If the Olympic games offered nagging as a competitive sport, my mother would take the gold, silver and bronze. In fact, if there were a lifetime achievement award for this time-honed skill, I’m sure she’d snag that too because no one deserves the title, ‘Nag of the Century’ quite like my mom does. When it comes to nagging—the polar opposite of effective communication — she’s the CEO of the entire operation.
My earliest and sharpest memory of her screeching, harpy nagging ability took place in a Japanese restaurant in New York City. Those were the days when chic urban sushi places didn’t exist and Japanese restaurants were these very quiet, dark, elegant places where patrons tried the exotic dishes of the day, none of which were served raw. Still, the vibe of the place was stoic; soft koto music in the background, kimono-clad wait staff and that air of respect: the one that said, “We’re all very quiet here, so keep it down, please.”
My family, which consisted of my little brother, father, mother and me, would sit down. Upon settling in, as always, my mother’s nag session would begin. She would begin showing her disappointment with little tsk and hrmph sounds, even if her seating was perfect. Public places of any sort always justified any intolerance she might have, and an elegant, 5-star Japanese restaurant was no exception. So, as soon as we heard the early moans of mom’s disgust, we knew that the gates of Hell were just about to be let open.
Disgust led to nagging and nagging led to hurting.
We each knew that before this evening was over, someone was going to be in pain. We never looked at each other for visual confirmation; instead we avoided eye contact and looked down at our plates, hoping the miso soup would get there before things got too upsetting.
For some reason, my mother’s nagging always revolved around a dual theme: boredom, and comparing her life to that of others she knew. Why didn’t her boring husband make as much money as her best friend’s husband? Why was my boring little brother such a poor student in comparison to the neighbor’s kid? Why wasn’t I, her boring daughter, as skinny as the girls she saw in the groovy French movies she loved?
So, the basics were: Dad was a loser with no money, my brother was an idiot with no chance of a future, I was the fat embarrassment of a daughter and she was the poor victim who inherited this lot of bores who would tie her down to a life where she clearly deserved better.
We never really knew what she actually wanted, only that she wanted something and she was going to get it by nagging it out of us.
The nagging became more and more insulting, and I suppose because we were her family, she felt she had the right to step right over any and all personal boundaries. The more she nagged and criticized, the quieter we got, until the table became completely polarized by her grandest and most horrifying move yet to date: She threw the table over. In the restaurant. We backed up, the three of us covered in warm broth, as she marched out of the restaurant, indignant and huffy—as if she’d just been insulted by an audience of brawling hecklers. Shocked, embarrassed and humiliated—with all eyes on us, we sat there, our laps stained and our mouths open…but nothing came out.
The truth is, my father didn’t feel like an inadequate provider (he was paying for the meal, after all), my brother didn’t feel like a loser (give the kid a break, he was 7 years old), and I didn’t feel fat and ugly (I was hitting puberty, which probably threatened her own sense of body consciousness)—so, what was the point of all that nagging and nit-picking? Was it just to hurt? Or did she expect her nagging to actually change who we were?
I never wanted to be like my mother, and I consciously chose to be as un-nag-like as possible in all my relationships.
I saw moments where a good show of verbal force would really do the trick as far as getting me exactly what I needed—but I was so scared to be perceived as a nag, so I backed off.
And when I got married, I let a lot of things happen that I didn’t necessarily want to happen, simply because I was too afraid to speak up. Nothing terribly bad, but if it required serious confrontation, I’d just rather it go unsaid. What was doubly unfortunate is that I married a man who was as nag-free as me, and so between the two of us, there was virtually no real communication. I have learned the hard way that marriage is all about communication and without it, well, it’s just a matter of time before someone asks for a divorce…if they can get up the nerve to actually ask for one.
I had to learn to speak up, and to know that expressing myself didn’t have to come with insults, assumptions and forced opinions—like it did with my mother. In other words, nagging was a spectrum. A little nagging could certainly do a lot of good. I just had no role model for what a little nagging looked like. Healthy nagging instead of toxic communication.
Had I not been fearful of communicating my feelings, I’m sure my marriage would have stood a better chance.
I was just always so terrified that someone was going to compare me to my mother. What she did that day in the Japanese restaurant—it scarred all of us, and it shaped us as well.
When my mom nagged my dad into granting her a divorce, he did what he’d always done when confronted by the wife who seemed to show nothing but disdain for him: he stood there in shock and said nothing. But that time, I’m fairly certain he knew exactly what he was doing. In fact, I think the second she stormed out the door, he more than likely cracked a smile—maybe even let loose a giggle.
I will say this, though, in my mother’s defense: for all the crazy that came with that woman, she instilled in me a love and respect for the English language. Whether it’s shouted, whispered, or even written, words have the power to make or break lives.
Her nagging may not have gotten her what she wanted, but she gave me a very clear recognition of what it is people need to do — or not do — in order to get their points across.