs. I needed bangs!”

“You didn’t need that!”

I had cut them so short and unevenly, they were a jagged line about an inch below my hairline and would curl up like corkscrew pasta. It was a wretched mess and there was no way to fix it.

Granny took me to get a pair of shoes.

“Shoes?” I asked. I never turned down shoes but thought it was an odd outing.

“There’s nothing we can do with your hair, but you may as well have some cute shoes as a consolation prize.”

Of course, this probably set me up with the belief that when all goes wrong, buy shoes.

Mama just used this as a multi-purpose example of what goes wrong when I don’t listen to her.

She never lets me live down anything, either, so for the longest anytime I didn’t heed her warnings, she would remind me: “Don’t let this be another cutting your own bangs incident.”

Mama has been quite outspoken and vocal about all my mistakes.

“I don’t know why you married your first husband,” she said one day. “I never could stand him.”
“Maybe if you had, I wouldn’t have,” I replied dryly.

Granny snorted at this comment. In all of her infinite wisdom, Granny never uttered one bad word about my first husband while we were dating or married. She waited until the divorce was final before she expressed her utter disdain of him.

“Well, Jean, you knew how we felt about her daddy, and you married him anyway. Reckon that’s the only thing the old gal got that was like you,” Granny stated.

Mama reminded me every chance she got about what a mistake I had made by marrying him. She recited every time she had warned me and had been right.

I did like I always had and tuned her out.

“You aren’t listening because you know I am right!” she would say.

She urged me to go to law school and I didn’t.

Every time I have complained about my career – or lack thereof – her immediate response has been: “Well, if you had gone on to law school like I told you, you would have had a better career. But you don’t listen to me. Even when I am telling you something that will help you.”

“Where’s the fun in that?” I asked. “You would have absolutely nothing to hold over my head.”

Granny once told me to not pay her any attention.

“She ain’t never listened to me so I don’t know why she expects you to listen to her,” she said. “Bobby listens to me; Cole will listen to you. That’s what a son does. But a daughter is made to not listen to her mother.”

Maybe she was right.

I was needing a change recently, tired of my chin length bangs and sent Mama a photo I found of the hair I wanted with soft, long bangs.

 “Cute!” she texted back.

I called her the day of the appointment. “What do you think about that cut I sent you?”

“I thought it was precious! You would look so pretty with your hair cut like that!”

“Really?” Did she see something different than the one I had sent?

“Absolutely.”

“You saw the photo of Emma Stone, right? With bangs?”

“I don’t know who Emma Stone is, but I saw the girl with the red hair and bangs and loved it. Are you getting your hair that color, too, or just the bangs?”

“Just the bangs.” What was going on? She always fussed about me coloring my hair.

“Well, it will look good on you. I can’t wait to see it.”

“So, you think I should get bangs?”

“It’s your hair. You should get what you want, and I think that will be adorable. So, if you want it, get it!”

I walked into the salon in shock. Had we finally, after 46 years of existence, turned a corner?

And then it hit me: she was reverse psychology-ing me.

Not only did she reverse psychology me; it worked.

I didn’t get the bangs I wanted, but I will.

Even if I have to cut them myself.

Ears Wide Shut

Listening is truly a lost art form it seems.

People just flat out no longer listen.

Instead, it feels more like people are only listening long enough to catch an opportunity to talk about themselves.

I find myself telling people things – important things – only for my words to be completely ignored.

Don’t even try to ask someone if they were listening. Odds are, they won’t hear that question either.

Listening is important.

You can pick up some pretty important information just from listening.

Case in point, a situation my child came to me about recently.

“You may hear from my teacher,” he began.

That’s never good, I thought. My experience had taught me teachers only called when something was wrong and usually, it was when the wrong-doing was on my behalf.

Instead of jumping right in with my questions, I decided this would be a good time to listen.

Mama always knew if she gave me the quiet treatment long enough, I would spill what she needed to know.

I thought I’d give her tactic a whirl instead of jumping in with my accusations and allegations.

“I made a zero on an assignment, but it counts as a test grade,” he continued after my silence.

“But it wasn’t my fault.”

I nodded slowly.

“Do you want to hear why it wasn’t my fault?” he asked.

“Sure.”

“Well, my teacher told us we had to grade our own assignments, but we had to do in pen. She told us we could not use pencil.”

“OK.”
“I had picked up a pencil in my left hand and had a pen in the right,” he went on. “It was just out of habit. Really. I always have a pencil that I am bouncing. But she came by and picked up my test and gave me a zero. Just because I had a pencil in my hand – and it is not even the hand I write with!”

Now, I could understand his disappointment and frustration at getting the zero. I would have been devastated.

But that was not where his frustration was coming from.

The first point of contention was the teacher was one of his favorites.

She has known him most of his life and in Cole’s opinion, knew he wouldn’t cheat.

His second issue – and the one he was the most vocal about – was that she did not let him explain.

“I wasn’t using the pencil to grade my assignment. I was just bouncing it. Like I said, it wasn’t even in the hand I write with. It was not fair.”

“It didn’t have to be fair,” I said. “She said not to use a pencil.”

“I wasn’t!” he argued. “You aren’t listening to me. I had the pencil in my left hand – I am right handed! I couldn’t change the answer with my left hand.”
“She didn’t know that,” I said.

“She would have known had she let me explain.”

“She didn’t have to let you explain. She said no pencil. You had a pencil. End of story.”

“Did you hear what I said? I said, I had the pencil in my left hand. Not my right. I was not using it. Only bouncing it.”

“Did you hear what your teacher said? She said no pencil. She is a teacher. Not a cop. Not a judge. She is not there to hear your argument or for you to state your case. She told you if you used a pencil, you got a zero. She walked by and saw a pencil in your hand. So, it made sense to conclude you were going to use it. I don’t blame her and stand by her zero.”

I think at that moment, I lost a lot of mom points with my child.

I had always been the first to rush in with the cavalry to defend and protect him.

I had always stood up for him.

But this time, I didn’t. Instead, I told him the teacher was right.

I wasn’t going to call her, nor was I going to email her, asking her to let him explain.

I was going to let him learn this hard lesson.

He had heard his teacher say one thing – not to grade the paper with a pen – and thought he could go do another, as long as he wasn’t grading it.

Her instruction was implied.

It wasn’t spelled out explicitly, but it was more of a subtle understanding: just don’t pick up a pencil, because it will look like you are changing your answer.

And sometimes, those subtle understandings are the hardest to discern. Especially when we are only listening for what we want to hear.

Switching my default response

If you asked my child what my favorite word was, without hesitation, he would respond: no.

No has been my go-to word for a while now.

I felt a certain sense of pride in saying no when asked to do things I didn’t want to do, things I felt infringed on my personal time and space.

Being raised by two independent women taught me to speak my truth long before it was some kind of personal development rally cry.

And my truth was usually “No.”

Did I want to get together?

Nope.

Did I want to volunteer for something?
Um, not really.

Would I like to watch someone’s kids while they ran errands?
Absolutely not – my house was not childproof. Yes, I knew I had a child. However, my house was not childproofed for other people’s kids.

No was my favorite response and reaction.

I heard my friends getting sucked into things they didn’t want to do, and they were miserable.

“If you didn’t want to do it, why did you say yes?” I asked once.

I knew the answer before they said it.

They didn’t want to disappoint someone or let them down. A lot of women are raised to be accommodating and to put everyone else first, even if it causes them to neglect themselves. A lot of women, except for those raised by Helen and Jean, feel that way, that is.

I have joked to my girlfriends that any time they needed me to say no on their behalf, I would be happy to. Delighted, thrilled, ecstatic even.

My child knows no is my initial response, yet, he still tries.

“Can I –?”
“No.”
He sighs, knowing not to press the issue because I can dig my heels down in a no and make it stick.

In professional settings, my variation is a softer “no, no.”

I don’t want to seem quite as unyielding, so I put the extra one in as a gentle decline.

It had worked so well, of a number of years, this whole no thing.

Until one day, I heard some friends talking about an outing they had over the weekend.

I was kind of hurt; why hadn’t they asked me to go?
“You always say no,” I was told.

True. I do love my no. And being an introvert makes me also avoid most social gatherings like the plague.

But what they did sounded fun. I may have actually said yes this time.

My no wasn’t set in stone – was it?

Did it seem like it was?

“You would have said it was too far, or we’d get back too late,” my friend said.
That did sound like something I would say.

Or, I had too much to do, or I had plans.

Plans that involved putting on yoga pants and watching Hallmark Movies & Mysteries while looking at cat videos on social media.

“We figured you couldn’t go so we just went without mentioning it.”

Had my no become so standard and common that people were pre-emptively using it on my behalf?

I did not like this.

Sure, I liked saying no, but I wanted it to be my no, my choice.

It was my no to use, gosh darnit.

“If we go back, we’ll ask you,” my friend promised. “But you will probably just say no.”

“No, I won’t,” I said. See – I found a way to work in a no.

“Yes, you will.”
“No, I won’t.”
Perhaps I needed to change my default in some way. A slight tweak.

I had missed out on a great afternoon; what else had I missed on by saying no all these years?

Had my love for the no caused me to stop saying yes to everything that was potentially good?

“So, you will go if we go back?”

“Maybe.”

“Maybe?” My friend groaned.

It wasn’t as harsh as no; didn’t feel as locked in as yes.

It had so much open-ended potential that could give me the opportunity to decide if I really wanted to do something or not.

Maybe is my new favorite word.