Lara called me and said, "Just when I think I've learned something about loving people unconditionally, my mother calls me, and after five minutes I'm a complete basket case. Maybe I don't know anything about loving."
"As I remember, you have a six-year-old son?" I asked.
"And I think you told me that you take Vince to baseball practice."
"Kind of. He plays a kind of baseball where they put the ball on a rubber tube—kind of like a big golf tee—and hit it from there."
"Yes, that's it."
"So the ball just sits there and doesn't move. Seems kind of unfair to hit a ball that's not moving. Why don't they throw the ball to the kids, so they can hit a moving ball?"
"Kids that age don't have the coordination to do that. Many of them even have a hard time hitting the ball from the tee."
"So first they hit a ball from a tee. Then, as they get older and more experienced, they hit a ball thrown slowly. Then the ball is thrown faster and faster. Eventually, in the major leagues, some people can hit balls that are moving ninety-five miles per hour or more. But everybody has to start slow."
"Same with you and loving. In the beginning, you can love people who are relatively easy to love—the people who sit still on a tee, so to speak. Then, gradually, you can handle progressively more difficult people. Your mother is just a ninety-five mile per hour fastball, and you're not ready for her yet."
"So I don't have to handle her?"
"No, you don't."
"But she's my mother. She needs me."
"That's wrong on so many levels I hardly know where to start. It's not your job to be the emotional support of your mother. She brought you into the world and assumed the responsibility for loving you, not the other way around. And the fact remains that you simply can't handle her. If you tell Vince that you really need him to hit a fastball, will that give him the ability to do it?"
"And your mother's need to be loved doesn't change the fact that you simply are not able to love somebody that difficult."
"So what can I do?"
"Love your mother only as much as you choose."
"I don't want to talk to her at all."
"How can I tell my own mother I don't want to talk to her? Her feelings will be hurt."
"That's two separate issues. First let's talk about the hurt feelings."
"What if you tell Vince that you'll be offended if he doesn't give up tee-ball, and instead you want him to swing at ninety-five mile per hour fastballs."
"That doesn't make any sense. I wouldn't do that."
"I wouldn't ask him to do something he couldn't do. Besides, if he tried to do that, he could get hurt."
"And that's exactly why I'm suggesting that at this point in your life, you not try to love your mother. You can't do it, and if you try, you'll just get hurt."
"Okay, that's making sense, but my mother's feelings will still be hurt."
"Maybe so, but she's not six years old. She has a choice about how she feels. You can't actually hurt her feelings. You're just making a choice that fits with your abilities, and if she really cared about your happiness--the very definition of Real Love--she wouldn't be offended. She'd be happy that you're being wise. But I agree with you. Almost certainly she will be offended, which is yet another proof that she doesn't know how to love you. She demands attention and love from you because she's empty. That's sad, to be sure, but you're not responsible for her lifetime of emptiness.
"Your mother is drowning, and so are you. One of you has to get out of the water, so you're not both drowning, and it will have to be you. Then perhaps someday you can feel loved enough to help her out of the water too. But if you keep spending the time with her that she demands, you'll both stay drowning, and everybody loses."
"Hard to deny that kind of logic. Okay, so let's suppose that I avoid her for the time being. How do I tell her about this? She'll go nuts."
"Again, that's her choice. You can't control how she feels, but you can be as thoughtful as possible when you tell her."
"I can't tell you exactly what to say to her, but I could give you an example, so at least you'll know what it might look like to be clear and thoughtful at the same time. You could say, 'Mom, I have not been as happy as I'd like, but lately I've been learning some principles that are making a real difference. In order to keep learning, I need some time away from the past. I'm learning new things, so the past could be a distraction. Mom, I'm not blaming you for anything. I'm just saying I need a temporary separation until I figure things out.'"
"She'll ask me how long this separation will be."
"Tell her you don't know. When you're ready, you will contact her, but in the meantime you can't have contact with her--in person, or by email, or by text, or phone, or anything. And emphasize that she's not being punished for anything. There's no blaming."
"It just seems so unkind, so unloving of me."
"This really isn't complicated, sweetie. Is your mother capable of being loving to you?"
"Well, she does her best."
"No doubt of that. But can she love you unconditionally?"
"In fact she's drowning, and every time you're around her—by your own account—she pulls you under the water. You become miserable."
"So when you two get together, you have two drowning people, and then you become less capable of loving your husband, children, and friends. Is that true?"
"So if you keep spending time with her, you actually become less and less loving. Choosing not to spend time with her gives you time to heal past wounds. It removes a huge distraction from your life, and make it possible for you to become more loving—toward her and toward everyone else you know. In other words, not spending time with your mother is actually the loving thing to do. Got it now?"
"Yep, I get it."
Lara didn't speak to her mother for six months, but she didn't just take time away from her. That wouldn't have helped anything at all. During those months, Lara talked to many wise men and women—in person, on the phone, and by email. She learned to trust the unconditional love that those people gave her, and in the process her wounds began to heal. She became less afraid and more capable of loving.
One day Lara called her mother. She didn't launch into an explanation of her absence. Lara talked about her mother's flowers, and what she was doing at work, and how the kids were doing. Her mother just wanted to know that her daughter was back in her life and not accusing her of anything. Before she called, Lara had made a decision that on the call she would freely, unconditionally offer ten minutes of herself. She didn't leave the call open-ended in her mind, because she didn't want to empty out and become unloving. So when the ten minutes was over, she pleasantly told her mother that she had to leave, and she looked forward to calling her again.
We all need to play tee-ball before we try out for the major leagues and attempt to hit dangerous fastballs. It's wiser and a great deal more fun.