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A man and woman holding hands while sitting at a table.

As a young girl, I spent many Saturdays going to Philly with my mom. We didn’t do the typical sightseeing or visit the many museums that this amazing city had to offer. Instead, we visited my grandmother, who, by the time I was school-aged, was a widow living in an assisted living apartment complex on the outskirts of the northeast quadrant of town. 

We’d go into the apartment and no sooner as I had turned on the television did my mom and her mom get to arguing. My mom would ask why the apartment was as junky as it was and her mom would get defensive and by the time we were there ten minutes, they were full-on fighting (not physically of course). This was the norm. 

I remember my mom taking verbal and emotional abuse from my grandmother, and I always wondered why she kept going back to try to help her. Phone calls were the same. My mom or her mom would call and they always ended up in an argument.  I could never understand how or why my mom would take that kind of treatment from her own mother.  

Until now.

As a Black child growing up in the 90s with two older parents, obedience was expected. I was taught that children were to listen to their parents, not talk back, and the most important thing was to never, ever, make parents have to repeat themselves. These were the rules, or rather my mother’s rules.

Something she used to say quite frequently was that she if told me what to do and I told her I understood it, then she shouldn’t have to repeat it. As a mother now, I know that this is not realistic in any way, shape, or form because children are going to forget things. This is because their brains are still developing and it can be difficult to hold on to a lot of different kinds of information at one time. 

Young children especially can find it challenging to focus from time to time, especially if it’s something they are not interested in. It doesn’t mean they don’t care or that they are disobedient but rather that they are young and still learning. Of course, we know this now because of the education we have about children and how there are differences in how children, and people in general, learn and understand the world around them.

But in the 90s, and even before then, parenting was very black and white. You either did what you were told and were rewarded, or you disobeyed and were punished.  

Boundaries were something that was never discussed or encouraged in my family. As with many other families and cultures, the family came first. Blood came first. And no matter what happened or what you or someone in your family did, you always took care of each other. 

The foundation of this thinking is that of protection. There was a time when the family was all you had, and that to look after each other was to save one another, especially in the Black community. It’s always been dangerous for us in this country and a lot of times, all we had was each other. 

We were taught that the people who came before us sacrificed so much so that we could have the lives we have, and that we were to honor them. Respect was everything, and to show disrespect in any way was to say that you didn’t appreciate their sacrifice. That respect was shown by obedience. 

But somewhere along the way, the line between obedience and respect became very, very blurred. We experienced and accepted the judgment, criticism, and unrealistic expectations, which then affected our self-worth, self-esteem, and induced anxiety. But what were we to do? After all, this was family, right? They were all we had.  

After my grandmother died in 2001, my mom took in much of her mother’s old belongings as most adult children have to, and handled all her affairs on her own. Even though my mom has a brother, she was left to sift through what had to be difficult memories and make the hard decisions as to what was going to stay and what was going to go. This is never easy, while simultaneously grieving the loss of a loved one. 

I remember feeling nothing when my grandmother passed, which I know sounds terrible.  She was always mean to my mother, and I always felt so uncomfortable around her. Something about her presence was always so ominous. And I never understood how my mom could mourn someone who treated her so badly. Now, I do.

We Can Inherit Challenging Behaviors From the People We Love the Most

You see, the one thing about family is that sometimes we can inherit challenging behaviors from the people we love the most. It’s now clear to me that my grandmother suffered from some kind of undiagnosed mental illness that affected the way she treated those whom she loved. She was comfortable being miserable and reveled in her ability to play the victim so well.   

Because of the expectation to be obedient and loyal, my mother, regardless of how her mother treated her, was always there to take care of her. She called her mother every day. She visited her whenever she could.

After years of abuse and manipulation, my mom still found a way to wait on her mother. It was her way of showing her love to a woman who was unable to return that love healthily.

My mother never learned about boundaries, which might have changed the way our relationship would develop throughout my adulthood. She was discouraged from traveling or moving far from her family. This kept her and her mother constantly dependent on one another.

Today, I am a mom of three beautiful kids, all of whom have different challenges that have shifted the way I parent. I understand a little more about early childhood development and that, in addition to my children’s very different personalities, has taught me how to create realistic expectations and appropriate consequences for my children. I still have some of my rigidity which I am working on, but overall I do my best to create an emotionally healthy environment for my family. 

Unfortunately, that has meant having to put strict boundaries between my mother and me. Since losing my father, my mother has just about turned into her own mother, never taking responsibility for the hurtful things she has said to me in anger, accusing me of not caring about her just because I cannot call her every day as she wants me to, and reacting to things that upset her in a passive-aggressive manner that creates tension, making everyone in the room uncomfortable.

Conversations often turn into criticisms and arguments and I was noticing that I felt more drained and stressed getting off the phone than I did getting on the phone. In these moments, I’m grateful for my ability to attend therapy and I can get the help I need in managing and the harmful behaviors that I sometimes have when stressed. 

Although the Army pisses me off at times, I am thankful for the independence it’s taught me. As with many military families, we are often removed from our homes and families of origin to travel with our spouses to different places every few years. In this time, I have had to learn to remove myself from my mother when it came to problem-solving. No longer could I depend on her to help me fix things.

Boundaries Are A Necessary Part of Trying to Fix a Broken Relationship

In taking care of my mental health and in teaching my children how to take care of their whole selves, I’ve learned that boundaries are a necessary part of trying to fix a broken relationship. I still struggle, however, with balancing the expectations that I was raised with as a child with the anxiety management and self-preserving skills that I am learning as an adult. There is a part of me that still feels obligated to take care of my mom. 

After all, she is by herself and I want to show that I care. But I also know now that it is not ok to tolerate mistreatment by anyone, especially those who are supposed to love you unconditionally. Someone else’s hardships or trauma does not make it okay for them to act like a jerk. 

It is within these boundaries that I have found a way to continue to do the work that might allow me to better communicate my feelings to my mother without worrying about how she might react or respond to them.

I am learning how to care for myself, stand up for myself, as well as protect my family. I have three sets of eyes on me, watching and absorbing everything I do. The last thing I want them to experience is what I witnessed as a child in that living room in Northeast Philadelphia.  

I cannot say for sure what the relationship is between my mother and I is, or what it will end up being. There have been times when my mother has attempted to cross the boundary I’ve put up, either by trying to negotiate or argue her way into making me change my mind about something or by trying to make me feel guilty about a decision I’ve made. I will admit that sometimes I contemplate giving in because, after all, this is my mother. I care for her.

Health and Well-being Have to Come First

However, my health and well-being have to come first. I know that a healthy relationship takes two people willing to be the best person they can be for the other. I know that has not been the reality for us really ever. And I know that for any chance of a healthy relationship to blossom where one hasn’t before, it’ll take the two of us doing the work necessary to make a relationship, well, work. 

I will continue trying to encourage my mother to seek someone to talk to, someone that might help her work through whatever is causing her anxiety. I will be there to talk to her on the days that we’ve agreed work best, and I will always allow a relationship to exist between her and her grandchildren.

There is always hope. I will always have hope. And I’m hopeful that one day things will get better between us.

Setting boundaries is self-love, self-care, and self-preservation. Don’t be afraid to do what you need to do to take care of the only person who is always there for you- you. 

Robin Davis
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