When Mothers Forgive Themselves: Tips for Adult Daughters on not getting what You (still!) want
Let's get right to it, shall we?
At this moment, I’m receiving a priceless gift: the forgiveness, acceptance and redemption that came to my foremothers in the full bloom of their sixties is arriving at my doorstep. I see the ancestors, the women of my lineage and soul community walking en masse, bringing message and meaning.
Each step heavy with the solidity of woman, of earth, of love.
I’m making them some campfire hot chocolate right now, in welcome.
While it heats up let me tell you a little story...
A friend who is a decade my junior is struggling with the relationship she has with her mother. “Sue” wants to talk about her experiences of the past, and her mom doesn’t respond in ways that make my friend feel heard. Sue feels frustration and grief: if her mom would listen and validate her feelings, Sue would feel closer with her mom. As it is, her mom doesn’t want to “go there.” She says she’s forgiven herself. My friend receives this as shutting a door on intimacy with her daughter.
Sound familiar? I sure recognize and remember all that.
My mom died four years ago. During her last two years on the planet, I felt moved to go and be with her for two six month stretches.
That was among the hardest and biggest and best things I ever did.
I had spent my entire life (from the age of about four) distancing myself from and specifically not trusting my mother. I felt hatred and anger toward her, and placed much blame on her. You know how therapy is good for stoking that fire. Well, mine was.
While on one hand I hated her, she was simultaneously my best friend in the specific arena of the arts. She was an artist and writer and I inherited those traits – that was the common ground where we joined and soared.
During those two half years when I left my home in Mexico to be with her, my mom was a great supporter of my memoir. She regularly asked me to read to her the sections I was working on at the time. I conceded, cognizant that in doing so, she would be learning about me: an act of intimacy and trust.
Other times, I was trying to boost her out of depression around being incontinent, or taking her around the block in her wheelchair, or teaching her, again, how to make a smoothie with her protein powder.
Then there were the moments, the scary and courageous moments when I ventured to address some hurt from the past.
My mom was an inspiring elder in that she continued to grapple with life and dying while it was happening. How many people are able to maintain mindfulness in less intense circumstances? I admired her greatly for her philosophical approach and honesty with herself and everyone around her as she raged and grieved the loss of her life.
The prickly and soft of aging
During these final years, my mom was as prickly as she was soft. Sometimes the pain and anger at her diminishing dignity was inconsolable, and therefore uncomfortable to be around. But equally, I now found my previously reticent mom consistently loving and appreciative of my help and time with her.
On those afternoons when we would talk about something “real” from the past, I discovered two new traits in my mom: she listened and she shared.
It was nice to be heard without defensiveness. A safe place for this new experience of sharing with my mom to land. What stood out even more, though, was her gentleness not only with me, but with herself.
My mom let me know on various occasions that she knew she hadn’t been a good mother. That she’d had an awful mother too, and as my mother, she’d done the best that she could with what she had. She complimented my courage in sharing my feelings about the past with her so honestly, remarking that she never could have done that with her mother.
But the cherry on top of the icing on the cake for me, was her plainly stating, “I forgive myself. I’ve let it go. I like myself now.”
What to do when your sparring partner stops playing the game
Witnessing my mother’s self-acceptance and release of culpability for harms inflicted in the past, I was forced to let go too.
My mom reflected to me the peace she felt with herself, and her unavailability to play the blame game. By this act, I was given an invitation to do the same. That, and take responsibility for my own suffering.
When you’re left standing by yourself on the court
When I see my friend upset because her mother isn’t hearing her or responding or validating her daughter’s childhood experiences as my friend would like, I understand.
I understand my friend’s feelings and need and demand that she receive what she never got from her mom, despite her mother’s proclamation of self-forgiveness and having moved on. I spent most of my life trying to force the same.
How to prepare for not getting what you want
But now, suddenly, I find myself wanting to gently prepare my friend for not getting what she wants. I find myself using words whose wisdom I feel, as if they are coming through me, not from me. Things like:
• It’s not your mom’s responsibility to give you what you wanted before, now.
• The past is over. It’s done. Now, we’re adults and we have the capacity and it falls on us to learn to mother ourselves.
• If you can give yourself what you wanted and needed, then if your mom isn’t able to meet you where you hope she will today, you’ll be okay.
• No matter the response or reaction from your mother, you’ll be fine, because neither demanding nor waiting, you’re no longer dependent on her.
This is such common psycho language that it almost seems trite.
Yet I shared these sentiments to my friend, suddenly bestowed with internal knowing, rather than from the head counsel.
Our work as daughters
Seems we all have our work with acceptance and letting go. For my friend, and all of us as daughters, our job is to really release the expectation and need for anyone outside of us, particularly our mothers, to give us what we needed and didn’t get. We need to rage, grieve, and just like our elder mothers–but in our own way – move on – to our own self-care.
Our job is to really release the expectation and need for anyone outside of us, particularly our mothers, to give us what we needed and didn’t get.
I told Sue all this, in as honest and gentle words as I could find. I knew that she might not hear it now. She may not be ready. I wonder how many older women have shared wisdom with me that fell on ears unable to hear, yet?
Don’t forget about Yet
Yet is key, because there comes a time. As natural as a breeze that arrives, and gives gentle loft to the scarf around your neck so that it tickles your face for a moment. We move through this mist and web of forest path, sometimes clear and other times obscured.
Something is shifting in me and I'm starting to get how those older women (my mom included) and other mother's who were way less than ideal mom's - with their own baggage and heritage and nervous systems, experiences, strategies, coping mechanisms, etc - I'm starting to feel the waters of gentle self acceptance edging toward me.
It's not that I don't care. It's that I don't have more time to waste in feeling bad about myself and my past.
Time is short and it's time to love myself, finally.
And so, I believe this is a BLESSED developmental state that women get to go through. A transition into being crones.
We are wicked and gross and strong and wet and limp with having experienced so much and survived it. And we are full of emotional torrents too. We're pissed off, "Done", finally through with living for others, especially the lies and false protection of patriarchy and the status quo.
We are moving and being moved along this birth canal of life, this tunnel of time we have, between our arrival from the darkness and our departure, hopefully, into the light.
11/16/2021 07:32:29 am
I get what you are saying here and 'understand' it; but have a hard time incorporating it. Mostly because of what my mother did or didn't do in my past laid the foundation of who I became today. And the things that are bothersome or troublesome for me today, HAVE their roots in that past (or the resulting experiences that I had in the past) and no amount of counseling/acceptance can change that. Many of my life experiences were and are a DIRECT result of the actions or non-actions my mother made and did.
11/19/2021 12:56:23 pm
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Robin Rainbow Gate
I help people midlife and beyond to find their inner power, health and well being through slow, conscious living
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