Mum is on speakerphone as I get ready for the gym. I’m trying to find a sports bra to wear but they’re all dirty, so I have to pick one out of the washing basket and spray it with deodorant. She’s complaining about a recent clothes order in which none of the jeans fit. I tell her she should get them tailored, but she can’t be bothered. There’s a lull in the conversation and I know what she’s about to say—I can feel it prickling in the air between us.
“So, has that guy mentioned anything else about his Halloween party?”
“He’s gone quiet again?”
“Not quiet, but…”
“Do you think he’s worried about you meeting his friends?”
I scrape my hair back into the tightest bun I can manage. “Why would he be worried about that?”
“I don’t know, maybe he’s worried about what they’ll think.”
“He’s not embarrassed of me, if that’s what you mean.”
I try to think of something else to say before Mum talks again, but she’s too quick.
“He’s got a girlfriend, hasn’t he?” she says.
“Why would you say that?” I half scream and then hang up the phone, lie back on my bed, and stare up at the cracks running through my ceiling. It’s quite the reach. There are so many other reasons why he might have changed his mind about bringing me. Maybe it’s too soon to introduce me to his friends. Maybe he’s just forgotten. And yet now I feel there are all these secret possibilities shifting around behind my back, morphing into monstrous shapes.
I open up WhatsApp and send a long voice note to my group chat explaining the situation. I love telling my mum about what’s going on in my dating life. She cares about all the little details everyone else would find boring, like what the lighting was like and whether he waited with me until my bus came. But, you tell her a bit and then she wants a follow-up and another one. That’s not her fault; I’d want to hear the end of the story, too. But, when things go wrong, it’s like I have to relive all the hurt again through her.
Plus, she always sums up situations with blunt, brutal conclusions like “He was always threatened by you” that don’t feel true to my experiences. And then she’ll change her mind about these conclusions and form new ones, and we will keep on diagnosing and re-diagnosing until it’s actually weird how much we’ve both thought about this man. And sometimes she says things that make me feel so sad, like when, the other day, she said, “Oh, I just wish there was a nice man to walk you home.” I felt so tragic, like a cat hair-covered, flannel pajamas-wearing, Vampire Diaries-rewatching saddo, because only someone like that would have their mum pitying them in that way.
I know she’s just worried about me, but I don’t want her to worry because then I end up having to reassure her. And when I end up spending ages reassuring her, it means I don’t get the support I was reaching out for in the first place.
“I don’t tell my mum anything anymore for this exact reason,” my friend replies to my voice note. “Otherwise you end up carrying the weight of two people’s thoughts, fears, expectations. And, until you get to a place where you’re able to not take those on board (which may never happen, we listen to our loved ones!), it’s good to evaluate what information you give to her, when.”
I know my friend is right—the only way around this is to put some sort of boundary in place. I ring my mum later in the day when I’m back from the gym and tell her that I just think it’s best if we stop talking about the men I’m dating until there’s something concrete going on, because I feel like I’m letting her down when it’s not going well.
I forget that people over 50 don’t know what the fuck you’re going on about when you talk about setting boundaries.
“Oh, I always say the wrong thing,” she says.
I tell her I’m not angry for what feels like the 48th time and then she heaves out a big sigh and says, “I just want you to be happy.” And then I realize: That’s the problem. Mums tend to love us more than we love ourselves. They literally give their bodies to us, letting us stretch their skin until it rips, their feet swelling until they can’t fit into shoes. They prioritize us over their work, ignoring emails from people they’d love to do something for. They talk about us at parties to their friends like we’re the most interesting things to ever walk the Earth. They let us have the toast that isn’t burned, the nice gooey bit at the edge of the pie, lend us clothes they still wear, and they push and push us to be better because they think we can do anything. They worry about us being happy, because often they want that for us even more than we do. The issue is that, in worrying, they often make us feel even worse.
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“Okay, I’ll tell you,” I say, a smile curling up at the corners of my mouth. “But you have to promise not to bring it up unless I bring it up first?”
“I promise” she says.