Day 4 of Living Back Home:
I’ve done it. I’ve gone and left New York. I thought I’d be more upset, have that anxious pit in my stomach- not about leaving the city, nor about starting over – but about living back at my parent’s house. Did I not tell you about this?
It was a financial decision. In order to get the apartment in Philly we’d have to save up some money. For my parent’s, it was more of an emotional decision. In order to get one of their children back in state, they offered up their house. To Jay, my husband, it just seemed like three months. To me, well, I knew it was more than it seemed. It meant facing the past. It meant stupid fights over nothing. It meant years of unresolved emotions bubbling to the surface. It meant getting through ninety days without stumbling over the inevitable cracks that were family.
But everything started well enough. In fact, they started too well. My mom had turned the downstairs TV room into a suite for us. She brought down a mattress from one of the bedrooms, purchased a bed frame on Amazon and moved part of the sectional couch to the basement. Even my sister was in rare form – offering, well not offering, but not saying no or acting exasperated when we asked her to follow us in her car to drop off the Uhaul the next day. For two days, things seemed blissful. And that’s where my problem started. I got too comfortable. I pushed it too far too soon.
It was Saturday morning. My father and Jay were standing over the stove cooking bacon, my dad telling Jay that we should fry the eggs in the bacon fat and Jay pretending not to be horrified, politely responding in his British accent that he didn’t want to die of heart failure. My mom was at the kitchen counter in her terrycloth robe and I was next to her, trying to read a stack of papers in front of me.
I guess now I should tell you about the book. I haven’t talked to you much about it for multiple reasons (mainly because I’m superstitious and also hate to self-promote) but after years writing, secretly, silently, it’s finally getting published. And this move to Philadelphia is right in the middle of it (or rather, end of the writing part). Right when everything is being finalized and edited and the dream is happening. So even though I had never shared what the book was about with anyone, when I walked into the kitchen Saturday morning I was ready to finally talk about it. Ready to share it. Ready to get some feedback, some support, some recognition.
What’s that? My dad eventually asked me. My manuscript, I said. I told them I was having trouble editing it. That it was due in a few days and I was so close to it, I couldn’t see it anymore. Maybe you could read the first paragraph and let me know what you think?
I don’t know why I said it. I guess when you’ve been working on something in isolation for years you just get to the point where you need someone to see it, acknowledge it, bear witness to it. Or maybe, as Jay would later point out, I couldn’t resist the self-sabotaging need for parent’s approval. Mom should probably read it, I stated when neither of them jumped at the offer. Since it’s a book for women.
Placing the top page in front of her, I told her that I would like her feedback on the first paragraph. It’s the disclaimer, I said. Tells you what the book’s about.
I waited, watching her face scan the page. After enough time passed that even the slowest reader would have finished, I pulled the paper off the granite countertop in front of her and said, So what do you think?
It’s, she paused in a deflated, exasperated way. Fine.
My heart fell into my lungs. Fine? I asked, looking at Jay, my father, anyone to save me with some other words. But no one could help me.
It’s, she paused again. Good.
But not great? Doesn’t make you want to read more? Give me your honest feedback. I was talking to the cabinets behind her, focusing on a loaf of bread. I couldn’t look at her. I knew she’d have that face she gets when she tries to lie but can’t- her body telling you what her words won’t. She hates it.
I think I need to read more, she said. But she didn’t grasp for the page back, didn’t make any signal that she actually wanted to read more, was just trying to smooth over whatever delicate feelings she’d trampled on. I turned to look away. I wanted to run out of the kitchen, hurl the pages into the trash and cry until the tears washed away the pain that covered me. But I couldn’t. I had put myself into this situation. I couldn’t ask for feedback then yell when I didn’t like it. That’s not what a twenty-nine-year-old does. Ok, well what exactly don’t you like about it? I asked, trying to mask my pain in defiance. I don’t know, she said. I need to read it again. I think it was just a line or two that maybe I didn’t like.
Ok then, I said, the emotion starting to overcome me. The familiar wave of rage and shame winding through my blood as I put the page back down on the counter in front of her. Read the next few paragraphs. I waited, without looking at her. Jay and my father silently ate their eggs and bacon at the table. Here, she said, the first line. I think that’s what I don’t like.
THE FIRST LINE??? THE FIRST LINE! Hearing the frantic tone in my voice, she started backpedaling again. My father now joining in. She’s not your demographic, Lauren, he yelled from the table.
No shit, I said. She’s also not a writer or a critic or an editor. I took the page back from her, gathered up the rest of the manuscript and walked back into my makeshift room, Jay following.
She knows it’s due in a week, I told Jay. Why would she say that?
What were you expecting? he asked without pity.
I don’t know! I said, wounded. That she’d fucking like it. That the book I’ve been working on for the past few years would get more than a ‘it’s fine’.
You asked for feedback, he pointed out matter of factly. You know she’s not your demographic. Honestly, I don’t know why you even gave it to her.
I didn’t know either. I knew what my mom was like. I knew that I would never get an excited, proud response. I knew that she wasn’t like other mothers who accepted with unwavering approval whatever their children proudly showed them. I also knew we had completely different tastes. She liked Danielle Steel, I liked Nora Ephron. She was traditional, I was progressive. I knew all this, yet I still expected something different.
I spent the day in pain. There’s no other way to describe it. Jay said we should go to the mall. That I should forget the manuscript and try to relax. Or maybe he just wanted to get me out of the house, away from the scene of the crime. But I couldn’t relax. I walked through the mall for three hours until I couldn’t feel my feet, but the pain inside was still there, stronger, louder, coursing faster through me. I spent the night not working on the manuscript but avoiding it. I rented a movie with Jay and locked myself in the room to lick my wounds. I felt I would never be able to face her, my father, my book again.
But then something happened. I went to bed and woke up the next morning no longer in pain, but with a sense of calm running through me. I wasn’t angry, wasn’t sad, wasn’t even hurt. I was half numb and half determined. This was not a book for my mom. This was a book for me, and women like me. Maybe I had matured. Maybe, finally, after twenty-nine years my heart knew what my mind was so slow to catch up on. That I could write a Pulitzer prize winning book, I could scale Mount Everest, I could type out the first page of Donna Tart’s The Goldfinch and it would all be the same. It would always be just fine when I showed it to my mother.
Because that’s her. Stoic, critical and sometimes harsh. She doesn’t see what I’m asking her to say, but what she needs to say. She is a person with her own agenda, own perceptions and own way of responding to the world around her. Her approval doesn’t come in words of praise, but other ways. In making up the downstairs bedroom. In spending an hour and a half putting together the bed frame she ordered off Amazon. In cooking us a roast dinner. That’s how she tells me she’s proud. That’s how she shows me love.
Esther Perel said that relationships are strained because we turn to one person to provide what an entire village once did – approval, support, entertainment, nurture. We expect our parents, our spouses, our siblings to be everything for us, but a person can only give so much, can only give what they’re capable of giving. I was trying to make my mom give me something she couldn’t. Demanding she show me something in a way she couldn’t show it. And that’s where all my pain was coming from. It wasn’t because she wasn’t supportive of me, but because she couldn’t show me support in the way I wanted to see it.
If I am going to survive these next three months I need to understand what I can get from the people around me and stop relying on them to give me what they can’t. I must give myself what others won’t. I must trust myself, trust my words, trust what I believe is good and stop asking for everyone else’s approval, including those I may yearn for.
Photo: Jill and Polly in the Bathroom, 1987. Tina Barney.