Talking about mom is a frequent topic of conversation among friends, between clients and their therapists and with other family members (at your own peril). With notable exceptions, relationships between adult children and their mothers are complicated. Take my situation as an example.
I’m a 64 year old independent adult with a career and grown children of my own yet when I walk in the door of my mother’s retirement condo I still become that 14 year old girl-child who wants nothing more than her mother’s approval. I know she did the best she could and she certainly was good enough – and better than many. I love her and I know she loves me. We have fun doing things together but I still struggle to trust her with my innermost feelings even though I know we both long for a real heart-to-heart from time to time. It’s complicated.
We’ve come a long way over the decades. We had knock-down, drag-out fights from the day I entered middle school until I was 26 years old. Today, we share long emails a time or two (or three) a week. I make the six hour drive to visit at least two or three times a year, some years even more. I stay for 4-5 days, sometimes longer. I sleep at her house on a sofa-bed and we make time to share what we’re thinking, doing and feeling..
We are closer now than we’ve ever been. But even at ages 64 and 84, our relationship is a work in progress. Here are some tips I’ve learned along the way.
You can’t change anyone but yourself. Mom will change if/when she chooses. Rather than waiting for mom to change or beating your head against a wall trying to make her change, focus on strengthening your coping skills so you can respond more effectively.
When one person in the relationship changes, the other person changes. So if you work on your own issues, your mom will have to adjust to the new you. Most often, she will rise to the occasion and things will get better between you. But there’s always the possibility she could feel threatened and things could get worse.
Say you learn to manage your anger more effectively and you stop yelling at mom. In the past, she would have yelled right back and things would have escalated. With your new skills, you talk to her calmly when you get angry. So now she has to make a choice. She will either match your tone – because it feels pretty yukky to yell at someone who’s not yelling back – or she will freak out because you aren’t playing by the old rules and yell more loudly.
Whatever mom chooses, you win. You come away with more effective coping skills and you feel better about yourself. And you gain information about mom that will help you decide how to use your other new coping skills – stating your needs and setting limits.
Accept mom is human
We all grow up with an idealized image of the perfect mother – kind, loving, nurturing, always present. Our idealized mom has the perfect marriage. She’s never tired, never grumpy and never angry. She’s fun, marvels at our every utterance and attends to our every need before we even ask. We know intellectually the idealized mom doesn’t exist but in our heart of hearts we still expect mom to be all that.
Knowing intellectually that mom is human isn’t enough. To form a healthy adult relationship with mom requires that we accept her as she is in each moment, that we cut her some slack and give her the benefit of the doubt.
Sometimes she’s tired and grumpy. Sometimes she’s hurt and angry. Sometimes the things you say are not marvel-worthy. She shouldn’t be expected to try to read your mind. And even if she tried, she would be wrong most of the time. Like you, she has a childhood that probably wasn’t as rosy and wonderful as she would have liked. Plain and simple, she is human and fallible and wonderful, just like you. She needs your empathy as much as you need hers.
Share (some of) your thoughts and feelings
In an adult mother-child relationship, both you and mom get to share (some of) your thoughts and feelings. There is reciprocity, give and take. You care what each other thinks and feels. No matter how close you are, neither of you reads the other’s mind. If you keep your distance, all the more reason to share your thoughts and emotions to a point. You have to say it; don’t assume she knows.
When you are upset or angry, it’s not OK to take it out on mom. If you’re going to vent, tell her know you need to let off a little steam and tell her calmly what’s going on.
If you’re upset with her, tell her calmly with kindness. She’s much more likely to hear and respond positively to what you have to say if you don’t raise your voice or shut down. Use “I” statements. Sentences that start with “you” are blaming. Of course, she will get defensive if you blame her.
Focus on what you’re upset about now; don’t bring up the past or a multitude of accumulated hurts. Be mindful of your tone of voice and body language. Generally, if you wouldn’t say it or do it to a vulnerable friend, don’t say or do it to your mother. That said, don’t tiptoe around difficult subjects because they are difficult.
Remember, however, mom is not your best friend. Sharing is important but there are some things you just don’t share. Don’t talk bad about your dad, siblings, grandma or any other family member just as mom shouldn’t talk about other family members to you. And absolutely, do not expect mom to be a go between for you. If you have a problem with or need something from another family member, be a grown up and talk to them directly.
Some topics are better shared with a friend. Save the details of your sex life for a friend you trust. Also don’t talk badly about your partner and expect it not to affect how mom views him or her. It’s OK to tell mom you’re going through a rough patch, but generally save the details. Of course, there are always exceptions. It’s important to share if you feel unsafe from emotional, sexual or physical abuse.
Listen mindfully. Give her your full attention as you expect her to give you hers. Don’t fiddle on your phone or computer. Listen without thinking about how you will respond. Just listen and try to understand. Reflect back what you hear. Validate (see blog on validating and invalidating).
Know what you need and tell her. Maybe you just need to be heard, you want advice, you want validation or you need her understanding. Be clear about what you want, especially if she has a fix-it gene. The last thing in the world you want is for her to give advice or fix your problem. You don’t have to justify your need. You have a need. It’s OK and totally valid. If she can’t meet your need, that’s up to her to decide and accurately express back to you.
Finally, accurately express yourself. If all you want is her approval, don’t say “I hate you” in the heat of the moment. If you need her approval, tell her calmly with kindness. Find something positive to validate and then tell her what you need even if it’s difficult.
Describe briefly without blaming, defending or making up a story in your mind to justify your need. You don’t need to justify yourself to your mom or yourself. You know the old saying, “if you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say it at all.” That’s not true. The truth is if you can’t express yourself accurately and calmly with kindness, wait to say anything until you can.
Conflict happens. You won’t always agree. Pick your battles. Avoid power struggles – it’s my way or the highway, all or nothing. In a healthy relationship, you tackle conflict head on rather than avoiding or pretending it didn’t happen. Take responsibility for your part in the conflict and make an effective repair quickly before conflict festers.
An effective repair has four parts. First, you take responsibility for your own words and actions. You state clearly and specifically what you said and did. Second, you describe the impact your words and actions might have had on your mom. Third, you state what you wish you had done or said if you had been thinking and your emotions weren’t running the show. Finally, you offer a genuine heartfelt apology.
Your mom is not obligated to change her feelings on a dime because you apologized. Her feelings are her feelings and she’ll let go of them when she’s ready. Ideally, she will acknowledge and validate your effort. In a perfect world, she might even take responsibility for her part in the conflict and offer a repair. But there are no guarantees.
If you don’t take responsibility and make repairs, you’re likely to carry the same patterns into your future relationships, whether with a partner, friends, coworkers or supervisor.
Taking responsibility for your own actions and words and working out your differences is the best gift you can yourself and your mom.
Forgive mom! Forgive yourself!
Forgiveness is something you do for yourself. When you forgive, you’re not saying what happened is OK. You’re not condoning, pardoning or minimizing the impact mom’s words and actions had on you. When you forgive, you are accepting it happened and letting go of the negative thoughts and emotions that make you miserable. You are choosing to let go of your victimhood and the stories you tell yourself to defend and rationalize your point of view.
It’s just as important to forgive yourself. When conflicts escalate, both sides share responsibility. When you don’t repair quickly, shame and guilt result. Forgiving yourself – accepting it happened and letting go of the resulting negative thoughts and emotions – is important. Forgiveness liberates you from your own misery.
Find balance between connection and separateness
You need to be your own person. You want connection. Finding the balance can be tough. There’s a continuum from being estranged to being enmeshed, unable to make decisions without mom’s input. Both extremes are problematic.
A healthy relationship is flexible. You and mom are interdependent. Like mom, you’re your own person with your own needs, wants and preferences, opinions, values and worldview. You don’t have to defend or justify yourself; rather, you develop the confidence to state your positions with assertiveness.
Setting limits is an important part of becoming your own person. I was one of those moms who didn’t want to let go. I was always trying to solve my son’s problems as my mom had done with me. One day, he asked me, “How hard would it be for you to just listen – and let me solve my own problems.” He stated his need to be heard and set a limit. It was hard for me and I had to be reminded more than I care to admit. Sometimes he gently reminded me; other times he was forceful. But in time, we found a comfortable balance of separateness and connection.
Agree to disagree
There are some topics on which you will never agree. It could be big decisions like marriage, parenting or career. It could be less consequential decisions, like who to support in the next Presidential election or whether it’s reasonable to expect you to come over for Sunday dinner once a week. It’s easy to get drawn into an argument. Maybe mom is making her case in a way that leads you to feel invalidated. You get defensive and an argument ensues.
Keep in mind – it’s not personal. It’s not about me. We just have different opinions. You can be extremely close but have different goals and ways of handling things. You are not a clone of your mother. You don’t have to do it mom’s way to please her, just as mom doesn’t have to change her opinions for you. Agree to disagree.
Someone has to make the first move
It’s easy to get stuck with both sides so invested in being right that you become estranged, either temporarily or for years. When this happens, you both stubbornly cling to the idea that the other person should apologize, that you are right and they are wrong. Here’s the reality. You’re both wrong about some things. You’re both right about other things. Either of you can take the risk of making a repair to get past being stuck or estranged.
So think about it. What can you do to reach out? Are you willing to make the first move, to take the risk of being hurt or rejected? What’s the worst that could happen? You never know whether the relationship could have been repaired. If your overture is rejected, you have your answer. You’ve done the best you can. If your overture is accepted, you have taken the first step toward reconnecting with your mom – the person who brought you into the world and raised you as best she could.