With mother seriously ill, be open about wants and needs
Q: My mom is really, really sick and in the hospital. When I first talked to her, she would tell me not to bother coming in if I was busy, not to miss other engagements, etc. I know she doesn't want me to feel obligated to come. But I knew she would be thrilled if I did, and she was/is. I'm glad I'm there with her.
The thing is, if it were me, I'd say the exact same thing to my loved ones. You don't want to be needy (even in times of great need), and you don't want to foist extra obligations on others who already have full lives. Yet you secretly hope they will come anyway, on their own initiative.
So I've been wondering if my mom is being dishonest — and if I am, by extension — in not stating what she really wants/needs in times of crisis. I have seen people who take and take and take, and don't want to be one of those.
A: I'm sure you've also seen people who expect everyone to read their minds and who punish mercilessly anyone who fails to do so. You don't want to be one of those, either. When somebody asks, "How can I help?" anyone who would be thrilled to have help/visitors/calls should just say so. Trust people to mean what they say.
In turn, you have to mean what you say. That involves more than just expressing the things "you secretly hope" people will do. It also means admitting to yourself when there will be negative consequences if those expectations aren't met.
If your mother found out, for example, that you kept your pedicure appointment instead of visiting, and if she would mope through your entire next visit because of it, or even if she would put on her bravest face and suffer only inside, then her "No, no, don't burden yourself for little ol' me" shtick would in fact be dishonest to you both.
Unspoken expectations, followed by unspoken disappointments, followed by unspoken strain on the relationship — that's a cycle of negative consequences. And yet, ironically, most people who refrain from voicing their needs are just trying to make things easier for somebody else. (Some do it as a misguided way to test their loved ones' devotion to them, but they're a whole other column.)
A way to break that whole cycle — and make others' lives easier — is to sort our desires into three basic piles: wants, needs and neediness. Your mom, for example, wants visitors who want to be there; needs an advocate, and help with lifting her spirits; but expecting to be the center of anyone's attention but the hospital staff's would cross over into neediness.
There's nothing take-take-take about these wants/needs.
For your mom, such directness would have to be her choice; it takes emotional skill not commonly found, and right now she has bigger things to worry about than how in touch she is with herself (though illness can embolden people).
For you, directness is a choice you can start making immediately in supporting your mom, by being open about your needs and wants, encouraging her to be open about hers, and taking copious emotional notes for when "if it were me" is no longer a hypothetical.
My best to you both.