'No One Wants to Stay with Me Because I Have an Alcoholic Mom!'
You're trying hard to control reality. Surrender to reality instead.
Double Portrait of the Artist in Time (1938) by Helen Lundeberg
I recently had the upsetting experience of a long-time crush finding a girlfriend. It seemed clear to me that he also liked me but he, like me, is incredibly busy with work at the moment, and for that reason, we were enjoying a slow burn. Our friends even noticed it and asked me about it unprompted multiple times, saying "Hey, what's going on with you two?" All signs seemed to point towards the crush being mutual. He even invited me (and only me) to HIS SISTER'S FREAKING BIRTHDAY PARTY the week before he started seeing this new girl. And then BAM he shows up to a concert with our friends with this girl he met on a dating app 2 weeks before and they seem to be OBSESSED with each other. Acting like a full couple in a matter of days.
Needless to say, I was crushed. But being the mature feminist that I am, I did my best to befriend this girl and make her feel welcome in group settings. After all, it is not her fault that she met a nice man who liked her and I just happened to like him too. I ran into her out on the town a few days later and invited her to sit with me and chat, and eventually, she asked to exchange social media profiles with me so we could keep in contact. I of course said yes. Then I naturally started combing her profile trying to learn more about her. She seems absolutely lovely, intelligent, and funny. None of that upset me. In many ways, she seems like a better fit for him than I do, so I was not super upset about him choosing to be with her. But then came the motherload, literally. Some of her social media posts showed her baking cakes and cookies with her mother, and in that moment I was hit with a wave of anger and resentment. Why? Well because I do not have the kind of mother who bakes.
My mom is an alcoholic lawyer who I love dearly, but in many ways, she was absent from my life. She never knew any of my friends' names. She never came home before 10 pm. And she certainly never baked. Our household was a hotbed of substance abuse, silence, and violence. In my mind, baking is the kind of thing cartoon mothers do. It is so deeply maternal and wholesome and nurturing I can't fathom it, mostly because my mother is the opposite. But I know these mothers exist because I have known their daughters, who always seem to be so much more well-adjusted and secure than me. This has been an issue in many of my relationships with men because, as a straight woman, I cannot provide men with the kind of Freudian comforts they seek. I had an ex-boyfriend say to me once that being with me stressed him out because my life seemed "too hard," particularly when it comes to my family. He wanted in-laws who he could play tennis with, and instead, he knew that a life with me would mean being part of a deeply dysfunctional and unhappy family that he did not want a part of. He did not want to be with someone who was often going to have much harder and scarier things going on in their life than he did because it would make him and his problems feel smaller. Sadly, multiple men I have dated have expressed this sentiment to me. They love me, but they don't like to hear about my family and all that's happened between us, because it stresses them out.
This has obviously hurt to hear, mainly because I have done my best to deal with all my family trauma in therapy and not put it onto my partners. But still, they insist it is too stressful for them to be with someone whose life is like this. And sadly, I understand. Why would anyone want me when they could be with someone who has minimal childhood trauma? Why would you choose the path of greatest resistance when there are many other lovely, intelligent, and funny paths of less resistance? Why would anyone want me when they could be with the kind of women whose mothers bake?
These questions obviously make me feel incredibly hopeless about the future of my love life. And though I know there is much more to life than romantic love, I want romantic love. But I have such a hard time believing that anyone would choose me out of all the amazing women out there, many of whom have much less sad and stressful lives than I do. Obviously, I understand that many of these women have dealt with their own traumas and no one's life is all sunny. But I am tired of feeling like I am an especially large burden, like I am the path of greatest resistance, like I am doomed to be alone simply because I was not raised by the kind of woman who bakes. How can I get over this idea? How can I convince myself that someone will choose me no matter how hard my life might be?
Who are these weird little wilty men you’re meeting? My god! I want to kick each of them in the shins, hard, and then push them into a mud puddle in their tennis whites.
What’s gone wrong in the world, that we treat someone’s entire family as either a special, fancy gift to unwrap or a giant, looming curse that will destroy our peace? What ever happened to falling in love with a whole person and loving them for who they are, regardless of the unfortunate souls trailing along behind them, sipping their whiskeys and spitting out snarky comments, and squabbling with each other?
There’s something sick in the mix here, as if shopping for the right wife is the same thing as shopping for the right college, the right job, the right place to raise the right family. I want to believe that you just stumbled into some kind of hive of preppy overachievers who are fixated on controlling every dimension of their perfect existences, but it all lines up too neatly with how I hear kids talking about college these days like it’s going to make or break their entire lives. Our whole country has a hard on for pedigree at the moment, and honestly, it’s just so stupid and shallow and bad.
Whew, you’ve unlocked WARLOCK POLLY, are you happy now?
The cure is simple. Start reading Updike and Nabokov. Read Vladimir by Julia May Jonas and Big Swiss by Jen Beagin. A MOM WHO BAKES! IN-LAWS TO PLAY TENNIS WITH! Holy god, what strange things to put your faith in! But I love your letter so much. I love your thoughts and the way you express them. Listen to me, smart woman: Life is not a bakery or a tennis court. Life is the farm on Stardew Valley. You can grow vegetables and hug people and get married, but you have to go down into the mines and kill some scary things if you want the gems and metals you need to do the fun shit.
And when you get older, the scary things leave the mines and come for you anyway. (Hey Eric Barone, are you paying attention? This should be Stardew 5.0!) When your plants die in the fields for no reason and your hearing fails and your ass falls off into the dirt, you’re going to start craving a drink or a vacation or an affair or a whole new life in another town. And you know who will never, in a million years, be able to talk you through that shit?
A girl who bakes with her mom and posts about it and also thinks Nabokov is too problematic to read and people with problems are best sidestepped and people without time or money or energy to survive this fucked up world are best circumnavigated in favor of clam bakes on the beach and flower arranging and knitting tea cozies with the cousins. I mean, I get it! It’s a nice dream. But that’s not how real life works.
I’m not saying find someone who’s tormented or addicted or obsessed with hardship. All I’m saying is find someone like you: a fully developed character who’s seen some things and come out on the other side stronger for it. You’re secure and you can find someone else who’s secure and has also been through a few things. You can find someone layered and complex like you who enjoys the challenge of navigating imperfect relationships.
You can find someone who knows that all relationships are imperfect.
Very few little boys who don’t want a sharp-tongued, boozy lawyer for a mother-in-law — and are willing to drop you because of it — are aware that all relationships are imperfect. And I’m even going to say that most young adults don’t want to accept that. They’ve been led to believe that choosing a spouse is like purchasing the finest racehorse you can find.
I’ve known people like that. Unfortunately, when someone thinks that way, you’re perfect for exactly eighteen years and then they replace you with a younger racehorse. I’m not talking about men here. I’m talking about people of all genders who navigate their whole lives like a consumer. They want constant upgrades. They want pretty, shiny shit and nice times. They want a life that’s exactly as deep as an Instagram post. And when the flat characters they’ve recruited for their very predictable and repetitive fairy tale fail them, they decide that something was always broken there, and they recruit new flat characters to take their places.
It’s normal and good and even helpful to have dark nights of the soul over the course of your life. Shifting needs and variable levels of passion are inevitable. But some people bail at the first glimpse of darkness. Don’t be like that. Don’t tell simple stories about complex realities and convince yourself that things will stay shiny and pretty that way. Don’t treat humans like appliances, like all that matters is that they’re low-cost and convenient and they don’t get in your way.
I know it’s normal for secure, healthy people to want to be around other secure, healthy people. But that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about people who want to buy a whole, perfect picture, and if any piece of the picture looks tough, they run away. People like that are either firmly committed to shallowness or they’re constantly disappointed by reality, which is always flawed and always challenging.
And let me be honest with you. I think you’ve been recruiting your own pretty picture by chasing after men who were raised by women who bake, who grew up in families where everyone agrees that people who don’t have the time and money to give warm hugs and hold Friday barbecues are just a little less special than they are. You’ve been trying to redeem yourself with these clean, clueless humans, who are afraid of the real world and real life itself. You’ve been hoping to fit in with people who are either far more shallow or far more committed to a perfect fantasy than you’ve ever been.
That’s a natural reaction to a rough upbringing. And some of these cheerful humans are legitimately great. If they’re truly happy, then yes! But some of them are complex characters cosplaying flat characters, looking for other flat characters, working hard to keep life simple and fully controlled and predictable. And you aren’t a flat character. You’re complicated and intense. You have strong emotions and strong opinions, just like your mother. Do you understand why she drinks? Do you know where she lost her way and why? Do you get why she prioritized becoming a lawyer over baking?
Even if you were raised by warlocks, I think you need to get some clarity around the intensity of the people who you grew up around, and how that intensity is echoing through your blood and bones. Because I don’t think the whole picture here is that the men you date literally cannot abide being linked to your family in a permanent way. I think you’re trying to move into a different world where you can not only forget your family (understandable, reasonable, and maybe even a good idea sometimes!), but where you can erase part of yourself.
You’re trying hard to be different than you really are, and you’re navigating love from that place. It explains your repeating problem of hearing the same weird thing from the same (frankly weird) guys, and it also explains your impulse to quickly get on top of the narrative with your crush by researching, befriending, accepting, and celebrating his new girlfriend.
You’re trying to control your emotional reality. You’re trying to get the upper hand on your life. You’re trying to make things perfect and right where they were not perfect and right before. And your obsession with the mom who bakes is a reflection of the fact that your entire emotional project is a little too forced, a little sad, a little out of line with how you ACTUALLY FEEL. The mom who bakes is haunting you because it’s a manifestation of your grief and disappointment — now, with your crush, and also before, as a child, with your mother. It goes deeper than baking, so deep that you might be seduced by superficial fixes to the problem (“Look, his whole family goes sailing together!”) while ignoring dark realities (“Whoa, his whole family talks past each other!”) You’re not just trying to find out an answer to HOW to attract and keep men who like women whose mothers bake (whew, just look at how complicated and absurd that sounds!). You’re trying to find a way to permanently erase the reality of being you, a woman who grew up with a mother who drank instead of baked, a woman who left you feeling not loved enough, not in control enough, not good enough to be loved, not good enough to be in control.
I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.
But now you know. And now you get to become the daughter of a boozy lawyer instead, who is a much more interesting and lovable and real character than the one you’ve been constructing and playing out in the world. Now you get to let go of control and let your shame wash over you and feel it. Now you get to admit that you don’t necessarily love the crush’s new girlfriend. You chose to feel that way about her, which is honorable but it might not be as real as you’re pretending. And a part of you envies her, wants to be her, wants a different past, and wants to get on top of the narrative so it doesn’t have to be so sad.
But this story DOES have to be sad. It has to be sad in order to be happy. It is both things.
You have to be sad about losing your chance with your crush. Be sad. Feel it.
You have to be sad about losing your chance to have a nice, normal-seeming childhood. Feel that, too.
You have to let reality in, so you can feel more joy, so you can sense who your true soulmates are, out in the world, instead of chasing people who can’t see you clearly. You have to surrender to what is, and relish it, and enjoy it, and create from it, and grieve it, too. You were born to do all of these things. You were born to be more than a nice, loving wife to a nice, naïve boy. You were born to be a lead character in an epic adventure. You were born to show your whole self to the world, to allow the intricacies of who you are wind their way into view slowly. You were born to let go of your impulse to please and take up calm, confident space instead. You were born to recognize the full, rich characters around you, and to engage with them meaningfully.
Let go of control. Be who you are. Show your vulnerability. There is love everywhere. Stop telling small stories with harsh morals, and surrender to the mysterious and unpredictable epic adventure that is your life.
Ask Polly publishes twice a week for subscribers. If you want to read more and support my work, please consider subscribing.