Mothers are meant to love, nurture and support us. But if that’s not your reality, here’s how to handle your relationship with your difficult mom.
There are many things I remember about my mother when I was little. Her hair was long and beautiful and reached down almost to her waist. She wore long skirts and my favorite one had small bells hanging off a thin cord that jingled when she walked. We had three generations of cats, a couple of budgies, the odd dog, even mice, because she never could deny us a wanted animal.
Those were the positive things.
There are other things I remember too. Her OCD, which manifested in the constant checking of light-switches and plugs, and her continuous hand-washing which made her a slave to the sink and left her hands cracked and bleeding, Her wild rants at unsuspecting shop keepers, her suicide threats and the regular commitments to psychiatric hospitals – those were the negative things.
When I gave birth to my first child at the age of 19, my mum had just been locked up in a hospital psych ward after having an altercation with the police over taking a newspaper from an honesty box. My father was barely speaking to me, and my sister was in hospital for anorexia. I looked at this tiny baby and wondered how I could possibly get this right when everything behind me had gone so wrong. It was so nuts it almost seemed farcical.
Luckily for me, the human spirit is an incredible thing.
But I would be lying if I didn’t say that many times in my life I wondered why I had not been given a mother who could care for me, that I could rely on, and more than anything, trust.
You may have had a mother like mine. You may have had one worse. You may be thinking, wow, I didn’t have it that bad – but there’s still something striking a chord. Because we hold the role of a mother so strong in our society, I think we feel their inadequacies harder and more painfully that we do our fathers. We judge their behavior a lot more harshly too. And we feel their loss at so many stages of our own life cycles.
But like many things in life, you have to learn how to handle the cards you have been dealt with. If you don’t, you run the danger of becoming stuck on something you can’t control, or being bitter and resentful, and that’s no way to live for anyone.
So here’s how to handle your relationship with your difficult mom, if it’s not the stuff Hallmark cards are made of.
Accept who she is
Peg Streep suggests that you need to work through the same stages of grief when coming to terms with your relationship with your mother as you do when you lose someone close to you. Once you move through the denial (this relationship is perfectly normal), the anger (why do you have to be like this), the bargaining (if I do this, will you love me properly then?), depression (why didn’t I get the mother I wanted / needed?), you get to acceptance.
Acceptance comes when you look at your mother as a human being, not as a role. My mother suffers from a mental illness that is still not under 100% under control. She does not choose to be like this. Who would? The same goes for parents struggling with an addiction. Know that your mother has done the best that she was capable of doing under her unique circumstances.
Part of what makes this easier is thinking about age. When you are a child you think your parent is this magical being who has everything under control. When they don’t, you find it difficult to comprehend at the very least. As you age, and know how you deal with your own stresses and issues, you realize that being a parent does not mean you have all the answers.
When the worst was going down, my mum was only in her early 30s. I remember my early 30s and I can tell you I was making some pretty stupid choices about my life then as well. Now I’m in my early 40s, I reflect on some of those key childhood memories and think about how very young she was and how little resources she had available, both internally and externally, to help her manage. It’s not hard to feel empathy for her.
Remove all expectations
This ties in to the above. It’s important, for your own sanity, that you stop expecting things you have never had but would like or feel you need. Maybe your mother is not good at communicating with you, but for some reason you get upset when a month has gone by and you haven’t heard a word. Maybe every time you do speak, all you hear is veiled criticism about your life and choices. Maybe you’re not the favorite child yet you keep thinking maybe this time it will be different, she will actually be interested in your life.
Trust me, change is hard. Most people are unable to recognize they have a problem, much less work to fix it, so the chances of your mother miraculously changing herself after all this time are slim. Have you heard the saying that expectation is premeditated disappointment? Think about that and decide not to go there.
I know that I can’t trust my mother to be consistent and stable, so I enjoy the interactions that are positive, but I treat them as bonuses. I don’t expect them to last, as all past experience has taught me that they won’t.
Know your boundaries and stick to them
Boundaries mean the limits of those behaviors you will accept, and enforcing them means the actions you’re prepared to take when they are passed. Tanya Peisley notes that “it is not uncommon for feelings of guilt to prevent people from effectively setting limits and realistic expectations for their loved one.” However, setting and maintaining boundaries are absolutely integral to you not only empowering yourself, but keeping an even keel.
When it comes to deciding what your boundaries are, accept that it’s going to take a bit of time to work out what works for you. Experiment with different limits, see how they make you feel, and assess what effect they have on your relationship.
However, if you’re stuck, think about how boundaries often need to revolve around communication – the what, when, where, why and how. These might include limiting communication to weekly visits, not answering if she texts during the working day, or not after a certain time at night.
You might put limits on where you meet, and for what purpose. You may also have certain limits on what is discussed. For example, “I will not try to fix things that are not my job to fix”, or “I will not engage in certain topics.”
It’s not necessary to tell anyone what your boundaries are. Your response can be as simple as, “Sorry, I don’t take personal messages when I’m at work”, or, “Sorry, I have to go now.”
It’s a bad idea to make an excuse, such as you have to go to the shop, as excuses can always be argued against (You can just imagine the reply of, “That’s fine- I’ll call you back in half an hour.”). Instead just say that it won’t work for you. Your boundaries may also change over time, especially as your mother ages and new factors have to be taken into consideration. What’s key is that the boundaries are yours and they exist for your benefit.
It’s also perfectly okay to choose no contact as your boundary.
Think about the positives
This afternoon I was talking to my husband about how I learnt that a famous blogger I admire also has a mentally ill parent. Her website is also about living a good life, with a strong home and family orientation. It made me reflect again how my goal of having a family home which is a functional, loving sanctuary where individuals can also grow is directly born from my childhood experience, and how this has also manifested itself into my blog (I talk about this a little in my About Me section). This wish for myself, my family and my blog can only be a good thing, right?
Mum being the way she was also shaped the way that I am, and developed some of my best qualities, such as organization, self-discipline and resilience.
Mum’s offbeat, liberal attitude to many things has also affected the way I look at life, even though this has taken me a little longer to embrace, as for many years all I wanted to be was “normal.”
There is a positive to be taken from every situation, and if you also believe that there is a reason for everything, you will be able to see what good you can take from your relationship. At the very least you can thank her for your existence.
Love your own family
You cannot control your parents’ actions, but you can control your own. You can have your own family and you can love the way you wish you had been loved. You may need help to get there, and that’s understandable- how are you supposed to know without being taught? Use whatever you can to develop the skills you need. Read, talk to people, seek professional help.
And remember, this doesn’t stop when your kids get older and leave home. They are still going to need you as they navigate through early adulthood and become parents of their own. Be clear on what you value about being a parent, and live by those values in your relationship with them at all times.
To sum up…
Our relationships with our mothers are possibly one of the most influential in our lives, and possibly the most fraught. If you have been given a mother who has never matched the mother of your dreams, there are things you can do to help yourself. Accept her for who she is, not what you wish she would be. Remove your expectations of her, but at the same time work on setting healthy boundaries. Know that positives can come from every situation including this one. And finally, love your own family. You have the power to change things going forward!
Want to read more about challenging situations? Try Overcoming depression: My story.
Want to focus on making a beautiful life despite your toxic relationship? Try 15 ways to live a life of simple satisfaction.
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