Monday, December 26, 2011
The House Hunt
Rob and Celia, in their separate ways, have been attempting to redefine their relationships with Celia’s mother, with whom they are in the process of buying a house.
Rob’s firm closed the week between Christmas and New Year’s, so for the time being he was working only one job, the part time Starbucks job. He had planned to work extra shifts – he found that paying down debt and building savings provided him with more energy than sleep did – but he decided to take the extra time to do some house hunting with Celia. They could use the time together anyway while Mom worked the after-Christmas sales.
In the three weeks since they had decided to pursue buying a house together, Rob was encouraged that their plan was sound. He and his mother-in-law continued to get along famously and Rob felt confident that little could arise in their relationship that he could not handle. Celia, whose complicated relationship with her mother typically drained her, reported similar success. “When Mom started talking about decorating the nursery,” Celia told Rob, “I told her that I refuse to think about a nursery until we have a new house.”
They were driving around neighborhoods Rob considered affordable, trying to determine where to focus their search. “And she accepted that,” Celia continued. “I know it seems like a little thing, but I fully expected her to come up with some convoluted reasoning why outfitting the whole nursery and storing it in our living room until we move made sense. Time was I would have believed her, but”— Celia paused.
“But what?” Rob prompted.
“But our relationship is so much better now that you are a part of it. She’s less crazy”— Celia paused again, obviously in the middle of her comment.
—“And?” Rob prompted, again.
“And so am I,” Celia said. “You and I have known each other for five years now. It’s taken that long, but all the good stuff you got growing up – parents married, everyone happy more often than not – is rubbing off on me. I feel like I can handle my mother for the first time ever. Never in my life would it have occurred to me to live with her again, but I’m actually excited about this!”
Rob pulled over in front of a pretty, small Victorian on a tiny lot with a “For Sale” sign in front, turned off the engine and took Celia’s hand. “Look at that,” he said, pointing to the house. “I can’t believe this, but we could probably afford something like that. It doesn’t have a separate guesthouse or anything, but as well as the three of us are getting alone, we might not need to be so separate.
Celia looked at the house and sighed. “It looks like a place to raise a happy family, Rob.” She turned to him. “I really want to be a happy family.”
“So do I,” he said. Rob kissed his wife, quite content with his lot in life.
How does their plan unfold?
Monday, December 19, 2011
Rob and Celia’s plan to partner with her mother to buy a house to share is proceeding, but Celia has her doubts that she can manage that relationship without vaster mileage between them.
The first weekday of Celia’s Christmas break coincided with her mother’s day off as Williams-Sonoma holiday help. Rob had already left for work and Celia, lying abed to avoid facing her mother, did not look forward to the day. She had backed off from most interaction with her, yielding the responsibility to Rob, who had accepted it gladly since he tolerated Mom’s button pushing much better than Celia.
She rolled over, laying on her back and putting her hands on her belly. At four months pregnant, Celia’s bump was slight but present. She knew from the pregnancy books that this was her window to be productive, between the end of fatigue and nausea but before she had grown big and uncomfortable. But to be productive meant leaving this room and engaging her mother – so, immobilized, Celia remained in bed.
Rob had been wonderful, talking to her mother and setting boundaries so diplomatically that Mom did not even grasp his intention. Rob would ooh and aah over her cooking and baking and between hefty portions would make “small” suggestions. He would say things like, “One of the things I’ve learned about Celia, being married to her, is…” and state how he would handle a particular situation. Mom, in her affection for Rob and her desire to remain on his good side (Celia presumed) would generally follow through just as Rob hoped. This made Celia hope that she, too, might be able to find new ways of handling her. Eventually.
Celia sighed and dragged herself out of bed. Out of gratitude for Rob’s efforts, she decided to deal with her mother today. She tied on her bathrobe and opened the bedroom door tentatively. Mom sat on the sofa with a morning news program on, muted. Her glasses were low on her nose as she looked at a list she was making.
“Checking it twice?” Celia said, hoping to keep it light.
“Well, it looks like Catherine is selling my house, and Rob is looking at new houses for us – I’m not even sure what’s left for me to do!” she said. “Help you, I guess.”
“Well, what’s on your list?” Celia said as she sat down, biting her tongue from reminding her mother that she needed to pack up her house to move, have a yard sale, find a permanent job – Celia could think of a million things that would be infinitely more helpful than actually “helping” her.
“We need to get your nursery ready,” Mom said. “When will you find out if it’s a girl or a boy? I’m thinking greens and yellows in any case”—
“Mom,” Celia said. “We need to talk.”
What does Celia say next?
Monday, December 12, 2011
Rob, Celia, and her mother shared a brief honeymoon period around the idea of partnering together to buy a house in Columbus.
Rob still believed they had stumbled together into a good idea over the long term. Meanwhile he was not sure if he would survive the short term. Rob admitted that he had never understood just why Celia’s relationship with her mother was so fraught with drama, all the time, because Rob had always gotten along with her just fine. The longer Mom lived with them in their small apartment, though, the more he empathized with Celia and the life she had lived with Mary Gillespie as her mother.
He had come home from his second shift as a Starbucks part-timer, hoping to be greeted with a quiet ham sandwich, but instead he arrived to an argument he could hear clearly even in the hallway thirty feet from the front door.
Rob flooded with multiple streams of panic and he resisted running back to his car; he worried about Celia being pregnant and stressed, and he feared that the living together ideas was a huge mistake – perhaps he should have let Celia’s initial fears drive their decision making after all. “You can’t stay here, Mom,” might have felt cold and unkind but at least it would have been clean. Rob had never liked messy; he even had vivid childhood memories of sitting in a booster seat at the table shrieking to have his sticky hands wiped off.
He sighed to face what he had signed up for and opened the front door. Celia sat on the sofa with her head in her hands while her mother stood a few feet away with her arm in the air as if she had been gesturing something. Both looked up as Rob entered the living room.
“Robbie, thank God you’re home,” Mom said. “Celia won’t listen to me about taking care of herself. She needs to be eating for two but she insists she’s not hungry. I brought home cookie cutters and sugar cookie mix – would it kill her to eat a couple of them? They’re just going to go to waste now.”
He looked at Celia and saw not his pregnant adult wife but a young child in whose eyes were despair and helplessness. He had never understood so clearly as in that moment why physical distance had been Celia’s preferred method of dealing with her mother.
Rob dropped his things and, ignoring his mother-in-law, went straight to Celia and sat next to her.
“Mom, those cookies smell great and I’m going eat half of them myself in a minute,” he said as he put his arm around his wife. “It’s OK if Celia doesn’t want any. Her doctor said she should eat what she wants, when she wants.”
Rob had no idea what the doctor had said on this point but he groped for the most local authority he could invoke. “And they won’t go to waste. I’ll take them to work tomorrow.”
“I’ll put another layer of colored sugar on them right now and pack them up,” Mom said. At least she could be redirected easily. “Glass of milk, Robbie?” she added as she disappeared into the kitchen.
“Sounds great,” he called after her.
Celia stood up. “I don’t think I can do it,” she said in an angry whisper. “How am I ever going to take care of our baby with her telling me what to do every minute?”
How does Rob respond?
Monday, December 05, 2011
Embracing a new normal
Rob and Celia pitched an idea to her mother: sell your house and move to Columbus with us. We’ll partner in buying a house.
Celia’s mother barely seemed to be the same person, so happy was she about their idea. The personality shift was nearly a one-eighty. Instead of denial, she stood firmly on the ground and engaged the reality of her situation. Instead of negativity, hope and optimism allowed for genuine participation. Celia dared to hope that the lifelong depressive who had raised her might, for once, enjoy her own life. She was surprised, though, that this did not feel like pressure; instead the energy they had put into the old boundaries had been freed to flourish in this new direction.
Celia knew this was a honeymoon phase and that the process would not be easy. Thankfully, Celia’s sick-and-tired first trimester of pregnancy had passed. Between Rob’s real job and his part-time Starbucks job, and Mom’s William-Sonoma holiday help job, many of the real tasks of the transition fell to Celia. She embraced them. First, she broke news of the plan to her older sister Catherine, who still lived with Mom, via phone. Obviously, this would impact her.
To Celia’s surprise, Catherine broke down in tears – of relief.
“I can get on with my own life now,” Catherine said. “I’m going to apply to grad school!” Catherine further offered to be the boots-on-the-ground in terms of selling the house in Canton and would start by contacting real estate agents. Cleaning out and packing up the house would be a job, but the sisters agreed to start this task between Christmas and New Year’s, when Celia would be on vacation from teaching.
Next, Celia addressed the real issue of how she, Rob, and her mother would co-exist in a small one-bedroom apartment for the next few months. She cleaned out the coat closet in the living room entirely, moving its contents into the bedroom, to create a contained space for her mother’s belongings. She put a laundry basket on the floor for the bedding and pillow her mother used on the sofa, and put clothes hangers on a shopping list.
By accepting the new normal rather than continuing to fight the old one, Celia found that she actually had more control over the situation than less. A vague memory from a martial arts class she had taken as a child floated back to her, about moving with energy rather than against it… she had been fighting to separate from her mother for years, and now, with Rob’s help, she had accomplished this by embracing the relationship.
Her gratitude toward her husband welled up. She narrated every point in her life that had led her to Ohio State and the fencing class, of all things, in which she and Rob had met one another.
What happens next?
Thursday, December 01, 2011
Reality Hits Home (Joanne’s comment)
I like Rob’s thinking. We could spend our lives waiting for the people we love to grow and change into the people we want them to be. Some of them are never going to—why not figure out how to embrace them anyway? Of course, I’m not talking about genuinely abusive people—we should not “embrace” and therefore enable those who hurt us. But most of us have relationships with some middle-of-the-road dysfunctional family members that would benefit from a savvy combination of flexible boundaries and creative thinking. Celia’s mother doesn’t have any problems that a good dose of life purpose won’t solve, and a job and grandchild in another city could provide that. Today’s economy means that building a financial future requires thinking differently than in past generations. Multi-generational living is making a resurgence—why not be intentional about it in order to make it win-win? I hope Celia and her mother like his idea. Even if they don’t act on it, just discussing it might facilitate new ways of communicating.
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