As I’ve gotten older, my relationship with my mother hasn’t so much “evolved”, as “dissolved”, and I would even go as far as to say that there is no relationship whatsoever today. It’s almost heresy to admit that my feelings towards my mother have gone from mistrust, detachment, apathy, loathing, to where they are today, benign neglect. There is no denying that we are all genetically programmed to “love our mummy”, and from our first days in preschool, we are bombarded with images of caring, protective, and loving mothers. But what if this is not a realistic portrayal of your relationship? I feel a huge dread in writing about this topic because I know that so many women who are reading this blog might internalize what I’m about to say and “heap it on” to the incredible maternal guilt they may already have as mothers themselves. Believe me when I tell you that this is not my intent, nor do I want to write a scathing monologue about how my mother “has done me wrong”. Instead, I’d like to delve into the issues many of us have with our parents, and in so doing, possibly create a dialogue about what we can do differently as parents ourselves.
As a jumping off point, I decided to adapt some of the questions used by psychologists in assessing “adult attachment issues”. Question One: Write down 5 adjectives used to describe your relationship with your mother (parent). Question Two: If both parents were present during your upbringing, with which parent did you feel safest. Question Three: Why do you think your parent behaved the way he/she did when you were a child? Question Four: Were there any changes in your relationship with this parent from childhood to you entering adulthood?
It really is remarkable how much insight can be gleaned from four simple questions, and I would encourage you to take a minute to sit quietly and jot down your answers to these questions. For me, this is a very healthy and constructive way to put my relationship with my mother into perspective because the questionnaire is free of blame, and the questions themselves speak more to feelings than to specific events.
Another place I turned to as a way I coming to terms with my dysfunctional relationship with my mother was to a book by Terri Apter entitled, Difficult Mothers: Understanding and Overcoming Their Power. In her research, Terri Apter identifies five maternal archetypes that may leave their children with a life-long legacy of pain, anger, and low self-esteem as these children enter adulthood. The four types identified were: angry mother, controlling mother, narcissistic mother, envious mother, and emotionally unavailable mother. Again, I’m not intending to malign mothers here, so these archetypes could easily be applied to fathers as well.
In the case of my relationship with my mother, we haven’t spoken to each other in over two years. As I mentioned earlier, there was a time, not too long ago, when I loathed my mother with every sinew in my being. I blamed her for walking out on us when I was 9, and I wrongly found her culpable for not protecting me, and subsequently leaving me open to the childhood sexual abuse that entered my life after she had left. In Terri Apter’s terms, my mother met the criteria of the “emotionally unavailable mother”. However, when I look at my relationship through the lens of the four questions in the adult attachment questionnaire, I begin to see my mother’s perspective and the rationale for her making the decisions she did. It’s very humbling to admit that “it’s not all about me”, and that although we, as children, are important in our parents’ lives, we are not, and never could, be the center of their universe. My mom was raising me in the 1960s, while she was in a bad marriage to a man she no longer loved. Her options were limited; she felt trapped, and it was the time when your family doctor prescribed Valium like it was candy. No matter how difficult it may be for me to accept this, I have to believe that my mother did the best she could do, being the person she was in the situation in which she found herself.
Part of my healing journey has meant that I can no longer hold on to anger and resentment because they are both toxic and are insurmountable obstacles to my growth. My relationship with my mother no longer tethers me to my unhappy past because I have made a conscious decision not to feed that relationship with my anger. I’m learning to accept that some things in life just can’t be changed, can’t be improved, and can’t be fixed. I now think of my mother with what Buddhists call benign neglect. I simply let me relationship with my mother be “what it is”, and for me, that means not seeing her right now because I don’t feel “healthy” when I’m engaged with her.
The last time I spoke to my mother, a little over 2 years ago, I ended the conversation by saying “Mom, I may not like you right now, but I’ll always love you. You are my mother and nothing will ever change that.” So, where does that leave me now that I’ve come to this realization? For one, I am conscious of my relationship with my son, and I am doing everything I can, not to repeat the family cycle. What’s more, I will never close the door on my relationship with my mother because by being “open to love”, gratitude and grace have space to enter my life.W