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.