Holiday home invasion

I don't want houseguests, I don't, I don't! But here comes my mom to complain about my air mattress!

Published December 9, 2004 8:00PM (EST)

Hello, Cary:

Well, it seems to be that time of year again. I have spent the last 48 hours with a knot in my throat (and one in my shoulders, and a few in my back muscles), relishing that classic holiday feeling of having Disappointed the Family Once Again. I know it is an all-too-human experience, and that as such I should just roll with it ... but it seems so UNNECESSARY. There's got to be a better way.

Here's my ax to grind:

I am a single 37-year-old gal who has lived alone for the vast majority of my adult life (most recently, for the past 10 years). I enjoy living alone and realized sometime in my late 20s that I did not actually enjoy "entertaining at home" that much. While I still consider myself to be a warm, loving, sociable, fun person ... I do not choose to have people over to my house, and I do not choose to have overnight houseguests. I find that when forced to do so, I become edgy, uncomfortable with feeling 100 percent responsible for the guest's experience at every moment, and it rarely turns out to be a good time for me (or for my guests, I would imagine). I'm not saying this reaction is entirely neurosis free, but it is something I have recognized and (for now) accepted about myself.

My family, however, refuses to accept this and continues to insist on coming to visit. And I don't mean "coming to visit the town where I live"; I mean scheduling travel plans so that they will be sleeping at my house for a few days at a time. My discomfort with having company is no passive-aggressive thing that I keep hidden under a veneer of pretending that everything is fine, whilst standing in the kitchen obsessively sharpening the knives; I have said more times than I can count "I just don't really like having company. It's not anything against any of my loved ones, but I just end up uncomfortable." My family treats this like some subtle, vaguely insulting and not-funny joke.

So once again, I had company for the Thanksgiving holiday, and once again I ended up feeling like a failure because I wished that they had stayed elsewhere ... Like, perhaps, with the very close family friends (the ones with the four-bedroom house) who live about a mile from my place. My mother went home pissed off after spending four days sleeping on an uncomfortable air mattress and demanding a level of intimacy between us that I simply don't feel.

I love my mother very much, but (for a number of reasons) I tend to be a little bit more private than she would like. Instead of accepting this, she instead seems to ignore it for as long as she can ... and then gets her feelings hurt when we do not stay up all night with sleeping bags on the floor, telling secrets and giggling.

That's an exaggeration, Cary, but not by much. Some circumstances of my childhood resulted in a perhaps heightened urge toward self-protection in emotional relationships; I seem to have developed the hard-candy coating that may be typical to adults who went through abandonment and trauma as children. (My mom did the "I need to go find myself" thing and left me at age 5 with my sociopath father and an abusive, alcoholic stepmother. Mom came back and regained custody when I was 13, but I'm guessing that some of my less-than-ideal thought patterns were already well in place by then.)

I feel the need to repeat that I am a kind and loving person, and not some maladjusted shut-in. I truly love my family and genuinely enjoy their company -- when it is meted out in such a way that I can now and then go home and spend alone-time with my dogs (instead of stressing about the guest towels in the bathroom). I just don't know what to say to my mom when she calls me a few days from now, acting bravely cheerful and yet still vaguely hurt. "I told you so" doesn't seem very gracious, now does it?

The Reluctant Black Sheep

Dear Reluctant Black Sheep,

Thank you for writing. It's good to hear from you. I've had so many letters this week complaining of post-Thanksgiving stress disorder!

It's revealing and unnerving and remarkably true to form how you draw us in and then drop the bomb. Not liking to have houseguests sounds like an irritation and not much more, until we come to your mom abandoning you at age 5 to your sociopath father and abusive, alcoholic stepmother. It's as though you were writing to complain about someone's table manners and then you say, "Oh yes, and by the way, the table manners I'm referring to are those of the prison guards in the maximum security prison in which I have been unjustly incarcerated lo these many, many years -- but don't get me wrong, I've adjusted OK!"

It is also, to my ear, both revealing and true to form how sophisticated and full of inner strength you sound; it's the familiar sound of precocious self-reliance that neglected children acquire out of necessity. So it will come as no surprise to you that I think this childhood abandonment was more a betrayal than you let on, and more profound, and that it hasn't been dealt with the way it will need to be at some point; it's just been, as your words suggest, candy-coated. At the risk of torturing the conceit, there is below the candy coating some tender, tragic, melting sweetness that lives in fear of the day when the armor wears thin. It's not just sweetness either, if my guess is correct, but also a fiery rage always suppressed -- because if it should ever burn with all its annihilating brightness, then your mom might really go for good, and you, as a 5-year-old, couldn't survive that, could you?

I'm not suggesting we pity you for what happened; I am suggesting you not minimize the enveloping nature of it, its centrality, its omnipresence. I suggest you begin instead like a scientist with a Geiger counter, searching out in every crevice the ancient echo of this abandonment, where like traces of the big bang it still crackles in the air.

Certain hypotheses are easy: For instance, to have your own home represents not just convenience, as your family seems to blandly assume, but utter survival. This one thing, in the face of abandonment, remains certain and true: Your four walls, your deadbolts, your own utility bills and kitchen paint, your own plants and cartons of milk in the fridge, your own direct line to the world unmediated by a mother on whom you know you cannot depend. How important these four walls are to you psychically! How powerfully any threat to them undermines your sense of well-being!

But yes, now that Thanksgiving is over, you have survived another threat, only instead of flying to Stockholm to accept the Nobel Prize for Taking Shit From Your Family you are expected to pretend days later that it never happened, just as you were expected to pretend as a 5-year-old that of course you understand that your mother needs to go discover herself! -- as though there were any part of a mother, to a 5-year-old, not sufficiently discovered already! As if the mother, wholly sufficient to the child, her very source of miraculous being, should be in some way insufficient to herself! How can that be? the 5-year-old might ask herself, unless the mother were fractured somehow? Or unless she, the 5-year-old, had injured her, or was insufficient to her happiness? How can it be that the source of my life, my blood, my food, my safety, should be insufficient to herself though wholly sufficient to me? And what does that mean about me? Am I not central to her existence, as she is central to mine? What have I done? Is it my failure to become fully competent in the area of potty training and speech that has caused her to become bored with me and seek more? How have I failed her that she's got to go off and discover herself? Who is this woman I thought was mine? And moreover who is this new woman with Daddy who stinks of medicine and can't walk straight, who stumbles and vomits and screams at me?

Sure, if the 5-year-old girl could think and speak, she might be saying things like that. But more likely only later would she formulate these thoughts verbally; they're just buried in her bones for now. They're buried in her ways, in her walls and floors, in her need to turn the lights out and hear not a sound, in her need to click the deadbolt and unplug the phone. I wish I knew the mechanisms in scientific terms, but I've never been trained in the clinical stuff; I'm just guessing, the way the writers always have to guess, trying on shoes, throwing paint at the wall, inventing speech to answer our outrage.

I know we all abandoned children in the 1970s and '80s -- if I had had children I would have abandoned them as well, I'm sure of it. I was as hedonistic and heedless as the rest of us. Plus I was drinking, so I get no Nobel Prize in Selfless Concern.

All I'm saying is that this post-Thanksgiving blues sounds like the echo of an old, old abandonment and if I were you I would be so inconsolable and so angry I don't know how I would be able to mask it and forgive. Does she not see now that however dreamy her self-discovery seemed at the time it was truly the wrong thing to do? Have you ever discussed it with her? Has she ever broken down and said Yes, I see now that I was selfish and young, and yes, if I could, I'd redo it a different way, and you, my 5-year-old, would be the central shining joy of my young motherhood? Don't you long to hear that? You'll probably long for it your whole life.

Meanwhile, maybe you can just get really tough. Don't ask. Insist. Lay down the law. No family staying with you. None. Otherwise, your heedless mother, who perhaps has a little of the narcissist in her, will be walking through your walls for the rest of your life. You'll never feel safe until you can lock her out.

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