My Mother Only Likes Me When She Thinks I'm Someone Else

Photo: Ground Picture / Shutterstock
elderly woman looking out window

My mother doesn’t like most people and that includes me, her only surviving child. We get along a lot better on the phone than in person. And although I call her often, I don’t talk to her every day.

At 98, her hearing is practically non-existent, and she rarely hears either of her two phones ringing.

If I do manage to get through, she’ll spend most of the time pushing buttons on her phone to raise the volume—she doesn’t understand it’s as loud as it’s going to get.

She refuses to use hearing aids but that doesn’t stop her from yelling at me for not calling more. She should be happy I call her at all since talking to her isn’t on my list of enjoyable activities. 

A few years ago, when she was still relatively healthy, my mother told me not to visit her and that she wanted to limit our interactions to phone calls only.

She didn’t feel the need to have a relationship with me or anyone in our family, and now she criticizes us for not volunteering to take care of her.  

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My mother was a terrible parent, a narcissist, and a misogynist. Picture the opposite of the kindly grandmother type and that’s her.

At the end of her life, she’s dealing not only with dementia but late-stage mental illness. While it hasn’t been confirmed, she’s likely suffering from schizophrenia as my brother did.

She has many of the symptoms of schizophrenia such as paranoia, delusions, hallucinations, and disorganized speech.

Most conversations with my mother consist of ranting, vocalizing her irrational fears, and spewing out hateful monologues that reveal her racism, her sexism, and her paranoia. She spends a lot of time complaining about me, her caregivers, the family, and anybody else who angers her.

I hear the same things over and over again.

“The government controls the weather, and there’s going to be a flood on only my street.”

“This is a terrible time. I lived too long.”

“I want someone who speaks English well—not these know-nothings around me.”

If I disagree with anything she says or say anything she doesn’t like, she hangs up on me.

At this point, every call ends in a disconnection.

Despite everything, she still has some memory left and an iron will. If she’s made up her mind about something that has no basis in reality, there’s no way to talk her out of it.

My mother gets to spend the last years of her life in her own home, with her pets, and she has great 24-hour, 7 days week care. Her every need is taken care of but instead of being grateful she focuses on everything wrong.

I feel sympathy for her. She was always very independent, lived alone, and walked everywhere until last year when she fell, and everything changed.

When my partner, Andrew, and I visit, we stay at a motel and our stay is never longer than a weekend. I have high blood pressure and my doctor recently named her as the culprit.

Calling is better than visiting for my health.

A few days ago, I had a call with my mother that was unlike any I’d had in recent years.

I called her on her mobile phone, and she picked up on the 12th ring.

“Who is this?” she said, sounding faint. I assumed she had me on speakerphone which explained why she sounded as if she were in a tunnel or an underground shelter.

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“It’s Christine Schoenwald,” I said. I often say my full name more as a way to inject a little humor. She knows my voice and besides, my name comes up on her phone, so she can read it’s me.

“My daughter lives in Los Angeles,” she says. I assume she’s explaining who I am to her newest caregiver.

"Yes, that's right," I say and launch into talking about my cats.

Animals are the one thing we have in common and it’s a neutral topic, and there's less of a possibility, she’ll get angry with me or start to cry.

I tell some funny and heartwarming cat stories like how my once-feral cat, Carlo, slept in my arms for a whole 15 minutes, and how happy it made me. My mother laughs, and we talk about her cats, dog, and all the outside bird, squirrels, and skunks that she feeds.

I’ve heard these stories before, but I’ve heard most of her stories before.

Sometimes I’ll hear a story three or four times in the same conversation. Due to her age, and mental capacity, repeating stories isn’t unexpected, and I've gotten better at letting her talk without interrupting her.

However, something is different from this phone call. I can’t put my finger on it — it feels unfamiliar. My mother sounds cheerful and upbeat, and she laughs easily.

I swear there’s a smile on her face.

We’re chatting like good friends. My mother and I have never been close, but today, I see a side of my mother I haven’t seen in at least twenty years—a happy, likable, and agreeable version.

After about 40 minutes, my mother tells me it’s time for her lunch and we end the call.

“Thanks for calling,” she says, “Have a great day.”

Wow, that wasn’t terrible. For the first time in a long time, my mother wasn’t angry or mean. She didn’t complain or say something shockingly inappropriate.

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Who is this woman and what have they done to my mother?

I’m hoping this new version of my mother isn’t a one-off, but one I’ll chat with again.

The next time I call my mother, she’s back to her old hateful self — grumbling, complaining and spouting conspiracy theories that aren’t only absurd, but they manage to be insulting to anybody daring to be happy in today’s world.

I get ready for her to hang up on me when she says something that solves the mystery of the previous lovely phone call.

“ I didn’t realize I was talking to you the other day. I thought it was a friend of yours. I was impressed by how many details she knew about the family.”

“But I told you, my name!”

“I didn’t hear it.”

No wonder we were having such a pleasant conversation. My mother only liked talking to me and was on her best behavior when she thought I was someone else.

There have been a few times when my mother thought I was her mother, which felt both creepy and sad. I'm doing everything I can for her, but I don't want to take on the responsibility of being her parent — I don’t want to mother a terrible mother.

I’d rather be a family friend than a delusion.

"I'm not your mother," I say. 

"I know that, but sometimes I forget. Besides you're much too old." And we're back to reality again.

I wonder if for future phone calls, I should come up with some fake identities — that way she’ll get the calls she craves, and we’ll have better and more pleasant conversations.

This could work out as I’ve always wanted a pseudonym.

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Christine Schoenwald is a writer and performer. She's had articles in The Los Angeles Times, Salon, Bustle, Medium, and Woman's Day.