The holidays often shake something loose, creating tension between ourselves and our mothers. Life Coach Tal Fagin gives insight on how to take a fresh look at those encounters.
Happy New Year! If you are looking for the typical January advice column—one full of ideas for how to make 2019 Your Best Ever!—please refer here and/or here for some previous thoughts on this subject. Everything I said back then holds just as true now as it did before.
This January I want to focus on something different. Something it seems many—if not all—of my clients were grappling with throughout the holidays.
Here are just a few snippets of the “My mother is” stories I have been hearing since the holiday season began:
She is impossible to please and way too demanding.
She is judgmental, opinionated and excessively negative.
She is a total narcissist. It is—and always has been—ALL about her.
She has zero self-awareness. All she ever does is put everyone else down.
She is a self-perpetuating mass of problems.
I really can’t believe I was raised by that woman!
To be clear, none of these people had hired me to talk about their childhoods. None of them had ever mentioned their mothers before. The holidays seemed to shake something loose, and these successful, accomplished adults would approach the subject in embarrassed or confessional tones, usually leading with something like,
I can’t believe this… But I need to talk about my mother today.
And so we did.
Some feel plagued by a sense of obligation toward their mothers—a stressful cocktail of guilt, unmet needs, lingering hope and perpetual disappointment. Some asked for tips on how to be more tolerant and patient, seeking to avoid the inevitable fights that erupt. Others asked for tools for “protecting” themselves “both emotionally and otherwise” from mothers who “always seem to inflict pain.” One went so far as to question when he can “finally cut the cord and truly get to live his own life.”
The common theme was judgment. Everyone’s mother, it seems, should somehow be different than she is.
I am a mother myself, with three young children. I spend a lot of time among other mothers. We all take our parenting very seriously, always trying to strike that perfect balance. We want to be nurturing, yet firm. Available and supportive, but not hovering or coddling. We want to instill values and responsibility in our Darling Dears, but we also want them to like us.
It is not easy.
When we stumble—which we inevitably do—we lean on each other, seeking solace, advice and laughter. We reflexively refer back to our own childhoods, our own mothers, all the things we appreciate, all the ways we strive to be different.
Mothers, like all women, come in different shapes and sizes, different demeanors and attitudes. Some work, some stay home. Some are rigid and set in their ways, others are more go with the flow. Some are stern and strict, others more lenient. Some are cuddly and affectionate, while others are more reserved.
Whichever kind of mother you have, chances are, you have your complaints.
Intellectually, we understand that our moms are just people, and necessarily imperfect. Emotionally, we need them to live up to some impossible ideal. Hence the tremendous pain for so many of us when our mothers disappoint.
Every child gets hurt on the way to adulthood, and usually, we can find a way to blame it on mom.
I come at this issue from a slightly different perspective than most. The only thing my mother ever did to hurt me was die young, almost 17 years ago now. Other than that, she was—and continues to be—an example and an inspiration. Her support was unwavering, her love generous and unconditional.
And still, I had my complaints, too.
It was only after I became a mother myself that my perspective shifted. Only then was I better able to see her as a woman—not a super hero, not some glorified ideal and definitely not perfect, but just a regular person trying to do the best she could.
Now that she is gone, I have the luxury of remembering her as I choose. I can let the frustrations go—she isn’t here to remind me—and focus on the positive. As for those of you with more challenging relationships with mom, I would encourage you to try the following:
Identify Your Should’s. When your mother frustrates or upsets you, get curious. What exactly is bothering you? She shouldn’t eat the way she does, spend the way she does, criticize the way she does. She should take better care of her health or take less of an interest in gossip. Whatever it is that riles, you are likely comparing her to some ideal, rather than accepting her for who she is. Take some time, either on your own or with a professional, to really hash this “bad mom story” out. Identify all the ways she should—in your mind—be different than she is. Be as critical or whiny as need be. Let it rip. (Not at your mother, but on your own!)
Allow Briefly, Investigate Deeply. After identifying your “should’s,” notice how they make you feel. Take a deep breath. Allow the sadness, fear or disappointment to wash over you, briefly, then look deeper. When you are believing mom should be more careful with all that money she spends—but she isn’t—how do you react? When you insist that mom should go out for a walk but all she wants to do is watch TV, what does it do to you? What do you feel in your body? What do you think, say or do? How do you treat her?
How is that going for you?
Most people will describe getting agitated or annoyed, tense and even “fit to blow.” Some shut down, letting the negativity fester and the disconnect widen. Others make snide remarks, or actually berate their mothers for their obvious and abundant failings. Inevitably, mom gets defensive or goes on the attack herself.
Family discord guaranteed!
If this sounds at all familiar to you, perhaps it’s time to try a new strategy.
Manage Expectations. Chances are, given that you’ve known your mother your entire life, you know what to expect from her. Still, if you are like most of us, you approach each reunion expecting—even just deep down—that this time things will be different. That she will be different. You enter her house expecting to find that fantasy version of your mom, but then are greeted by the real thing. Everything she says and does immediately dashes your hopes and at the same time, confirms your worse version of her. Simple statements like, “You cut your hair” come across as vindictive attacks, solidifying your view of an evil woman hell bent on insulting you at every turn. You come crashing down fast and hard from your unrealistic expectations and somehow feel equal parts surprised and affirmed, foolish but proven right—once again—that yours is the worse mother of all.
What if you just went in expecting to find her as she is? What if you could isolate and extract that ever-present, subtle notion of Fantasy Mom, and just come to accept and expect the one that you have? How might these encounters be different?
Take a Fresh Look. Once you drop the ideal mom story, might you consider taking a fresh look at your one-and-only mother? Is it possible that you have been perceiving her one way for so long—perhaps with an extra focus on all the qualities you can’t stand—that there are a few things you’ve overlooked?
It is fairly common to go through your life, and your relationships, collecting evidence to support your own version of events, while ignoring or dismissing anything that does not support your story. If this rings true for you, consider yourself in good company, then try going another way. Look more carefully at your mom, considering the whole picture and not just the grievances.
Compassion. Keep in mind that your mother—like all human beings—has had her own share of pain and disappointment. She has likely made sacrifices, suffered losses and otherwise gotten knocked around over the years. We all have. If she is anything like the rest of us, her off-putting behavior stems from some painful experiences, fears or insecurities of her own. Might you try having a little compassion toward her?
Summoning compassion will help in multiple ways. It will free you from some of the guilt and pain that comes of judging someone we feel we ought to love, and in return, it might help your mother relax in your presence. In this way, rather than engaging in a constant race to the bottom with one another, you might begin to elevate your relationship.
Forgiveness. Forgiveness is not always easy, and it cannot be faked. That said, those who are quick to let things go and find a way to forgive, suffer less. Some clients balk at the idea of just “letting mom off the hook,” but then I gently point out all the ways in which the anger is causing them just as much, if not more pain, than her. If you find mom truly unbearable or deeply hurtful, you need to feel your feelings first and foremost. You may also need to create firm boundaries. Beyond that, however, stewing in negativity will never help. Personally, I find that forgiveness is self-serving. It liberates me from taxing, toxic feelings and lets me move on.
If all else fails…
BINGO. If nothing I’ve said helps one iota, if you find yourself permanently entrenched in the role of aggrieved-child-of-awful-mother (but you plan to continue the relationship anyway), try getting playful. Design a BINGO card with each square representing something offensive your mother is likely to say or do at your next get together. Share it with some trusted family allies. Now, whenever she sends a zinger in your direction or insults your sister, there it will be on the card. Rather than wincing in discomfort, rolling your eyes or punching back with a barb of your own, you can just place your mental chit and smile. Score!