By Mary Friedel-Hunt
"She died when I was just 13 years old. She missed my graduations from high school and college, my wedding and the birth of my children. There is a huge void in my life. I had no role model. My Dad did the best he could, but he could not replace my Mom." To a therapist, these words are all too familiar. Yet, on another day, a woman might share the excitement of a trip she is planning with her mother. "Every year we spend a week together," she might say. "We laugh and cry, giggle like kids and thoroughly enjoy each other's company." She might add that her relationship with her mother was not always this rewarding. There were times when they did not speak to each other, but through a great deal of commitment, communication and risk taking, they created a satisfying and fulfilling relationship.
Mother-daughter relationships run the gamut, but have one common denominator: this relationship is probably the most powerful and influential relationship in a woman's life. This is true whether the mother is present or absent, loving or abusive, birth mother, stepmother or adoptive mother. Mothers matter more than many women want to admit.
As women, there are many areas that are deeply impacted by the relationship we had or did not have with our mothers: our relationships with partners, friends, and children; our ability to be intimate; and our confidence and self-image. Many of us look in a mirror and see our mothers looking back at us. We speak to our children and hear our mother's words coming out of our mouths.
As a group, mothers are held to very high expectations. We, consciously or unconsciously, demand that they love perfectly, live selflessly and never make mistakes. Yet mothers are just women with the same needs, the same self-esteem issues, and the same weaknesses and strengths as everyone else. If only we could see that. Instead, daughters tend to lay on their mothers the expectation of being super-mom, while many mothers tend to displace their own needs on their daughters. Thus begin the conflicts.
The good news is that within every mother-daughter relationship there is a potential for growth. The void felt by the woman whose mother died when she was 13 or by the woman who never knew a mother becomes a starting place. The awareness of that void can lead her to look at herself. The pain created by that void can become a catalyst in her search for an identity. It is a call to action, an opportunity to develop and affirm self-worth and determine who she wishes to be.
A woman whose relationship with her mother is filled with conflict presents different opportunities and challenges. Friction in the mother-daughter relationship is inevitable. Two women from two different generations (each with her own history, needs and agendas) are going to clash. These skirmishes - past or present - occur around everything from appearance, clothing and dating, to food issues and relationships. But even a history of battles can ultimately lead to insight, growth and even closeness if properly used.
A starting place for the mother or daughter who wants to work out differences is to be willing to take the risk of asking the other to make a commitment to work on the relationship. This sometimes means swallowing one's pride, putting differences aside temporarily and even feeling as if you've lost the battle. Taking the first step breaks the cycle and opens the door to resolution.
If both of you are committed to working on establishing a healthy relationship, it is essential to set time aside regularly over a period of weeks in order to identify the issues and begin the healing process. Listening to the other without interruption, defensive behavior or judgment is demanding but essential. As one of you puts forth her concerns, it is the responsibility of the other to remain open-minded and to attempt to put herself in the shoes of the speaker. Processing on a regular basis until all issues are either resolved or until you "agree to disagree" and move into a new relationship can take months. If you find you need help in your discussions, a therapist can act as a mediator. A therapist is especially helpful if one of the two is more committed and/or more capable of processing than the other. During these months it can also be helpful for the two of you to relax and enjoy each other's company. Going to a movie, having lunch, shopping, remembering the good times in the past are all salves over deep wounds. Putting your differences aside during these times is a challenge but possible if both of you are committed to healing.
Ultimately, acceptance of each other becomes the key to mending and healing any relationship. If we remove expectations and understand that each person (mother or daughter) is just another human being hopefully doing the best she can at any given moment, the chances for creating forgiveness and friendship present themselves.
That's not to say this process is easy. Relationships are complicated and the mother-daughter relationship is perhaps the most complicated of all. But hidden within each relationship is a magnificent opportunity. Healing the pain does not necessarily mean that the two of you will walk off into the sunset with your arms around each other. It does mean that, in order to find the happiness you seek, each of you resolves to let go of the past, sets a path for the future, and turns the voids and pains of the past into golden opportunities.
When Mom is Unavailable
If your mother is unavailable or unwilling to sit down and talk with you and to wrestle with the issues that have grown up in your relationship, here are some options for healing:
1. Befriend a mentor, perhaps an older woman, who models some of your values. She may be a teacher, a neighbor or even a grandparent. This person is free of the expectations mothers tend to have and can bring that freedom to the relationship. Let her accompany you on your journey, providing a safe environment in which to find your identity and explore life.
2. Reach out to challenges and find successes that enhance your self-esteem and confidence. Take a class, learn something new or make new friends.
3. Seek out a therapist with whom you can explore those painful places, purge the pain and move on with your life.
4. Mother yourself in ways that enhance self-esteem, boost confidence and heal your pain. Certain media and life experiences demonstrate how a caring mother treats her daughter. Begin to treat yourself this way by listening to and honoring your own voice, and by taking care of yourself. Indulge yourself with a new book, a weekend away, a women's group or something else you enjoy. Begin to do for yourself all those things your mother would have provided for you if she could have.
Have Fun with Mom
- Go away together for the weekend. Explore the outdoors, walk along the water's edge, or just go to a motel to swim, relax and have dinner together. Make sure to spend time individually as well.
- Spend a day at a spa having massages, manicures and pedicures. Sprinkle the day generously with good laughs, a nice lunch and a promise to do this again.
- Recreate some of the fun times you may have shared or wished you had shared when you were a child: visit an amusement park, pack a picnic lunch, play Frisbee, or go to the park and swing.
- Go to a movie and then discuss it over coffee afterwards.
- Invite other mothers and daughters for a pajama party. Rent some movies for discussion, share stories, and eat junk food.
- Go through photo albums of the past and laugh and cry together about the contents. Make a list of memories and share them.
- Read the same book and share your opinions about it.
Hints for Effective Communication
Mirror Talk: Listen to the other for 10 minutes. Repeat back to her what she said. Check to see if you are correct. Repeat this process until the speaker tells you that you "got it" and until the speaker feels heard.
Interrupting: Do not interrupt and do not monopolize the conversation.
Listening: Listen.... Do not just wait until the speaker is finished so that you can talk. Communication demands a union of two people.
Judgment: Do not judge the other. Accept her as she is. This does not mean you agree with the other but that you allow her to be who she is and have her own feelings and attitudes.
Advice: Don't offer advice unless it is requested.
Openness: Notice how easily you relate to other women's mothers. Note the absence of defensiveness. Note the acceptance. Attempt to bring that attitude to the conflicted relationship.
Control: Give up attempts to control others. No one wants to be controlled and that is frequently a source of conflict in mother-daughter relationships. The need to control is fear based and only creates barriers in a relationship.
Blame: Blaming others serves as a barrier to healing and moving on. It is a useless venture and needs to be avoided when two people are attempting to resolve differences. Instead, you must assume responsibility for your role in the conflicts, focusing attention on how you contributed to the problems under discussion, and what you can do to change.
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