Obligation vs. Gratitude
I had an interesting conversation with a dear friend recently. We discussed the difference between gratitude and obligation. I must admit, I never consciously thought about the difference. While, from a strictly definition stand point I comprehend the difference, subconsciously, I have been acting as if the words were one in the same. This is particularly true in relation to my mother.
My mother was a single parent who worked exceptionally hard to put herself through school and worked long hours just to put mac and cheese on our table. She was far from perfect as a mother, but she did always try to show me and tell me that I was loved.
Over the past few years there has been a growing tension in my relationship with my mother, so much so that I am trying to figure out where she fits in my life. It’s not that she doesn’t fit; she is my mother. But, the amount of space she has previously occupied within me, is no longer for her.
My mother, being a fundamentalist Christian, has not taken well to my recent assertion of my sexuality and religious beliefs. Furthermore, she has alluded to (not so subtly) on more than one occasion, that she is worried for my toddler’s soul. You see, we read our daughter books about all different religions, and all different types of families. We tell her that god is in her, and that everyone is talking about the same god, they just use different terms based on their experiences. We tell her that we can exist beautifully with others, even when we don’t agree with them. We let her swear when she stubs her toe, but we never let her say hateful words to others. We are trying to create an environment where our daughter grows in empathy, compassion and awareness for others. Sometimes we are incredibly successful and in awe of her kindness, other times we suck at being good examples. That is just part of being a parent; a person.
I have been trying to find the balance between asserting myself as a mother, and still being an adult daughter. I haven’t found it yet. I imagine this happens in many relationships. The mounting tensions between her and I have increased the feeling I have that I am completely stuck. I want my daughter to know her grandmother, but as I find myself more and more, I also find myself further from her.
A complicated series of events in my childhood led my mother to pull me away from everyone in my family accept her and one aunt. I felt an extreme void where family should have been. I felt this void for most of my life. I know I never want that for my daughter. My husband comes from a big family, and though they have their issues just like everyone else, I love the sense of community and safety I feel within that family. I want my daughter to feel such a network. So, I find myself stuck.
How much do we allow from our parent’s just to keep the peace? I have to remind myself that while my mother is my family of origin, at least to me, that isn’t what makes a family. I need to remind myself that my family is my husband and daughter. I chose to keep an obligation to look out for their best interests. I need to remind myself that what I have for my mother does not need to be obligation.
This will sound harsh, but bear with me: I don’t owe my mother anything. That is not something I thought I would ever say. In fact, if you would have asked me a couple years ago, I would have said I was eternally indebted to her. But why would I be indebted?
Because she brought me physically into this world?
Yes, she did. But, I didn’t ask to come into the world- that was her choice. I am grateful that she made that choice, but it was still her choice.
Because she raised me to the best of her ability?
Again, while I am grateful, I didn’t ask for that either.
Because she taught me many lessons?
Is that not also part of what you take on as a parent?
These are not debts. These are occasions for gratitude.
I am learning there is a stark difference. Being indebted to her tells me that I shouldn’t speak my truth if it is contrary to hers, it tells me that when she asks me if she can take my daughter to religious events that I have already said I was uncomfortable with, that I should just let it slide. Gratitude tells me that standing in my truth and protecting my daughter as I see fit, can exist simultaneously with gratitude for what my mother has done. This is a powerful and freeing realization. I felt powerless under the weight of indebtedness. There is a freedom in realizing I don’t owe her anything past gratitude.
How often do we act, or fail to act out of a false sense of obligation to another? I didn’t choose obligation to my mother. I did, however, choose to be obligated to do my best by my husband and daughter- that was and is my choice. Just like it was my mother’s choice to decide to keep me and raise me. I might suck at it, but I will do my best to remember when my daughter is grown that she doesn’t owe my anything, but I will take her gratitude.