How to Talk to [Mamí & Papí] about Anything

Mom Drove into NYC Amid the COVID-19 Crisis

Episode Notes

Sandra Morales’ mom made a life-threatening decision as COVID-19 escalated in New York City. Family therapist Evelyn Hernandez Brown listens in and helps us with setting boundaries, adjusting expectations, and the work that follows in the “repair” phase.

Our expert, Evelynn Hernandez-Brown, is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Oakland, California. She specializes in culturally responsible therapy methods for adults. She joins the podcast to talk about better ways to communicate with a loved one when you are feeling overwhelmed and frustrated.

You can visit Evelynn's website to learn more about her practice. If you loved this episode, be sure to check out Trying to Warn Mom about COVID-19 from Afar and When Helping Leaves You Feeling Bad After.

We’d love to hear your stories of triumph and frustration so send us a detailed voice memo to hello@talktomamipapi.com. You might be on a future episode! 

Let’s connect on Twitter and Instagram at @TalkToMamiPapi and email us at hello@talktomamipapi.com. And subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and anywhere you listen to your favorite podcasts.

Episode Transcription

Juleyka Lantigua-Williams:

Hi, everybody. Welcome to the first episode of How to Talk to Mamí and Papí About Anything! I’m the creator and host, Juleyka Lantigua-Williams. I made the show because many of my friends and I, who were born or raised in the US, could use some help in communicating with our immigrant parents. We’re sometimes torn between the way we choose to live our Americanized lives and the loyalty we feel to our parents’ ways. Every week I’ll talk to adult children of immigrant parents facing a heavy situation from which the rest of us might learn something. I’ll also talk to an expert with relevant experience, who can help us understand and move through the situation. 

We’ll start with my friend, who we’re calling Sandra Morales to ensure her privacy. Her mom made a life-threatening decision as COVID-19 escalated in New York City. Let’s get into it. 

Sandra Morales:

Hi, my name is Sandra, and I’m Dominican, and in my family, we call our parents Mamí and Papí. So, my mother and her husband have a second home in Florida, and they were there for the winter, and the minute the city closed down and put everybody on quarantine, she decided to rent a car, have my brother rent a car, and they wanted to drive up. And I said, “Absolutely not. Absolutely not. You cannot do this. This is not something that makes sense. You are both 74 and 75. You are at risk. Do not come.” They’re like, “Fine, fine.” 

And so, they agreed that day, and then three days later, they had my brother call again and rent the car again. This time they did not tell me. Once they got here, we had a huge argument, and like yelling at the top of our lungs on the phone. “You don’t have to come see me!” I have two teenagers who have now been quarantined along with me, and at the time when I spoke to my mother, she said, “I will stay in my apartment. You won’t have to do anything. We are bringing our groceries.” And they brought groceries with them, so they just hit the first two-week mark, and we also went through our things, and I had to go outside. And I called her, and I was just like, “What is it that you need?” 

She’s like, “Well, just rice. And wait, do you have a pencil and a paper?” I was like, “Just text me the list.” And that list became much longer, and so now it was groceries for two families, right? And then having to clean, and make sure to wipe everything down, to separate those things, and then take them to her house and leave them outside so that she could come and pick them up, and then they would go through cleaning. It was an ordeal. 

And those are the things that I was trying to avoid, right? It’s just a manipulative way of getting my attention. Right? It’s like strong-arming me. Which I don’t appreciate, right? I’m a very generous person, and I would love to be generous with my mother with my time, because anything she wants, if I can give it to her, I will. But it’s just, it’s like you’re selling your soul to the devil whenever you agree to do something, right? 

Lantigua-Williams:

Let’s pause here for a sec. I think I know what some of you are thinking. I was thinking it, too. Sandra could just say no to her mom, right? She has that option. But that’s not quite how she sees it. 

Morales: Yeah, but then my Latina card would be revoked if I did that. You know, what Latina daughter is gonna be able to claim being her Latinidad, if all of a sudden that card is gone? It’s like, “No, I’m the daughter.” You know, you gotta suck it up, girl! Otherwise, you’re gonna lose that part of your cultural currency, and I’m not willing to do that. I’m sorry. 

Lantigua-Williams:

I was stunned the first time I heard the full version of this story from Sandra. I couldn't get it out of my mind for days. I asked Sandra to share it on the show because I heard echoes of situations I and so many of us hyphenated Americans face. I also invited a licensed marriage and family therapist to help us make sense of it. 

Evelynn Hernandez-Brown:

My name is Evelynn Hernandez-Brown. I’m a licensed marriage and family therapist here in Oakland, California. I work with primarily younger adults who are kind of trying to work on past stuff coming up in current relationships and difficult family dynamics. 

Lantigua-Williams:

What do you hear in that story when you listen to it? 

Hernandez-Brown:

Such a common one, first. I just want to say that. She is not alone. I’ve heard that story so many times, just different names and different scenarios. But heard it so many times. Overall, my impression was that I’m hearing so much love, first and foremost. Just so much love between everybody there, right? And the way sometimes love, and what that looks like, and how it comes out between family members can be, you know, it looks different sometimes. And I would be completely amiss to not acknowledge that yeah, tensions are a bit high right now. 

Lantigua-Williams:

So, why then do we also hear so much frustration? Is it that it’s not being understood and perceived as love?

Hernandez-Brown:

An interesting thing that I see a lot of is that when we’re trying to get closer to someone, if that makes sense, sometimes it comes out through arguments. And usually through the argument, we have that nice moment afterwards, right? Of like, “Oh, I feel so much closer to you.” Because ultimately, that’s what we wanted. 

Lantigua-Williams:

Okay, so in this particular dynamic, we have the distance at play, right? So, mom is in one state, Sandra’s in another state, and that is the case for many of us multigenerational families in the US. We’re sometimes across different time zones. How do you think distance is playing into this? Especially right now. 

Hernandez-Brown:

Well first, it’s scary. Right? It’s scary to be away from people. We’re mammals. We’re social beings. We want to be around our people. Especially for a lot of us in the Latinx community, we’re used to being around this extended family, around family, always connected. At least in my household, everyone was always coming in and out at all times. So, the concept of I can’t be around, whether it’s mom, dad, tía, cousin, whoever it is, right? It’s weird. Again, it’s scary. And we’re like, “I want to be closer to you. I want to be more connected.” And rather it coming out through by just saying like, “Hey, I’m feeling really scared. I’m feeling anxious. I’m feeling worried.” It comes out through sometimes irritability, or through impulsive behavior. 

Lantigua-Williams:

So, do you then recommend that people who are trying to communicate love also utilize a little vulnerability before they try to sort of make a case? To sort of say, “Okay, I’m really scared for you right now.” Right? 

Hernandez-Brown:

Exactly. Vulnerability. I always encourage people to speak from that heart place, right? Because sometimes we speak from the head place of like, “Why are you doing this? Why are you doing that? Don’t do that. Don’t do this.” Instead of saying, “I feel this way. I appreciate the thought. I want to be close to you as well, because there’s a lot of shit going on right now.” 

Lantigua-Williams:

Yeah. So, let’s talk a little bit about some of the dynamics that I also hear, right? Because sometimes we get into these big arguments, and we throw everything at the argument, because you’re just trying to find a way to connect. Right? So, in this scenario that we heard from Sandra’s life, can you help us identify the order of priority of the things that are happening? 

Hernandez-Brown: 

Well, first, I would be curious to know what is it you want out of it? Kind of like what are your baseline, what are your total limits? First establishing that for yourself. Again, what is it I want out of this? What am I trying to convey? Once you kind of clarify that piece for yourself, I think it’s easier to communicate your needs, your wants, your wishes, your desires. Now, whether someone’s gonna follow through with that, that’s different, but you’ve clarified it for you. You have a foundation. You can feel grounded in something. 

Lantigua-Williams:

So, how do you then prepare yourself? Once you establish this first level of self awareness, what do I want out of this, and I’m clear about that, how far am I willing to go? Where is my line, basically? How do you then prepare yourself to deal with something like a parent completely ignoring what you want? 

Hernandez-Brown:

Right. Right. Because that’s the big piece. Again, we might come up with all that beautiful stuff and self awareness to ourself but doesn’t mean anyone’s gonna pay attention to it. 

Lantigua-Williams:

Absolutely. 

Hernandez-Brown:

Or follow it. So, I think first, acknowledge that piece. You know, like we can’t control how others react, their actions, how they feel about us, what they think about us, any of that stuff. You know, that’s a little bit of a hard pill to swallow. 

Lantigua-Williams:

Yeah. 

Hernandez-Brown:

But it is what it is, right? We don’t have that superpower. But I think it’s also the slowing down of yourself. Knowing, again, kind of what you’re grounded in, and slowing yourself down so you are responding, rather than just reacting. Because sometimes reacting, that impulse, when we’re just going with that feeling-

Lantigua-Williams:

Can you differentiate that for me? Because I sort of like grammatically know the difference between reacting and responding, but I would love a little bit of insight into how I can put that into practice. 

Hernandez-Brown: 

Reacting is that big impulse, right? It’s that, “What the” feeling. I’m just speaking from there. Sometimes that looks like shutting down, sometimes that looks like acting verbally, getting a little bit like, “Da-da-da-da-da-da!” That arguing type of place. Responding is that ability to kind of like stop, take one big deep breath, but giving yourself that permission to like taking a deep breath, again, starting with that I place. For a lot of people, even for myself, that doesn’t always look like what we want it to look like. It doesn’t come out perfect. But I do find that the more practice, it gets easier, it gets better. 

But even giving yourself that simple reminder of like, “Let me take a deep breath and speak from there.” 

Lantigua-Williams:

So, there’s a little bit of an intentionality when you’re responding. 

Hernandez-Brown:

Yeah. 

Lantigua-Williams:

You are aware that even in the response, you are trying to achieve something, right?

Hernandez-Brown:

Yes.

Lantigua-Williams:

Okay. I’m gonna practice that, because historically, I think I probably tend to react more than respond, you know? So, I’m gonna practice that. But here’s, so in Sandra’s situation, there’s a little bit of a complication, which is that once her mom makes the decision to come to New York, she now is depending on Sandra for material support, because she can’t leave her house, her apartment. So, I’m sure that that was part of what Sandra was thinking about while she was reacting and responding to her mom. So, even if she decided, “Okay, I know what I want out of the situation, and I’m also prepared to accept that my mom is not going to do what I would like her to do or what I think is best in this situation,” how does she then decide whether or not to then support or not support? Because that’s really hard for us.

Hernandez-Brown:

That’s a tough place to be in, right? 

Lantigua-Williams:

Yeah. 

Hernandez-Brown:

I think just like what you said, first and foremost, it’s just a tough place to be in. It’s a tough spot. And I always think about… Well, you are deciding. Big decisions, or hard decisions like these, again, kind of acknowledging the scariness, the anxiety going on. Everyone’s feeling very overwhelmed. Nobody wants one more thing on their plate right now, so there’s that. But it’s how much can you give, as well. What is your capacity? So, whether that’s, “I can support you in this way, but I can’t support you that way.” Kind of coming up with those. How do you set a limit or a boundary within the broader situation going on. 

Lantigua-Williams:

I feel like when it comes to multigenerational, sort of like first and second-gen families in the US, a lot of this communication practice is really on the more Americanized people in the family, right? So, just, I’m just gonna say that from my experience. You’re nodding your head. So, I’m gonna say that from my experience and my friends’ experiences, that a lot of us are the ones who are trying, not always successfully, but who are really trying to improve those channels of communication. So, thinking about it foundationally from your vantage point, having worked with families, what are some of the dos and don’ts in our practice? 

And we know that this is a process, right? This is an absolute process. These are things we have to repeat and repeat and repeat. But what are some of those foundational dos and don’ts for us to try and establish new dynamics in how we communicate with our parents, our siblings, our extended families? 

Hernandez-Brown:

One, I encourage them just to go for it. Come from that place of self-compassion, self-love, hold that. Sometimes also the best work is in the repair, so when these arguments happen, sometimes it feels like everything has fallen apart, everything is broken there, and sometimes when we come back to that conversation, and definitely always come back to the conversation. That’s where we can find some more of that vulnerability place and space for vulnerability because we have a little bit of space from that argument and the hard dynamics that have come up. 

Lantigua-Williams:

So, I like the way that you said to try it again at the repair, because it implies some damage is gonna be done at the beginning. 

Hernandez-Brown:

Yes. 

Lantigua-Williams:

So, let’s just go in understanding that no matter how clear you are on your boundaries and your line, there’s gonna be some damage done. So, anticipate that you will be doing some repair later, right? 

Hernandez-Brown:

Yes. Yes. 

Lantigua-Williams:

But also, it sounds like you’re also saying that we have to own the fact that we’re also gonna have to initiate that repair conversation. Is that… Am I hearing you correctly? 

Hernandez-Brown:

Yes, yes. That was a beautiful and very concise way of saying what I was saying in a long-winded way. 

Lantigua-Williams:

No, but you said it! 

Hernandez-Brown:

Yeah, you gotta, again, breaking family dynamics, intergenerational ones, it’s not easy. There’s a lot of pain there. There’s a lot of suffering. There’s a lot of wounding there. So many things. So, definitely while you’re trying to encounter these situations, reach out to your community. Talk to other first-gen friends, or people within your community that you can relate to in that way. Reach out to them so that you don’t feel like you’re alone in this, because there are generational differences when you have to acknowledge, like A, I’m gonna be the one to do this work and it’s not easy. And it’s not gonna go smoothly. 

My friend has a great way of explaining how it’s not gonna go down like honey, so you know, it’s gonna be difficult, and sometimes it’s very much needed. Whether that’s for your own energy, your own sanity even, or if you are looking to break some of these dynamics. But reach out to your community. Or other family members even if it’s within… Who can you kind of ally with? Who are your allies within your family?

Lantigua-Williams:

Right, right. 

Hernandez-Brown:

So you don’t feel like you’re all alone in it. 

Lantigua-Williams:

Evelynn, so, so good to talk to you. Thank you so much! 

Hernandez-Brown:

You as well. 

Lantigua-Williams:

Oh my God. 

All right, let’s recap what we learned from Evelynn. Start from a place of love and continue to speak from that place, knowing that it will get hard at times. Admit when you’re scared and explain why to yourself and to your parents, or whoever you’re dealing with. Know your limits. Go into a conversation clear about what you’re willing to do, where your boundaries are. Accept that the other person will not do what you’re suggesting they do. Respond, don’t react. Respond, don’t react. And remember, sometimes the best work is in the repair, the place after the blowup, so be humble and loving as you move towards that place. 

We did it! Our first episode. And you were a huge part of it. Thank you so much. How to Talk to Mamí and Papí is an original production of Lantigua Williams & Co. Micaela Rodríguez produced this episode. Cedric Wilson mixed it. We’d love to hear your stories of triumph and frustration, so send us a detailed voice memo to hello@talktomamipapi.com. You might be on a future episode. Let’s connect on Twitter and Instagram @talktomamipapi, or email us at hello@talktomamipapi.com, and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and anywhere you listen to your favorite podcasts. Bye everybody! Same place next week. 

CITATION: 

Lantigua-Williams, Juleyka, host. “Mom Drove into NYC Amid the COVID-19 Crisis.” How to Talk to Mamí & Papí About Anything, Lantigua Williams & Co., May 2, 2020. TalkToMamiPapi.com.