Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Regan or Goneril

I love King Lear. But just today, I find myself wondering which I'm more like, Regan or Goneril.

I'm feeling guilty, and frustrated, and doubly guilty for being frustrated.

I see my Mom growing old; not seeing her for a while makes the changes more apparent, perhaps. And the changes scare me, more for my own future than anything else. Yeah, I'm selfish enough to know that things will be pretty sucktastic for me if I hit my 70s.

But back to Lear. Remember when he wants to take his retinue to stay with his daughter, because, after all, what's another 100 mouths to feed? They won't be any trouble at all! We're "supposed" to sympathize with Lear; his daughters should take him in, should care for him in his old age. It's a no brainer. They should take some time off from work to make sure he settles in, to take him here or there, or just visit. And if he tells them how to run their households, to bring a sweater, to get this other brand of toothpaste, they should listen respectfully because he raised them, and he's older and wiser than they.

It's part of our mythology, that in the "old days," children took care of their parents when they grew old. But, as historians of western Europe will tell you, it's mythology, and not how households were usually organized from at least the middle ages on. Certainly all those colonial types who left "the old country" didn't bring the 'rents along. Nor did the pioneers have a "mother-in-law" apartment above the ol' Conestoga.

But it's still a potent myth, isn't it?

And there's the rock and the hard place, Scylla and Charibdis, of how to deal with the reality. I think my Mom's articulating her own frustrations more fully, too, both with my sibling and myself. I get the feeling we're both big disappointments in the family responsibility department. Usually, in the past, she's pretty much held my brother exempt from criticism, but not now. And while at one time I would have been glad not to be the only one subject to criticism, now I feel doubly defeated. She's critical, but at the same time she realizes that she didn't spend her middle age taking her parents or in-laws on family vacations. It's just the rock and the hard place.

Of course, we're neither the first nor the last family to hit these issues. It's same old, same old back to Leir.


  1. Anonymous7:14 AM

    I'm a little apprehensive about my MIL aging because it's already been said that she'll eventually live with us--that's instead of with one of my husband's brothers. My husband is the oldest and most responsible and at this point, the only one who is married, which seems to automatically mean it's his duty. and in their family, MIL did spend her middle age taking care of her father in law. come to think of it, she spent her 20's caring for her dying mother but that's another story.

    What unsettles me about it is that we're not talking about caring for her when and if she's too weak or confused to care for herself. It's more about us filling her loneliness and I have mixed feelings about that.

    I don't like the fact that she's lonely and I wish her husband hadn't left her for another woman. At the same time, can't a grown woman build a life for herself after divorce? Does divorce mean responsibility for her happiness and well-being is transferred from her husband to her eldest son? And that's when I start to feel jealous. He's my husband, not hers, you know?

    when the talk of her living with us or near us comes up, it's always about her loneliness. She talks about wishing we were closer or that she lived closer. She can't leave her state because of pension issues, so it's a constant why don't you get work here I wish you would move here and so forth. If we moved anywhere inside the borders of her home state, she would sell her house and move in next door, I'm sure of it. and she'd do that in order to become part of our immediate family.

    I want to have compassion for her but it feels like a bit much to ask my husband to be her primary emotional support. I wish she would learn to stand on her own.

    looong comment. :)

  2. I'm about to move across country, and my Mom has announced she will follow me. Now, unlike Anastasia's MIL, my mom is well able to make friends and build community. And she'll do it. But what I know is that there will probably come a time when I do doctors appointments with her, and worry about her care. In other words, the immediate responsibility will be mine, not my sibs.

    Fortunately, she hasn't asked to go on vacation with us yet. . .

  3. Oh man, do I *ever* hear you, Bardiac. But right now it's my oldest sister who's really dealing with this. She's living in my dad's house until her new condo is ready -- she just moved back to KC -- and I think he's expecting she'll stay with him until the end.

    And I've always equated my dad with King Lear, but what's interesting about that is my changing attitude towards both my dad and King Lear. As a teenager I identified with Cordelia and thought Lear got what he deserved! It took me awhile to "get" the way the sympathy is supposed to change in the play. And now I just weep over the frail and vulnerable old man thrown out of his daughters' houses.

    And yet...At the point where G&R are saying, "No, dad, you don't need a 100-man retinue -- one servant will be enough" I still don't sympathize with Lear. It's the one point, in fact, where I have some sympathy for his hideous daughters. Are you sure we're supposed to feel for/with Lear? Isn't he still the ass who banished Cordelia at that point? Or is it perhaps an ambiguous moment, teetering from the asshole Lear to the sympathetic Lear, but complexly a bit of both?

  4. "They should take some time off from work to make sure he settles in, to take him here or there, or just visit. "

    Let's not give those two too much credit; the only work they did was working over their father. Theirs would not be as much of a sacrifice as yours would be, since you actually do work. In fact, their livelihoods rested on family connections, so they owed just about everything to Lear. I don't imagine this is true in your case.

  5. That's really hard--I am dealing with similar stuff and this resonates.

    Isn't it the Peter Brook film in which you really get a sense of how the old man's presence threatens the daughters' households? The hundred knights wreck Goneril's banquet hall, or something? And the one with Ian Holm is a bit the same: you sense how hugely difficult he is, and how hard it will be to try to keep him safe, contained, and basically sane. How impossible, in fact.

    The two daughters are usually harpies, but it is a much more wrenching experience, I think, when they're human enough that you have a bit of sympathy with everyone.

    Of course, the last Lear I saw had the king in a huge hairy blue robe that honestly looked like the skin off the Cookie Monster, so I keep remembering that and laughing in a very untragic way.

  6. Anastasia, Thanks for your comment. I think there's a problem with expecting anyone to be responsible for one's own happiness (okay, well anyone past the age of consent).

    Susan, I know what you mean. There will be a lot of responsibility, and it's not something you chose, and that makes it harder.

    Dr. Virago, You're right! I totally over-simplified my sympathy point for Lear. I think we're supposed to realize that he's not making good decisions, but at the same time, we're supposed to see R&G as nasty daughters. I actually sympathize most with Edmund, but that doesn't quite work with what I wanted to say...

    Rob, Hmmm, I imagined running a medieval royal household involved a lot of work for the women, most of it not the sort of thing that gets into print--managing servants, household accounts and such, managing the aristocracy, and so forth. It's not back-breaking labor, but I imagine it took a good deal of effort and energy. Sort of like managing a household today doesn't garner much recognition? Anyway, I guess that's how I thought of them working.

    Meansomething, Oh, I'd love to see that film! I'm going to look for it when I get back, thanks :)

  7. It is tough. My mom seems to feel like if I move close to home, it will complete her happiness. And who am I to deny her that?

    Except it's not her life. I think sometimes parents have difficulty figuring out where their life ends and their grown child's life begins... or something, if that makes any sense.

  8. I know what you mean about not seeing them for a while and then really seeing the age changes. My mom looks so frail, hunched over. She still skis and is her old self, but I see it a lot more.