The Big Argument

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Sign on Somerset, Ottawa, 2018

I was on bad terms with my mom from fall 2016 to spring 2017.

It was one hell of a long argument.

I rarely argue with my parents. When I was a kid, short fights usually revolved around spilled chocolate milk at breakfast—I’m not a morning person…—being mean to my sister or the occasional bad grade. There was no major ongoing conflict. My parents never criticized my friends, boyfriends, questionable sense of fashion or quirks. Their first priority was education. Even as a moody teen with piercings and a rebellious mind, I agreed it made sense and I was a pretty good student.

After I came back alive from my solo trip to China at age 16, my parents assumed I was responsible enough to make decisions about my future. I like to think I lived up to their expectations and we almost stopped arguing. My parents weren’t my friends but they weren’t the enemy either.

We were all good.

Seriously, I highly recommend my parents as parents—although come to think of it, maybe now that they are in their early sixties and we’re all grown up, they’re done parenting.

And that was the issue. I needed my parents and they weren’t there.

It started with phone calls—or rather, the lack of phone calls.

Ever since I left home at 18, I’ve been the one calling. It makes sense when I’m travelling since my parents can’t reach me. It somewhat made sense in my first few years in Canada as well. Before Skype, you needed a phone card and a landline to call abroad. Basically, I had a better chance to reach my parents than the other way around.

International phone calls are easier and cheaper now. A few years ago, I gave my mom a smartphone and she learned to master Skype. Sending a text message is easy, and so is sharing photos and videos.

Yet, my parents never called me. Not once. I called to say I was getting married, I called to say I was pregnant, I called to say Mark was born and I called for no reason a million times.

And then, at one point, I got a bit tired of being the one who reaches out. When we were in France in 2016, I told my mom she should call once in a while.

I was hoping she would.

She didn’t.

I didn’t call from September to December, waiting for a phone call.

I declared truce on New Year’s Eve and called.

Then I waited again.

By spring, I was fuming.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was an innocent email my mom sent in May, in which she mentioned she was looking forward to us coming to France in the summer. I immediately called her on Skype. I can’t remember my exact words but it was something along the lines of “fuck you, why do I have to come when you don’t seem to give a shit about what we do the rest of the time.”

It did feel extremely good to say it but since I also hung up at the end of my monologue, my confusing message didn’t quite get through.

I was hoping my mom would immediately call back.

She didn’t, of course.

At this point you may think I’m overreacting. I hear you.

But hear me out. It wasn’t that much about who calls—ultimately, who cares?

It was about feeling wanted and feeling loved.

I chose to live several thousands of kilometres from where I was born but I never meant to hurt anyone. I paid the price for my decisions. It’s not that easy to raise a child in a foreign country without family support. It’s not that easy to live a life no one in my family can relate to. It’s not that easy to be in a multicultural relationship, to travel around the world, to make decision alone. When I make mistakes, I have to fix them alone.

There are days when I wish I could rely on my relatives to help out with Mark. If I argue with Feng, I’m truly alone—it’s not like I’m going to turn to my in-laws for comfort. Intellectually, I understand Canadian culture but this doesn’t mean I adopted every single Canadian custom and perspective. And I spare you the tricky four or five first years in Canada when speaking English all the time was mentally exhausting and I was craving a conversation in French.

So yes, sometimes I simply need my parents—you know, the people who (are supposed to) love you unconditionally, saw you growing up and understand your strengths, weaknesses and quirks, who speak the same language and have the same cultural background as you.

In my head, this primal need grew into resentment.

“I go to France to see you, I send pictures, packages and videos of Mark regularly, AND YOU DON’T EVEN FUCKING CALL!” I remember screaming. “In 15 years, you came ONCE!”

It’s not just my parents. I have a younger sister and brother who send me a grand total of one email every year (for my birthday). And I have many relatives who never get in touch unless we’re in France. It drives me nuts. My mom and my brother came to visit us in 2011 (I bought the tickets are organized everything), the rest of my family never did.

I was here for them but they weren’t there for me.

But no one is used to me asking for help.

Every family has its own dynamics in which each member has a role. I’m the oldest child and the dependable fixer. It looks like I have life figured out—I’m the only one who is married, have a kid and a saving account. I get along with all my relatives, admittedly probably because I don’t see them often enough to argue. I’m the one you call in case of emergency, I’m the one who finds solutions to problems.

Maybe it was easier for my mother, who already has a lot on her plate, to assume—or pretend to assume—that I had everything together. One less thing to worry about.

“I’m not calling because I don’t know your schedule!” my mom claimed over the phone. “I don’t want to bother you, I don’t want to interrupt!”

“But I want you to interrupt me! I’m dreaming of someone calling just to talk to me!” I cried.

Explaining what you need is harder than it seems. I often assume that people magically understand what I want without me expressing it.

We worked it out. It took a few phone calls, many of them leaving us in tears.

It’s better. The phone still doesn’t ring out of the blue but once in a while, my mom sends me an email asking if now is a good time to call.

I immediately call back every time.

So here is a lesson. Explain what you want and what you need. Waiting around for other people to figure out makes you miserable and meanwhile, you get angrier.

And another one—you never stop being a parent and being needed.

And now go call or hug your parents, siblings, relatives or anyone who is always there for you.

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About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.

22 Comments

  1. Hi Juliette! I’m so sorry to hear of your communication issues over the years. It really hurts when people don’t reach out and when you’re the only one making the effort. It’s even harder when you’re physically far away. Just wanted to send you a virtual hug.

    • I think it happens to mots of us, living abroad, at one point or another. It’s tricky for everyone… I’m sure it wasn’t easy for my family when I left and it may not sound obvious that I do want to be in touch more often. Communication… it sounds straightforward and it’s not.

  2. I am crushed.
    Thanks a lot.

    My family is usually like this. And well, I apparently have arguments I know nothing about, so communication is non existant with some of my siblings. Not even birthdays, or Christmas.
    Unlike you I am the second to last, but in everyone mind, the youngest, the spoiled brat, doing everything different to draw attention. So I kind of think they are relieved that I just left.

    Ok.
    I’m gonna eat that big chocolate cake now.

    • Ugh. That sucks. It’s funny (and very annoying) how family members can assume things and you don’t even know what you supposedly did!

  3. Martin Penwald on

    I’m the one who calls because it is easier like that. If I’m not driving, I probably don’t have my phone with me, and so I’m not reachable. I call my parents habitually once the week-end, essentially by tradition, because when my father was driving, he was here only the week-end. Plus, when I’m in Canada, I have illimited minutes the week-ends on my plan so I just have to get a international call card.
    And we can see each other through Linphone, which we have setup so I can see my nephews and niece.

    • From a practical perspective, it makes sense. I’m a bit like that too. Your dad came to visit, though, right? I think for me it’s a combination of different things, that annoying feeling that I have to be the one reaching out all the time but I’m expected to “fix” everyone.

      • Martin Penwald on

        In fact, it’s like that I lost contact with anyone I knew outside my family. At one time, I realized I was the only one calling, so after a while, I stopped.
        And because I live in my truck, it is complicated to have someone comes here if I can’t take them with me. Plus they have to take at least 3 weeks off, which isn’t really easy, especially now with my nephews and niece. But I hope in a few years, I will be able to take one of my siblings with one of their child during the vacations.

        • Same here, I lost touch with my high school friends in France. Now it feels weird to contact them when I’m in France because we haven’t seen each other in years…

  4. I hear you.
    I still live in the same country and have the same problem. If I didn’t call or visit then I literally would see no one in my family. My brother came to visit me a few weeks ago – for less than 24 hours – but I was so happy because it was the first time he’d actually stayed with me in 15 years.
    It’ll be interesting to see if any dynamics change when I leave the country. I’m assuming not…..
    Stay strong.

    • Is there a reason why family ties are so loose or is it just happenstance, like everybody is busy?

      As for your upcoming move, you never know. Sometime, relatives take you for granted and the fact you’ll be far away can be a wake up call.

  5. Love this post, too – I so totally identify. Our parents aren’t too far – both of us have parents in Southern Ontario, about a six hour drive away. But it’s always us who go down to visit. I go in cycles of accepting it, feeling bitter about it, then accepting again. Sigh.

  6. I’m sorry for what you’ve experienced. For me, it’s not okay to say «I was afraid of interrupting so I didn’t call». 4 months without calling? Weren’t they worried? I’m the one who don’t call, actually. My brother calls at least twice a week, maybe more. He used to call them everyday when he was still in France. I’m supposed to call on WE, mostly for the girls, but it seems like it never works with our schedule and I kind of hate to call them with the girls by Facetime because they play, interrupt, fight. It’s not like a real conversation…

    • We exchanged short emails but yeah, that was the issue for me… nothing really substantial. My mum did have a lot on her plate at the time though so as long as I wasn’t explicitly saying I wasn’t okay or something was wrong, it was assumed that we were fine.

  7. I call my mother once a week, and we have family group in whats app where we share photos, news everyday. My family never called, it is understandable because it is expense to call from there, while calling Malaysia is free from France. I do not talk much to my siblings but we know we love each other. My sisters share the food they made, the places they go, and my parents’ happenings with me through whatsapp (my parents do not really know how to use smartphone).

    The dynamic between siblings is very different in France (I see between my husband and his brother). My husband calls his parents once a week, they would call if he didn’t call. We get news regularly.

    From my point of views:
    With my Asian parents, they still think I’m a little girl and need advises. So each time I call my mother would give opinions and advice on things.
    With my French in laws, they just share news, not much advice, and they treat my husband as adult. They do not interfere with our decisions, they are afraid to disturb…

    • Your analysis is very interesting. I see that with our respective parents too, my in-laws give (unsolicited) advice while with my parents, we mostly share news, ideas, etc. If I ask for their opinion, they often admit they aren’t sure but offer suggestions. My in-laws are 100% sure they’re right… maybe because they are older than us and by default, they’re right?? Who knows.

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