What Is This Impulse to Be a Jerk?

I’m not sure what is going on with my mom and me, but I’m supposed to spend the next several evenings with her, and I can hardly stomach the idea. Last week, we had a good Monday, but at the end of it, she remarked that my neighbors had decorated their door for St. Patrick’s and I had not. I said something on the order of “yeah, they do a good job, don’t they? I just don’t have the bandwidth for it, at the moment.” And she said “I have decorations I could loan you, if it would help.” I thanked her, but explained that the problem is not that I don’t have decorations, it’s that I don’t have the bandwidth, and soon, it’ll be June, and people will be complaining that my St. Patrick’s day decorations are still up. I’ve chosen to focus on other things and consciously let this one go, hanging a “Welcome” sign on the door and calling that good. She said “I think we’re having trouble communicating. I’m just telling you that I have these decorations and can loan them to you.” Normally, I’d let this go, because talking to me like I’m stupid is an obvious way to push my buttons, and if being the youngest of four and the only girl taught me anything, it was that depriving someone who’s being a jerk to you of a reaction is the very best way to make them suffer. But I chose not to let it go. Insulating her from the natural consequences of her actions hasn’t gotten me that far. So I said back, through clenched teeth “I don’t believe there’s any sort of communication problem. You made an offer that I politely declined.”

We did okay on Friday night. I offered for her to accompany me to the movies over the weekend. She said she was interested, but when I called her about it Saturday, she said she had plans. I called her yesterday and said if she wanted to go to the movies after church, we could still do that, but I had rented a movie that I thought she might like. She said she was up for seeing it, and we could stop by the grocery store and pick something up for dinner. This is a ploy to get her extra grocery shopping, so again— 45 minutes in the grocery store before we headed to the deli, but whatever. On Friday, there had been baked potatoes left over, and we’d been encouraged to take them. I grabbed five big ones to make potato salad. She was going to buy potato salad, and I said “don’t forget that I made some, and you’re welcome to it.” She said “I better be— you stole my potatoes.”

“Excuse me?”

“I said I wanted potatoes Friday, and you took all of them.”

Now, my mother sat seven feet from trays holding dozens of potatoes for an hour or more, doing nothing but eating and talking (to people she doesn’t particularly like, as a rule). She did loan me her bag, to hold the potatoes, but, in between my legitimate pitching in on the service project, I went and picked out five for the potato salad. She did not pick out any. I think her implication was that because she said she wanted potatoes and loaned me her bag, that I was going to get potatoes for her. Except that she is perfectly capable of choosing things like this, and had plenty of opportunity. If I had selected potatoes for her, with only the information she provided, I’d have picked too many or too few, too large or too small. So I rejected her claim that I “stole her potatoes.”

I let her know that there are a couple of options for dinner tonight. We’re going to need to eat fast on Tuesday, which is St. Patrick’s day, because of a church commitment, so I’m making our celebratory dinner tonight. Lamb steaks with champ (mashed potatoes and onions), homemade brown bread and soda bread, and (here’s where the options come in) either cooked cabbage (not my favorite) or this broccoli kugel that I found at Costco this weekend. I know the kugel isn’t very Irish, but the rest of the meal is. And it’s authentically Irish, not corned beef and cabbage Irish-American. I do know she loves corned beef and cabbage, but corned beef is a pain to cook well, she also loves lamb and potatoes, and this is an expensive and labor-intensive meal. When I gave her the option of cabbage or kugel, she said “Whatever. Food is food. But between no green on your door and broccoli kugel, I don’t even understand where you came from.”

This is a woman who, when she goes somewhere for a special meal, spends most of her energy describing the food. I think “food is food” is meant to remind me that she’d rather have corned beef and cabbage than the special meal I’m making. Which makes me really glad that I’m going to the trouble of baking two kinds of bread and sending her home with full loaves of each, because she likes them so much.

Then, at the end of the movie, she started ranting about how no one can make a movie with class anymore. Tired and resigned, I said, “I’m sorry— should I not have recommended this movie to you?” And she said “no, that’s not what I’m saying…” and basically said that she was just banging a drum I’d heard before. But it’s 10:30, the movie’s over, the dishes have been cleared, and she’s standing there, the container of potato salad not packed into her bag, the bag she’d loaned me for the potatoes not in her bag, her jacket not on, and she’s reading to me from the church bulletin. Now, this is maybe a quirk of mine, but I don’t like it when she (or really anyone), reads to me things I either can read for myself or have no interest in. She’s reading me classified ads about Spanish-speaking plumber’s assistants. Not that there is a good time, but I can promise, 10:30 at night is not the time to do this, with me. I move the potato bag closer to her and say “are you about ready (for me to take you home)?” and she shoots back “Presumably.”

Now, to me, this is about as obnoxious as you can get. I can see you’re not ready, you’re dawdling, you know that when the evening is over, especially if it’s at any point after 10 p.m., you need to put your coat on and gather your things. And being randomly crappy at me gets you what, exactly? She’s always on guard for any hint of intellectual snobbery from me, because I went to college and she didn’t and I went to grad school, on top of that. But if “presumably” isn’t intellectual snobbery at its finest, what would be, exactly? Doesn’t “presumably,” have an implied “you idiot,” at the end? Or is that just me?

The best part was, when I got home from dropping her off and returning the movie, the potato salad was sitting on my table. Cursing a blue streak about her being “presumably” ready, I threw it in the fridge. As I got ready for bed, she emailed and asked me to go check the passenger seat for the potato salad. I let her know she’d left it on the table and I had put it in the fridge, leaving out any use of the word “presumably” with great effort. She said “thanks.”

I’m not really a fan of fighting back. There’s a huge power differential, between us, and I am by far more powerful. I don’t need to beat her about the head and shoulders with that. But the idea of going out of my way over and over again while she takes shots is starting to offend my self-respect. I’m starting to think fighting passive aggressive with direct might be the way to go. “Mom, it seems pretty clear to me that you’ve been trying to pick a fight with me for about a week. I don’t really want to keep doing this, especially given that we’ll be spending so much time together for the next few days, so is there something we need to talk about?” And when she says “I haven’t been trying to pick a fight with you,” because that’s what passive aggression is, I can say “oh good. Because if you have something to say, I’d prefer that you say it and not take shots at me.” Thoughts? Stories of someone pushing you over the line that will show me that she’s not so bad? Alternate perspectives?

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3 thoughts on “What Is This Impulse to Be a Jerk?

  1. Aw sorry M! Passive aggressive folks generally don’t like to be direct, even if they’re called out on it. I myself have some experience actually being passive aggressive, and usually the underlying cause is I don’t want to do something but am having trouble voicing what I want to do. Maybe your mom isn’t wanting to do some stuff she’s put on her plate and is taking it out on you? Just a thought. Good luck with the situation!

  2. I agree that she doesn’t want to do this head on, but if I fight it head on, it normally shuts her down. She can either voice her issue and we can deal with it, or let me point out when she’s being unpleasant until it reduces in frequency. If I start pointing out where she’s taking shots, I’m likely to follow with consequences, like “it seems like we might need some space, let’s call it a night early, (instead of watching the show you want to watch or going to the store you want to go to).” Right now, the other people she counts on to go other places are busy doing other things, so her being unpleasant can connect pretty neatly with limited options, which is the connection I’d like to make. She has insisted incompetence in things like watching shows OnDemand, though I’ve demonstrated it several times, so she’s pretty stuck, if I’m disinclined to help her. I’ve done that before, as well as the reverse— I extend additional opportunities when she’s not snipey. It tends to get her attention pretty quickly.

  3. Pingback: Lenten Challenge, Days 28 and 29, the Freak Out Edition | Adventures of Auntie M

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