I’m not exactly sure how I get myself into these situations—okay, that’s partially a lie—but once again I found myself playing the mediator between a mother and son this past week. Now, this is not something I recommend the uninitiated just attempt with only her big heart and big mouth to back her. The bond between a mother and son is often an especially tricky one, with multiple layers of fierce devotion, unquestioned loyalty mixed with confusing resentment and guilt in all flavors. In my experiences, this is even more so when the son is an only child, a child of single mother or whose parents divorced at a young age.
The attempted mother-son mediation often puts a strain on a relationship, even when a loving wife, girlfriend or even platonic best friend has the best of intentions. I have heard plenty of horror stories about well-meaning women barreling in on a mother-in-law or boyfriend’s mother, on behalf of her man only to find it blowing up in her face. And if this woman who is not yet your mother in law finds herself hating and resenting you now, don’t assume it’s going to get better once she realizes you’re a permanent member of the family.
When I was a naïve 17-year-old, I was dating a wonderful guy with the biggest heart – who also happened to be a true mama’s boy. The odd thing was, his particular mother somehow raised an intelligent, compassionate, open-minded man who saw the content of a person’s mind, heart and soul before he noticed the color of their skin. This tall, pale Polish-Italian guy fell head over heels for a honey-skinned girl with the melting pot of ethnic backgrounds. His Italian mother was, let’s just say, not pleased (ironically both her parents wound up treating me more like a member of the family than she ever did).
After multiple digging and degrading comments to her son, though I was nothing but loving to her son and nice and respectful to her, I decided to take matters into my own hands. While I was across the country at college, mama bear was trying to whisper poison into her son’s ears, and it only made him resent her more not pull away from me. So I decided to write her a long, heartfelt letter.
I told her how much I cared about her son and how I had no intention of hurting him. I knew she was taking out on me an old grudge she had against a former friend of my boyfriend’s older sister, who turned out to be a hurtful bitch and just so happened to have brown skin too. I told her the kind of person I was, describing my character, my background and basically attempting to defend myself, without explicitly saying how I was not that girl who hurt her daughter.
Most of all, however, I touched upon how it hurt her son to constantly have to he these nasty things about me. I told her I knew how much he loved his mother and how her words impacted him. In more diplomatic terms, I explained how continuing to disparage me would only put a wedge between her and her son. It took approximately five handwritten pages. Then…silence.
The result? Eventually, she reached out and made amends to her son. Frankly, some of what she said was crap about thinking about how people might treat future grandchildren (right!), but the gesture was appreciated. She never apologized to me, but she stopped giving me the evil eye when she thought I wasn’t looking. She started trying to be a little more pleasant when I was around.
Were we ever friends? No, but that wasn’t the aim—backing off her son was, and on that, we succeeded.
My next attempts at mother-son mediation did not have me as the center of the contention. It was mother versus son, too similar personalities rubbing up against each other. I often had to play referee and yell for a time-out.
The Bulldog had what you can only describe as a mercurial personality. One moment, he was sweet, affectionate and more of an observer. The next, he was punching a hole in the wall with his fist, telling off strangers at a bar to where they wanted to punch him, or he was shouting blistering rants at clients on the other end of the phone.
His mother, unfortunately, could also fly off the handle once she was triggered. And nothing could set Bulldog or his mother off more than each other. I remember being paralyzed with horror in the middle of a restaurant in Las Vegas when Bulldog and his mom began swearing and shouting horrible things at each other.
Something like “You’re ridiculous. I’m f***ing leaving,” was said, followed by, “Fine, get the hell out of here!” And before I knew it, I was left at a table with his parents while my boyfriend sprinted angrily out of the restaurant.
I glanced at his father who gave me an apologetic look. I glanced at his mother, whose face was red with fury but whose eyes were filled with tears. I shook my head, reaching out my hand, saying, “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry,” and then I ran to catch up with my ride. To say I was absolutely furious with him was putting it mildly. He knew his mom. He knew not to goad her. He knew to just let it go.
But I wasn’t so upset for just this one time. It was also for the time we were staying at their house, and there was an argument where he was too stubborn to back down that we left, not having a place to stay. So I had to get on the phone and find us a ridiculously overpriced hotel room for a night until I could convince him in the morning to stop being enough of an asshole to apologize.
And finally there was the time his parents were staying at our house, and I watched his mother’s face collapse right in front of me. Bulldog had just left me alone with her while she was crying, saying to me, “I don’t know why he says such things. I raised him better than that!”
I finally looked her in the eye and decided we needed to have a heart to heart. She needed to know that she wasn’t the only target of his wrath. I explained to her how his best friend literally had written Bulldog out of his life for the last time several months earlier because he couldn’t take his volcanic temper and insults anymore – apologies weren’t enough. I explained to her just how much pressure he was under with running his own franchise, how he’d taken on far more than he realized he was doing, how he didn’t know how to ask for help, how he wasn’t getting enough sleep, and how there’d be months where business was so slow we were struggling to pay the bills.
You could fairly ask me, where did I get off? Obviously, his family had been dysfunctional in their communicating just fine without me for many years, thank you very much. But I was somehow part of this family now, for better or for worse. They were putting me right in the thick of things.
And she was his mother, and she deserved to know what wasn’t personal and what buttons were especially tender for her son right now. He sure wasn’t going to tell her by himself. The Bulldog and his dad had a closer relationship, but there were still some layers of pride he hadn’t fully let down. Letting Bulldog’s mom see what was really going on opened up her eyes in a way that allowed her to really see Bulldog better, not just his snarling reactions. By no means is their relationship perfect even now, but I do know that we all started communicating with a bit more sensitivity from that point on.
For full disclosure, my very first communiqué with the Gentle Giant’s mother sprang from some insecurity issues on my part, envious of how close she was to his female best friend/ex-girlfriend. Honestly though, before our first date GG and his mom had discussed me fairly in-depth, he’d showed her my Facebook page, and I knew his mom and I had several things in common, and he had invited me to reach out to her even then regarding my career but I felt weird about it at the time.
Anyway, I did eventually send her an email after a couple weeks. Then, we did meet face-to-face during a move, which was a little weird. I worried she didn’t like me at all. Then I was completely shocked when she invited us both to dinner, and that seemed to go swimmingly. So well that I got a really sweet email from her, so I sent one back, and so it went.
This past week, GG and the mom had a discussion where he attempted to share frustration about an issue that unfortunately his mom took personally. He knew as soon as he hung up the phone that she was upset, and he told me how badly he felt about it. So imagine my surprise when a couple hours later I also get an email from his mom venting about the conversation, sharing her hurt feelings.
Now, I had talked with GG about this before stepping in, but I told him I thought it was just a matter of how things were communicated. He was trying to express A (frustration at this matter) and she heard B (he doesn’t appreciate me). The tough thing was I completely understood GG’s frustration, and I also understood his mom’s side of things – how easy it is to take words personally and internalize them – yet I wasn’t sure I knew a better way to phrase it so that GG’s mom wouldn’t take offense at what I said either.
So I thought about it. I wrote. I ran it by one of my friends who is really good at saying what she means from the best place in her heart. Then I crossed my fingers and hit send.
An email from GG’s mom was in my in-box.
Thanks so much for taking the time to really address my hurt feelings. What you wrote does make a lot of sense, and was very eloquently said.
She went on to tell me how much her son means to her and how much she loves him. It made me audibly “aww.” That’s what’s it all supposed to be about.
Phew. Then she really made me feel good by saying she saw why I chose the career I did: “You have a real talent for putting things in perspective.” We exchanged virtual hugs and encouragement.
Don’t worry—I’m not getting cocky. I just luckily chose the right situation to step into this time. I swear I am not making a habit out of doing this – except when I’m getting paid to do so.