What polyamory and caring for my dying mother taught me
The other day this post showed up in my local Facebook polyamory group.
What many people who read that took from it was the sentiment about showing real caring and love for those who are dear to you. Although I support that part of it wholeheartedly, especially the part about putting down your phone and being present with them, the part about the chili landed all wrong for me. What I saw was a woman being encouraged to put her own needs and wants aside in order to cater to her husband's whim — because who knows, he might up and die.
Yes, be good to your people and do nice things for them often, but why can’t the guy make his own chili or go buy some if he really wants chili so bad and she doesn’t want to go to the store? Her having no boundaries and being completely at the mercy of whatever pleases him isn’t love — it’s toxic, and it shouldn’t be being held up as a shining example of how to go about a healthy, lasting relationship.
A big part of what polyamory is all about is being self-responsible and creating your own happiness rather than relying on your partner(s) to do that for you. Instead, it seems to me like a very co-dependent relationship if she (or anyone) is supposed to just cater to any and all whims of the person she loves — for fear she’ll regret it because he might not always be there. No-one can live like that. It’s completely unrealistic, even if you wanted to try it. I know because I tried it.
I just spent the past six months caring for my dying mother and I did start out catering to her every whim. She wasn’t a super-demanding person by nature, but because she had such limited mobility at that point, she couldn’t do or get most things for herself. I had to do it, and as much as possible, I did it with a smile on my face and telling her it was no problem at all if she apologized for running me ragged. She was used to being busy and having projects, and I tried to help her with those too because I knew how much it added to her quality of life, even if it meant less time for mine.
But a couple of months in, I was emotionally and physically exhausted to the point where I was becoming concerned about my own health. I realized that I had to start drawing better boundaries and putting my needs and wants in the equation too. It didn’t matter that she was dying. I couldn’t do everything she wanted at the exact moment she wanted it, not without literally killing myself too.
Fortunately, my mom was understanding about this and I started blocking out times when I was at my her full disposal and other times where I was less available because I was doing things that I wanted or needed to do — like take a shower or a nap. I started telling her flat out no to some things as well.
I did all this as kindly and gently as possible, and it actually positively impacted her life as well as mine because it improved my ability to be really present for my mother when I was giving her my full attention. I wasn’t completely tapped out and phoning it in like I had been a few weeks before when I’d been so depleted. I knew better than this before my mom came to live with me about keeping a balance, but it’s hard to not want to give the world to someone you love who isn’t going to be here that much longer. Still, I needed to be reminded that even in this extreme circumstance, I couldn’t just abandon my own needs for hers.
And what I got to learn in a deeper way is that being a martyr isn’t love. Putting someone else’s needs ahead of your own all the time is just as out of balance as putting your own needs first all of the time. There’s got to be a give and take. You can’t pour from an empty well, and if you’ve depleted yourself trying to be good to someone else, without being similarly good to yourself, you are doing each of you a disservice.
This idea of selfless love (meaning putting yourself last) is sold to us as romantic by The Hallmark Channel and the like, but it’s also sold to every mother in America as well. You aren’t a good mother unless you sacrifice everything for your children. Not only should you do that, but you should be honored to get to do it. As Jada Pinkett Smith so aptly said about this expectation of mothers, “That kind of messaging can make a person crazy!”
When I asked the people in this polyamory group who applauded this “selfless love” sentiment if they honestly thought there was no instance where one was allowed to say no to a partner(s) requests, even for things that they could or should do for themselves, they declined to engage with me. A couple of people just commented on the original post things akin to, “Make the chili” or “I love this.” Maybe they are taking this admonition less literally than I am, and just expressing support for being caring and engaged with your loved ones, which I also support, but I really don’t get the adherence to the unrealistic fairytale of “loving selflessly.”
This is not healthy, and it’s not admirable. It’s teaching the entirely wrong things about love and how you demonstrate it. As my husband James insightfully pointed out, it’s creating a test of love via willingness to do something your beloved wants. “If you don’t make me/him that chili, then it shows you don’t actually love me/him, and you’ll regret that when I’m/he’s gone!” Whether this message is coming from a beloved or from society, it’s equally unacceptable.
What I learned about making requests in my life coach training is that if one of the acceptable answers isn’t no, then it’s a demand and not a request. Demanding that your loved one fulfill all of your whims isn’t love, it’s control, and it’s particularly unacceptable in a culture that is supposed to be about personal responsibility and interdependence (not co-dependence), as poly ostensibly is.
Polyamory teaches that it’s unrealistic to get all of your wants and needs met by only one person and that ultimately you are the one responsible for creating your own happiness anyhow. Of course, any and all relationships require compromise, and even putting the other person first at times, but that should never come with a sense of entitlement or obligation. I derive a lot of pleasure from doing nice things for my partners, but I don’t want someone out in the world telling me that I’m not a sufficiently loving person if I sometimes think about and prioritize what I want in a given situation.
I understand how the woman in the story who lost her husband not long before would want to counsel someone to take as many opportunities as possible to be good to the one you love and make them feel special, but the way it came across was a bit too dire and gloomy for me — as if she’d regret it for the rest of her life if she didn’t do what he wanted. A few days before my mom died, James had promised to make her shepherd’s pie using Gordon Ramsey’s mother’s recipe. It’s really, really good and she was looking forward to it, but Mom stopped eating and ultimately passed before we could do that.
This is not something that I deeply regret and I seriously doubt she’s in the great beyond ruminating about it either. I wish we could have gotten that far, but you know what, we made the most of the time that we did have. She and I spent a lot of time talking and having really poignant and beautiful conversations. Yes, we watched the TV shows she wanted to even if they didn’t really appeal to me and James. Yes, we tried to provide meals we knew she would enjoy, but also sometimes, we ate what we wanted to even if they were not her preferred foods — and that was fine with her as well.
I bought her hundreds of dollars of books on Kindle and although she read most of them, some just ended up not appealing to her even though she was the one who had picked them out. It’s only money, and if I wasted $50 in the course of making her happy, then that’s OK with me. But I also told my mother that I wasn’t going to help her figure out how to get a glass front made for the dollhouse my dad had designed for her years ago — an item that was still back in her house. I simply had too many other more important things to think about and I just couldn’t undertake that too. And I felt completely fine about saying that. Balance.
My relationship with my mother, or with my beloveds isn’t defined by what I do for them. It isn’t demonstrated by always giving them whatever they want whenever they want it. It’s a lot bigger and more nuanced than that, and loving myself is also a part of that equation. Because if I sublimate my life to help you create your happiness, at the expense of my own, I’m going to end up resenting you, but also relying on you to make me happy in return.
That’s not a trade-off that can actually work, and we shouldn’t be propagating stories that claim that it will. I’m more than happy to help support the dreams and desires of those I care about, but my primary job is to pursue my own dreams and desires. And that’s a really good thing. It’s a really empowering thing. That’s the message about love that I think we should be putting out there to the world. It’s not someone else’s job to make you happy.
If I feel like eating something for dinner and James has something else he’s planning or he doesn’t feel like cooking, that doesn’t mean I’m left out in the cold. It means that I either make that for myself or I ask him if he’ll put it on the menu for another day soon, or some other option that doesn’t put my happiness and satisfaction totally in his hands and totally outside of my own. To me, this is a big part of what it means to be a grown-up — not just as relates to food, but to all areas of life.
Be good to your people, but not at the constant expense of yourself. That isn’t really love — to require that or to do it for someone else. It’s some kind of twisted martyrdom that we’ve been sold by our culture, to women, in particular, and I for one, am no longer buying it.
© Copyright Elle Beau 2020
Elle Beau writes on Medium about sex, life, relationships, society, anthropology, spirituality, and love. If this story is appearing anywhere other than Medium.com, it appears without my consent and has been stolen.