A reversal of roles
Travels with my mother, pt. 3. What happens when you put two insomniacs in a room?
This was an interesting Mother’s Day coming off the heels of a long trip, in which my mom and I spend more time with each other than we have in almost 20 years. Unsurprisingly, we discovered some surprising things about our relationship.
Eleven hotels and not a single light switch
One evening, midway through our RidiculouslyHecticTour! through Korea where we moved to a different hotel every night for 11 days before settling in Seoul (not sure I would recommend), my cousin and I were up chatting in a hotel room in the mountains where the 2018 Winter Olympics were held. We had bought a bottle of wine at a convenience store, and it was perhaps the first time that we were able to kick back instead of collapsing of exhaustion on our beds after a full day of sightseeing and eating three full meals daily—something our bodies weren’t accustomed to.
As 11pm approached, I got up to leave even though I wasn't ready to turn in. I had a nagging suspicion that my mom was in our room unable to sleep because she didn’t know how to turn off the lights. Admittedly, the light situation was overly complicated. Switches on walls are not a thing, it seems, in hotel rooms in Korea. Everything is controlled by a single panel located on a wall or a remote, powered by your hotel key card.
“I bet you anything that my mom is up right now waiting for me to come back to turn off the lights,” I predict to my cousin as I stand up to gather my things.
As I walk into our room next door, I’m immediately met with a frustrated plea to turn off the lights. My mom was indeed up with all the lights blazing, waiting for me to return.
“Where were you? I don’t know how to turn off the lights!”
A tale of two insomniacs
Every night that I spent with my mom in a hotel room was an adventure in sleeping. Or not, as was often the case. As both of us are notoriously poor sleepers with opposite insomniac schedules, we often slept, unintentionally, in shifts. My mom typically fell asleep around 10pm, but woke four hours later—which incidentally is the time that I would eventually fall asleep.
That first night after a grueling 15 hour flight where neither of us slept on the plane aside for a few winks, my mom dozed off quickly. I, on the other hand, had no such luck. Around 2:30am, I found myself slipping into that half lucid state where your body starts feeling lighter as it begins to drift off. Finally!
That is, until I was abruptly brought back by a voice.
“Mom…MOM! What is that noise?”
“You can hear that?” she asks, surprised. “I’m listening to an audio book. I can’t fall back asleep. I always do this when I can’t sleep.”
“Of course I can hear it. Don’t you have headphones?”
With just 2 hours of restless sleep after being awake for mostly 36 hours straight, I’m fairly cranky the next morning. My mom has the audacity, however, to tell me to power through my sleep deprivation with a positive attitude. I’m a very functional insomniac, but my mother’s ability to not only function, but absolutely thrive on a few hours of sleep defies scientific explanation.
“You just have to change your mindset,” she happily chirped as we got ready for our first full day in Korea.
I’m pretty sure I threw a bratty reply back to her, but I won’t repeat it here. That first night would be a repeat of many nights that would follow.
With no one to parent on my trip, I often “parented” my mom. It wasn’t because I was trying to be a bossy asshole, though she did not hide her displeasure at how much “I bossed her around.” But there were moments in our travels where I had to tell her to buckle her seatbelt or remind her that everything she shopped for was something that we had to haul back on our own—a daunting prospect for two women with herniated disks who could barely lift their suitcases. Unless her phone automatically picked up a wifi signal, she was often without it, resulting in a communication back hole where I couldn’t get a hold of her. Even if she did remember to turn her wifi on, my messages to her would often go unanswered. Sometimes tracking her down if we got separated was like herding cats.
My mom had grown so accustomed (and absolutely thrived) on living on her own the last two years after living a lifetime of having to answer to my dad, that my “bossiness” and having to answer to her own child was a hard pill for her to swallow. She didn’t like it one bit.
“You don’t have to remind me, I’m a big girl,” she would counter back after being asked to make sure her passport was in her bag. I rolled my eyes every time she lost a pair of headphones or a phone charger in a different city.
Now, in my defense, I observed that my cousin and my aunt, who were also traveling with us, had a similar dynamic. Because I started to wonder if I really was an insufferable bossy control freak, this observation was enough validation that my perceived bossiness was appropriate in this context. When things got particularly exasperating, my cousin and I would commiserate with each other about having to remind “The Moms,” as we referred to them, about x, y, and z for the millionth time, while my mom and her sister complained to each other about how their daughters treated them like children.
“I’m fiiiiiiine!!!” The Moms would insist every time we’d ask them how they were holding up after hiking around some cliffs or walking miles. This was not an unreasonable question. It came from genuine concern. There were times when our own middle-aged bodies struggled with the relentless schedule of our road trip and we often wondered who these tours were targeted for, considering that mostly seniors booked these tours around the country. But every time we checked in with our moms to make sure they were okay, we were greeted with “I’m fiiiiiiine!!!”
Prior to our arrival in Korea, I had assumed that I would be relying more on my mother because of the language barrier, but I found the opposite to be true. In fact, the strangest thing happened. My mom often spoke to service workers in hotels or cab drivers in English.
“Mom,” I would remind her, “you can speak to them in Korean. We’re 👏 in 👏 Korea.” I mean, even I didn’t do this??
“Oh. It just happens! English just automatically comes out of my mouth.”
Really? This was indeed a curious development.
This version of Korea was too unfamiliar to her, and with the exception of language, everything operated differently—from always paying your restaurant check at the counter, to the many automated machines—not humans—that took your order at highway rest stops. The Moms relied on us to figure things out like how to hail a cab on Uber or navigate around the city—which is understandable, but the simple things like controlling lights in our hotel room or flushing the toilet (again, sometimes controlled by a remote) frustrated my mom the most.
A return home with balance restored
Our very last moments together standing in a long, excruciating, one hour line at JFK waiting to get through immigration left us with nothing but time and our thoughts to reflect on the trip, individually and collectively.
“Well…” my mom started to say as we agreed how physically hard some parts of the trip had been for both of us, “It was our first trip together. And probably our last.”
I didn’t respond, but mentally filed away her comment quietly, too tired to ask for clarification.
But…what did she mean by this?
Was I such a horribly bossy travel companion? (debatable). Did this insane itinerary exhaust her too much? (absolutely true. Even after our road trip together, she had obligations to visit friends and family around Korea every single day). Did the unfamiliar waters of navigating international travel push her too much out of her comfort zone? (possibly true). Maybe it was all of those things.
Even as adults, it’s easy to fall back into roles of parent and child when you’re back home, wherever home may be, even if it’s not the childhood home you grew up in. This can actually be a joy and a relief. It’s a little fantasy break from adulting—from getting a home cooked meal to throwing anything that your heart desires in your cart while shopping together for groceries. I see this in my own college kid when they come home. The glee she expresses when she opens the kitchen cabinet or refrigerator without having to calculate how much it’s going to cost is palpable.
But at some point between a parent and child’s relationship, roles can become blurred as we start to transition as caretakers for our aging parents. I had experienced some of this with my dad when he was progressing deeper into his Alzheimers as he reverted back to childlike behaviors and mentality, but that was about keeping my dad safe and providing the most basic of human needs to someone who was very ill. This was an entirely different dynamic with my mom.
My mom, who was always the parent, the provider, the one who wiser, mentally stronger, a woman who was always decisive with laser precision and a force to be reckoned with. Neither of us anticipated this reversal of roles that emerged for the first time during our weeks together. The constant hustle of our travels made me, not her, go into automatic mom mode, and the hectic nature of our travels did not allow for any kind of gentle transition. In the most tense moments between us, she was clearly frustrated. But in the tenderest, she expressed a certain acceptance that a shift had occurred and and that it was an expected and inevitable progression in an aging parent/child relationship. In a time when she was finally living her best life, she was not prepared to rely on her child so much. It exposed her vulnerabilities and I’m sure she was thinking that she wasn’t living her best life with me “bossing her around.”
I saw my mom for the first time since we landed at JFK on Mother’s Day this past Sunday. During those two weeks in between, we barely communicated. We needed that break. But as we spent the day having lunch, and a leisurely coffee and dessert, those tense moments from the trip already felt a million memories away. In this familiar environment of being back home in NY, our roles were restored—she was mom, and I was just her daughter.
Everything is Liminal is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my writing, please consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
My mom’s been observed at least twice in sleep studies to no avail. Everyone is stumped by her sleep issues.
Ok, ok. I did commit the first “what did you lose on your trip” offense and it was a big one. I left the portable wifi device in the car that I just picked up at the airport 2 hours prior. The driver, who we tracked down, was super kind to answer our messages and drive back to our hotel with the device the next morning. We were so grateful that my mom and I both shoved American dollars at him, probably tipping him around $50, and tipping is not even a thing in Korea.
Audiobook with no headphones 😨
Wow, that's quite a trip! Exhausting even for the younger ones. I don't think I have the patience to travel like that with my mom. She's a slow walker and doesn't have much stamina in her late 70s now.
Did you take KTX and express buses to get to one region to the next?
What happened to part 1 and 2 travels with your mom?