A No-Win Situation

confused chess

My mother sighed, clearly exasperated with me yet again. My transgression? I had objected after finding out that she’d hidden information from me for no apparent reason. I’d learned that my half-sister was flying into town from across the country. My mother (her stepmother) knew all about the trip. In fact, the two of them had made arrangements to get together, along with other siblings. But no one informed me — despite my friendly relationship with my sister at the time. I was completely in the dark about the entire topic until it an extended family member innocently mentioned what she knew.

It was a longstanding pattern of my mom’s, this inexplicable secret-keeping. Every time she pulled the stunt, I ended up feeling vexed and outraged. I mean, the things she kept from me were often so weird and unnecessary. There seemed to be no logical reason to be secretive. I would have understood that my sister couldn’t fit in time to see me. She had reasons for coming east that would take her several hours from my home. Of course, it was strange that she was seeing the rest of my family without including me. And like my mother, she chose not to clue me in.

I wasn’t shy about expressing my feelings to my mom. Again and again, I asked her not to obscure the truth in these situations. I explained that every time she hid or obscured information it further eroded my trust. I could sense that my candor irritated her. At some point, though, she would usually capitulate and assure me that she understood.

Yet, here we were again.

It wasn’t just the secrets. My mother had blind spots when it came to other actions that might cause me pain as well. On several occasions when things were very strained between the two of us, she had invited cousins I’d been close with to come stay at her home for extended periods of time – basically to live with her. She would even travel and host dinner parties with these peers of mine. At least once, she and the cousin kept the arrangement quiet from me. It felt like a betrayal and it hurt like hell.

And then there were the more subtle moves. Like the time she brought a friend to my home for lunch and spent the whole visit gushing about the amazing virtues of my wonderful husband. He was responsible for everything you see around you, she explained to her companion. The lovely home, the food we were eating…they were in the presence of greatness! “I don’t know if I’m worthy enough to even sit near your husband,” the friend told me jokingly.

I got the hint pretty quickly that I was basically chopped liver in my mom’s eyes. She knew full well that my husband and I had always been a 50/50 team in our endeavors. It’s true that he’s amazingly handy, hardworking, and–most importantly–a great person. But I’m no slacker either. Every surface of the home they were admiring had been painted by me. I had stayed home to raise our three kids, giving them the best of myself for a decade and a half. And that morning I had done all the planning, shopping, and prep for lunch so my husband could throw it on the grill to the oohs and aahs of his enthusiastic admirers. My mother’s one-woman campaign to erase my contributions was another smack in the face.

I called her on it the next day. She denied having anything but good intentions and intimated that I was overly sensitive. “You’re always so mad about everything,” she told me. This response stung, mostly because I’d heard it all before–not just from her but also my late father and many siblings. I’d spent my life being pressured to hush up and stop making trouble when I stood up for myself. When my father or brother raged at me in response, the rest of the family repeated their tired refrain: “It takes two to tango, Miranda.” Um, no it doesn’t. Not when I’m a kid and my dad is screaming epithets at me.

Of course, I COULD have chosen to say nothing in the face of my mother’s behavior. I often opted for letting things go, knowing that my words would probably fall on deaf ears anyway. The trail of her broken promises was long and the emotional cost of these confrontations was no small thing for me. Letting it go just made more sense. Of course, my aforementioned fabulous husband got an earful of my outrage. He listened sympathetically like the prince he is and validated my frustrations. But there was no real satisfaction for me. It was a no-win situation. Swallow my feelings and resent my mother, or speak up and be told that I’m the problem.

Talking to countless fellow survivors over the last few years, I know this conundrum is not unique to me. Many of us are stuck. We feel the need to stand up for ourselves, but don’t want to face the prospect of being ignored or facing a backlash in response.

There’s no easy solution. Going no contact is one option, though it doesn’t necessarily end the desire to self-advocate. My advice is to go easy on yourself. Understand that you’re in a no-win situation, and don’t blame yourself for your reactions as long as you’re being reasonable. If it’s not worth telling your family members how you feel, write it down, speak with a good therapist, and talk to sympathetic friends. You may want to assess each instance separately. Most of all, take care of yourself and learn how to honor your feelings, even if no one in your family will.