Between Christmas and New Year, nothing happened. I felt some tension from the expectation of further conflict with my parents, but we had those days to relax and unwind from the Christmas ordeal. It was a much-needed break! It was ferociously cold, so we decided to stay in through New Year's Eve. Dwayne and Doug were going to watch the fireworks downtown, but the cold froze even them in. They decided to visit us for the evening, even though I warned them I wouldn't make it through midnight.
The next day, my mom called wishing us a happy new year. She invited us over for drinks, and we said yes.
When the kids were ready, we bundled them up in the appropriate manner, winter gear on, extra gear in the trunk. As often happens with me, I was the last out the door, making sure everything was packed, ensuring everyone had ample protection, and then gathering up my own things and sweeping out the door in a final rush. Since I was wearing three layers of shirts and sweaters, and we were only going a mile down the road, I threw my large fall jacket over top and bundled myself with a scarf and mittens. Northern winters are a challenge for young families!
Things went alright at my parents' place. I don't remember anything specific from the actual event. We came home relieved, eventually had dinner, bathed and bedded the children, and sat together in the living room.
Then, the phone rang. It was my mom. From habit, John started to leave the room, giving me privacy, but I gestured for him to stay close. I had a bad feeling about this one.
"Can we talk?" Always an auspicious start to any conversation. It means: I'd like to upset you for a while, so get ready. For the first time ever, I had the presence of mind to respond, "If it's going to be a big meaningful talk, is it alright if I put you on speaker so Jason can take part?"
For the last few years, speaker phone has not been my ally in discussions with my parents. My dad has taken to broadcasting me on speakerphone, not always informing me in advance of who was in the room. The logic behind this is supposed to be that my parents both want to hear from me, and neither parent wants to be left out. In effect, it prevents my mom and I from communicating privately. Taking ownership of the speakerphone tactic for my own protection felt satisfying.
So, with my parents, John and I all on speakerphone, we had The Talk.
"We're worried about you. Is there something wrong? Is there any way we can help?" my mom asked.
This was getting off to a fishy start. What was it all about?
"I'm fine. The weather is a bit confining at the moment, but everything else is going fine."
"We're concerned that there is something wrong - that you're not taking care of yourself."
"I'm not sure what you mean. Can you elaborate?"
"Well, it's really cold outside, and you only wore a light coat. We're just concerned that you aren't taking good enough care of yourself."
I explained about my layers, my logic, and the extra gear in the trunk. "I don't understand what this call is about. If there's anything wrong with me, it's that dad has said he would break off his relationship with me, and I'm upset about that. Other than that, this call is out of the blue."
"Just tell us what's wrong, because we'll do anything we can to help."
I suspected that my dad was trying to set our relationship back on track by putting me in a victim position, and taking control by "helping me through my difficulties." I had to resist spewing forth all my own perceived failures, and making excuses for myself: I know the kids don't get out much, but they're getting older now, and the weather will improve soon. I have plans to get Jack into more programs.... A grown-up doesn't need to explain all these efforts to her parents. She just does what is right, no matter what criticisms are hurled at her.
Unbelievably, when I held my ground, my parents started to fumble. I could imagine my mom turning towards my dad when she ran out of prepared statements. My dad was twisting, "It's just that... uhn... we're concerned that ... oh...." He truly couldn't clarify their reason for calling! I was amazed. I almost smiled. I had been right not to fall for the pity bait.
Then, my dad rained down upon us every old argument in his book. Every way he had helped us in the past, we had thrown back in his face. John was an inadequate husband for having accepted help from Wes, his father, in securing our fence when it fell in the wind. We were endangering the children with our home renovations. I rebuffed everything. John kept his cool, and played peacekeeper as long as possible.
Finally, one of the criticisms hit John the wrong way. He said, "Basically, you're saying that I'm stupid and inadequate."
When you ask this kind of thing, you're giving the other person a chance to clarify in the negative, but of course, my dad said, "Yes. You're stupid and inadequate. I'd say it again."
This was, of course, a breaking point in the phone call. I made it clear that I couldn't allow John to be spoken to this way. Several times, John uncharacteristically threatened to hang up. At some point, my dad repeated his earlier statement that "we can break it off. We don't ever need to see each other again." We were nowhere near my mom's initial statement that they were "worried" and "wanted to help."
Somehow, as often happens in these conversations, order was restored, and despite his anger, John took the tone of the peacekeeper again. Then, my dad made some kind of summary statement about how we were "all friends," and told a bad joke, which everyone felt compelled to laugh at before we got off the phone.
I was completely befuddled. It was embarrassing. As far as I could tell, my dad had attempted to use a power-play, asserting his authority by assuming a protective role. My alternatives, in retrospect, were to submit to his controlling care, or be bereft of parental relationships. It was painful, because even as an adult, I do love my parents. I just don't want to be controlled by them. My parents had failed me in exactly the wrong way. Again.