Attitude is everything . . . or why I yelled at my 88 year old mother

I did something today that I’ve never done before:  I talked back to my 88 year old mother.  Despite my post caption, I didn’t actually yell at her, but I did scold her soundly.  The problem was that she gave voice to the straw that broke this camel’s back.  That straw was the complaint that “I’m so deeply unhappy.  Being old is miserable.  It wasn’t like this a few years before.”

You’d think that, at this point, if I was (as I like to think I am) a decent, compassionate person, I would have felt pity for her, and responded with loving and consoling words.  I couldn’t, though, and there’s a history to my inability to respond as she so clearly desired.

The problem is that my mother is one of those people who has responded to the pain and indignity of old age by complaining relentlessly.  I’ve joked for many years that she’s the only person I know who, when you ask the polite social question “How are you?”, gives an honest answer — and it’s never a cheerful answer.

For twenty years I’ve heard about her back pain, her leg pain, her headaches, her vision problems, the problems with her sister, the medication issues, the health fears, the financial problems, the unhappiness, and the friends who have disappointed her.  Five years ago, she moved into a really lovely retirement home, so she added to her litany complaints about the food, the people, the staff and her room (a sixth floor room with an expansive water view, which she furnished with her usual exquisite taste).

All of my mother’s complaints are valid.  She suffers tremendous pain, a legacy of her years in concentration camp.  Her vision is failing and the doctors predict that, within a few years, she might not be able to read.  She gets headaches.  She has a pacemaker.  Her sister is a nut case.  She’s not wealthy.  Her friends have their own problems and many cannot be there for her, or don’t want to be.  In her retirement home, the food ranges from surprisingly good to definitely mediocre.  Some of the staff are abrupt or not too helpful.  Not each one of the 300 residents is a nice person.  And after more than 40 years in a 1,600 square foot house, her room is small.

Not only are my mom’s complaints valid, she’s arguably earned the right to complain.  A child of divorce, dislocation, and imprisonment during war (in a Japanese concentration camp), and an adult who has waged an endless, grinding struggle to stay in the middle class socially and economically, she’s had anything but an easy life.  If she can’t complain, who can?

But having earned the right to complain doesn’t mean that one should exercise that right.  The complaints are merely wearing on me, but their effect on her is devastating.  Because she focuses unceasingly on the pains and troubles in her life, she has rendered herself incapable of seeing the blessings — and those blessings are many.

Sure, my mom has pain — serious pain — but she can still walk, whipping down corridors with her little wheeled walker.  And yes, her vision is problematic, but she can still read, watch TV and get around.  She’s lost some old friends but she’s still managed to keep quite a few.  Additionally, her retirement community has introduced her to some lovely new friends.  The food isn’t perfect, but she doesn’t have to shop, cook or clean, and it’s usually at least okay, as opposed to inedible.  Finally, while she never achieved real wealth, she did manage to end up with sufficient money to live in a safe, comfortable environment.  Moreover, her money will last several more years, and she has my promise that I will never abandon her financially.

As part of my harangue, I was careful to tell my mother that it’s true that I have no idea what pain she suffers.  How can I?  My imagination can reach only to sympathy, not empathy.  I’m pretty sure that, when I’m 88, I’ll say to myself, “Damn, but she must have hurt.”  That fact, however, does not obviate her responsibility to take care of her own emotional needs.  I cannot make her pain go away, I cannot make her young, I cannot resurrect her lost friendships, I cannot preserve her vision.  Neither can she.  The only thing over which she has control is her attitude.

My mom can choose to focus on everything that’s wrong with her life — and that’s a long list — or she can make the conscious effort to acknowledge the silver linings that float along with those clouds.

I’m not a hypocrite in making this demand of my mother.  I am a fairly negative person by nature, and there are certain things in my life that are not as I would wish them to be.  I therefore make a determined effort on a daily basis to count my blessings.  I don’t just count them in my head.  I articulate them.  I verbalize them.  If I whine to my sister about “negative X,” which is usually a specific situational thing, such as a complaint about a miserable carpool ride, I make sure to wrap up the conversation by reminding myself (out loud) about something in my life that makes me happy.  (This blog features frequently in those reminders.)

I’ve been practicing this technique of verbalizing positive things for almost 10 years now.  I started it when I was complaining to a friend about my horrible children (then 2 and 4).  I knew that I had the worst children in the world, primarily because I kept talking about how bad they were:  how obstreperous, and how messy, and how naughty, and how difficult in so many ways.

In response, my friend pointed out that something interesting:  Despite all evidence to the contrary, we assume that life (and children) will be good and easy.  When things are normative, we keep quiet about them.  That’s why “dog bites man” isn’t a news story, while “man bites dog” is.

My friend suggested is that I make sure to catch my children (and my life) being good.  “Three quarters of what comes out of your mouth,” he said, “should be positive.”

In the beginning, it was an enormous effort.  I was praising my children for not hitting each other or complimenting them for making less of a mess than usual.  I was very careful to make my praise honest, because otherwise I would be cheating both myself and my children.

Squeezing all this reluctant praise out of my perpetually angry mouth felt ridiculous and false.  Then, a funny thing happened.  Actually, two funny things.  First, my children started behaving better, as they responded to my praise, rather than avoiding my constant criticism.  Second, I suddenly realized I had good kids, not bad ones.  I’d changed my world view simply by articulating a different, more positive world view.

I still scold my children.  They’re kids after all, who do naughty, mean or thoughtless things, and it’s my responsibility to help shape them to be the best people possible.  But more importantly, I always, always give voice to praise when they deserve it.  Sometimes, it’s pretty measly praise, because they’re in a difficult phase, but I’ll can invariably find things that I can speak of with approval.  I also tell them, at least once a day, that I love them.

I told all this to my mom.  “I love you,” I said, “but you have to stop complaining all the time.  It’s not good for you, and it’s not good for my relationship with you.  You must count your blessings.”

Maybe my advice to my mom will take.  Or maybe, at 88, she’s too old to change.  All I know is that I firmly believe that what I told her is true, and it’s how I try to live my life.  That I don’t always succeed, that I have periods of unhappiness and even despair, and that my children are most decidedly not perfect, doesn’t change my striving or my belief that these efforts pay off in a happier me and a happier family.

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  • suek

    Maybe you should buy her Dennis Prager’s book “Happiness is a Serious Problem”…!

  • MikeL10

    It is very waring on a person to have another constantly complaining, especially one whom you love and respect.
    My wife and I have a saying that we started using with our children. After pointing out how the water just runs off the duck’s  back when they exit the water, We tell them “Be a duck” and let it go!
    I don’t know if what we say helps them feel better but it sure helps my wife Mary and I feel better! 🙂

  • I have a similar memory, too. With my 90 year old grandmother. She was upset that we didn’t go to church with her anymore. After hearing a litany of complaints as to why we were so awful for not going to church with her, I blew up, telling her that her church had long ago ceased to be anything recognizable as Christian. It had a lesbian pastor whose sermons were more or less all pro homosexuality. The gospel of transformation had been replaced with psychological diagnoses, and one of the sermons was about the sanctity of abortion rights. Enough was enough for me and I quit attending.
    My grandma had a good point, though. I could have done more before she’d died. I could have read my bible with her, could have played her favorite hymns for her more often, I could have prayed with her. I didn’t do any of those things, and now I realize that I’d missed an opportunity to be a source of comfort to her, rather than seeing her as a senile, crotchety old annoyance.

  • TommyC

    My mom passed away last April at the age of 93.  I can’t say I ever remember her complain (well, she did grumble a bit when the doctors told her to stop riding horseback when she was 70-something).  Of course, she reached the point where she’d repeat herself a lot, but our last visit (she was in Tenn, we’re in Col) just a couple weeks before she died was a joy.  She recognized all the grand-kids (5) and addressed them each by name; we went over all sorts of old photographs and she was able to name almost everyone and tell us some story behind each picture.
    I feel so blessed that we made the trip when we did and that our final visit together was so full of joy.  I only wish the same could happen for everyone, but I guess it just isn’t in the cards.  But no matter what, we have all had some good times and it is so much more important to remember them than to dwell on the bad.
    And we have to remember, as people get older they can often become something other than what they once were.  My mother-in-law had Alzheimer’s, but my father-in-law always treated her with love and respect as if she were what she once was, no matter how she behaved or talked to him.

  • Michael Adams

    Y’know, Book, just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean that they’re not out to get you. Conversely, your mother’s very real problems do not  mean that she might not cope better if she took  the right anti-depressant. Even something as simple as tryptophan or 5HTp might help her in the emotional coping department, as well as with her very real pain.  I realize that you don’t want to open a can of worms unless you are sure that you can eat them all at one sitting, but this is also something that bears consideration. All the best.  We know it is not easy to be your mother, or her daughter.

  • Suek:  She’s refused to read Dennis Prager’s book, which I own.

    Michael:  She’s tried antidepressants, but abandoned them for reasons unclear to me.


    “For twenty years I’ve heard about her…”
    Bookworm, do you mean she did not complain before she turned 68.  Most of us become the ‘aging poster child’ of what we were, unless we’ve made  a decision to alter our behavior. I don’t know all the intimate details about your mom and will only suggest that she is angry, which would make sense to me. Her history, the loss of her husband, the aging process, the memories of a life out of control in a Japanese concentration camp and now no control over her aging body, in a somewhat controlled retirement community.
    “For twenty years I’ve heard about her…”

    That’s a long time to hold back, too long.

  • Sadie:  I think she’s always been a complainer — and again, she’s earned the right.  It’s escalated in the past 20 years, though, to the point where she is, I think, unable to recognize the good things in her life.  That last is terribly sad, and that’s why today I finally urged her to stop complaining.

  • Mike Devx

    Book said,
    > “Three quarters of what comes out of your mouth,” he said, “should be positive.”

    In the beginning, it was an enormous effort.  I was praising my children for not hitting each other or complimenting them for making less of a mess than usual.  I was very careful to make my praise honest, because otherwise I would be cheating both myself and my children.
    Squeezing all this reluctant praise out of my perpetually angry mouth felt ridiculous and false.  Then, a funny thing happened.  Actually, two funny things.  First, my children started behaving better, as they responded to my praise, rather than avoiding my constant criticism.  Second, I suddenly realized I had good kids, not bad ones.  I’d changed my world view simply by articulating a different, more positive world view.
    I agree.  I think there are  lot of us (people like me) who grew up in the MidWest culture, who have difficulty giving praise.  It comes out very grudgingly! I think we’re trained that way from childhood on.
    When I was teaching high school in southern Texas back in the mid and late 80’s, during the first few years I found it nearly impossible to give out praise even when deserved.  Evaluators noted this and urged me to work on it.  I was also ridiculously and constantly negative during lunch breaks with co-teachers, to the point we played a game: I’d give up a buck for every negative comment.  Within a few days I was shocked at what a deeply negative person I was.  And I began to work on it.  It turned out to be quite easy to purge the ceaseless negativity once I broke the habit.
    One of the best things I’ve ever done for myself, I think.  These days I’m only negative towards people (such as the Obama/Pelosi/Reid cabal) who deserve it.   😉
    And giving out praise when its legitimate is fun.

  • Book, you really needed to vent, and I’m glad you did here. We all learn so much from you. I hope your mother will learn from what you told her too, but if not, at the very least you’ll feel better now having said your piece both to her and here on the blog. Now you can renew your efforts to be all she expects and needs from you, which is not an easy job.
    BTW, you write so eloquently, fast, and well. I wish I had your talent.
    Keep calm and carry on!

  • You are on the right course in life, Book. Let go of the doubts and keep at it.
    The explanation for all this is very easy to understand. Humans only do things because of motivation, positive or negative. If it is negative, like fear of punishment, when the fear is gone, the motivation is gone. But if the motivation is positive, such as a desire for a better life, they’ll keep at it until they get to the goal.
    When people think about giving up or about the negative things, they fall prey to being passive victims and so they lose their motivation and ambitions in life. They become the same as if they were dead. Children who constantly hear negative things and are afraid or scared, will develop in this negative environment to focus on negativity and do even more bad things, because they associate a mother’s love with negative attention.
    A human that endlessly complains about being a victim, has lost their empathy, for there are plenty of people who have more miserable circumstances. Yet to each individual person, their loss is their most important loss. To be incapable of understanding that, to believe that one has suffered the most out of all humans, that this makes them “special”, is a form of self-aggrandizing self-destruction. People are not sympathetic to people who endlessly complain about their own problems, because everybody has problems. A person that isn’t willing to get up off the coach and do something about their life’s problems, do not deserve sympathy from others. If we sympathized with people simply because their circumstances were unfortunate, humanity would have crapped out a long time ago, Book.
    We only have the luxuries we have now, because ancestors of numerous lineages struggled unto death, always striving for something better, even at the end of their lives. Regardless of how horrible a child has been treated, they will never grow up until they forgive their parents for the sins committed against them. Forgiveness of others is the same as forgiving yourself. Holding an endless vendetta for perceived wrongs in your life against others, is the same as hating yourself. This is especially true of family relationships. A child that hates its parents, begins to hate itself. A child that forgives its parents for abuse, begins to forgive itself for the part it played in the abuse.
    This is the Way of Peace. It is the true way, not a false path others have preached for their own self benefit and greed. The point is not to forgive people so that those people can be used to bring greater political power to an elite. The point of forgiving wrongs is to create a better life for the people you care about. It is not that you forgive killers because it’s okay for them to murder again. It’s because if you give people a second chance, they’ll often take it. If they do not, then get rid of them. You don’t have to be responsible for them destroying themselves by their own choices. But that also means you need not worry about them, for you have your own life to live. All you need to be responsible for is your own life and the life of those connected to you by bonds. That is your duty as a human. People freely take up the burden of duty to their nation or to strangers, but as a human, this is your only duty that was inherited from birth.
    There is something called the principle of freedom of association. You don’t need to be around bad and evil people. You can choose to be around those you like and those who are good to you. Yet many people are stuck in a cycle of violence and evil where they seek the approval of those who abuse them, solely because they are afraid of being alone. They do not have the strength to forgive themselves. They are looking for strength and support from others. The wrong others. They fill themselves with negative and weak emotions and expect to be saved and helped by others. It is ridiculous. Destructive emotions do not save anyone. It only destroys. To be saved, one must have feelings of good intent and positive/constructive nature.
    What kind of pitiful person believes that only they are the most miserable person in this world? Have they lost sight of their basic humanity to such an extent that they believe only they are suffering?

  • suek

    >>Suek:  She’s refused to read Dennis Prager’s book, which I own.>>
    Heh.   Interesting.  Then she _knows_ she’s “guilty”…but feels free to “act out” with you.  She’s “dumping” on you because you “have to” accept it.
    That makes me think she honors you with her complete faith in you – that you’ll accept it and not disown her or “punish” her.  It would be interesting to watch her interact with others in her surroundings.  My guess is that either she changes her behavior with them or has effectively run them all off, making herself even more miserable in her lonliness.
    Have you asked her what she wants you to do about her miseries?  Or have you tried telling her she’s limited to xx number of complaints, after which you’ll leave? (you’d have to keep track – that’s a negative right there!)  I find I have to be careful about what I say to my husband about stuff I like or stuff I don’t like – he considers either as something he should do something about, when I’m just commenting about whatever.  (“Wow – that’s a pretty blue car (I like blue)…”I’m sorry, Honey, they only had white.  We could get a paint job)  I have to appreciate his thoughtfulness, but sometimes it’s limiting!  So many times, I just comment mentally and let it go.
    I’ve heard it said that this is sort of the nature of men – like Sadie’s son and profligate partner.  That men _all_ have the White Knight within, and have that innate desire to rescue their fair maiden – and that we fair maidens have to be careful what we impose upon our rescuers lest we overwhelm them with a task they can’t perform.  Maybe.  It’s kind of a recent consideration for me – I never felt like a “fair maiden” before, and never gave it much thought.  Actually, I’ve found it a bit annoying … in the “Stop _doing_ stuff for me!  I’d rather do it myself!!”
    Hmmm.  Somehow I think I’ve come back to the Women’s Lib issue…  An odd trip!

  • Simplemind

    I think life does get exponetially more trying as you get older. (I could go off on a tangent about how it seems designed this way but I will refrain)

    I am 45 now, kids 6, 4, 2 with aging parents.  I thought every age of my life was harder than the last – this one the hardest yet. I am certain that if I live to age 88 i will wish I was 45 again. Nevertheless, I complain freely, and just so, I celebrate the small joys and triumphs freely. Both are true and truth should be recognized. 

    See if you can spot small moments where you can encourage your mom to celebrate. However, at the end of the day, life is kind of like boot camp or freshman calculus. Its hard, in parts arguably futile, and definitely a weed out situation. In the end we get judged individually.  Try not to let it get you down. In the scheme of eternity, a lifetime is but a night’s dream.

  • OK, so she won’t read Happiness Is a Serious Problem.
    Maybe you can sit down and explain the notion from that book that happiness is a moral obligation, and that emitting a bad mood is just as ill-mannered as emitting a bad body odor.  People take steps to control their body odor, even though it’s not “natural”, and likewise, people should take steps to control their mood.
    And this should not be during any sort of confrontation, laying out the ground rules you’re going to follow. And indeed, they’re rules your mother would probably be very happy if everyone around her followed, including the staff at the retirement home.  It may not change her attitude, but it will explain yours.