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It's Mother's Day But Your Relationship With Your Mother Is Difficult

Mother as a young woman during World War II.

Mother as a young woman during World War II.

How do you celebrate Mother's Day when you're not happy with your mother?

Let's face it, some of us have difficult mothers. They aren't exactly mothers that we would give back in hopes that any other random mother would do better, but after being raised by them, we also wouldn't be the first in line to hold them up as an example of how to be a good mother.

We know that they provided for us in the best ways that they knew how to, or we at least hope that they did; so we want to honor them on Mother's Day. However, they were not easy to grow up around, and maybe still aren't easy to be around.

This deeply-flawed-human mother, the one who tried but couldn't do the whole job, and left behind many scars in her children, is difficult to celebrate and impossible to ignore. She's the one who did part of mothering, so she should be celebrated for what she did. However, she didn't do the part that leaves her children's hearts readily open to celebrating her accomplishments.

We can usually manage her birthday and Christmas without hesitation, as long as we stay away from the cards addressed to mothers. On Mother's Day, choosing a gift is usually easier than choosing a Mother's Day card. Cards that talk about how Mother was always there, and how she made every day bright and sunny are simply inappropriate. We know it's definitely not true, and we also know that our particular mother would know we don't really feel that way.

So what do we do?

Our normal inclination is to lean toward the bad memories, especially if there are a lot of them, to resent having to celebrate her motherhood again, and to take the efforts that our mother did make on our behalf for granted. Then we go through the surface motions of celebration as if we felt nothing to the contrary, feeling conflicted and insincere.

Mothers bear childhood scars, too, or they wouldn't act the way they sometimes do.

Mothers bear childhood scars, too, or they wouldn't act the way they sometimes do.

A Change of Heart Helps

I admit that I used to do that. However, I can tell you of a change in my view of my mother that helped me to fit her more comfortably in my heart, flaws and all.

One day when I was about twenty years old, Mother's Day was approaching. She had just done something normal for her, but awful just the same. Those of the family who knew about it were not surprised in the least; as usual, we were left in a state of numb discouragement at her behavior. I was thinking about her, and dreading the duty of telling her what a good mother she was.

By this time, I had spent years shifting my attitude toward her around to make my relationship with her more comfortable. I had gone through the phase where I had to love her because she was my mother, and the phase where I didn't have to love her so in my anger I decided to hate her. That was followed by the phase where hating her had quickly become too uncomfortable because it didn't feel right. So I foundered around, trying to find some version of loving and living with her that was livable for me, too.

I had shifted back and forth in my feelings toward her, while she had continued being herself as if my warmth or coolness toward her hadn't changed at all. That alone bothered me. A person would assume that a mother would know when her children were feeling closer or farther away from her. However, as her inability to sort out the reactions of other people was part of the problem, I had to progress on my own.

In those days, none of us had heard of Asperger Syndrome, so we were left puzzled at her inability to see other people's reactions to her behavior as cues about how to act. She also had other problems, such as volatility and moodiness, chronic untreated depression, etc. But, at the age of twenty in the 1960s, I wasn't thinking in any depth about her own problems as the cause of my mother being difficult to live with. I only knew that she was a very difficult mother.

Then, somehow, as I sat on my front porch looking out at the clouds, I came to the conclusion that, for one weekend, trying to change my point of view - even if it was only a temporary change - was worth it. I knew that, in spite of everything else, my mother had worked hard on my behalf, day by day, as I was growing up. So I could do the same for her for a little while.

That slight shift, that temporary reprieve granted to her, was such a relief that I awoke to what hard work holding grudges was. It was a habit that she had readily practiced and that my dad had never approved of, so I had tended to secretly hold most of my grudges only against her. Among other things, I realized that my grudge-holding against her had to end.

There were still plenty of rough times after that. It didn't solve the problems between us. But I'm glad I made that change in my attitude toward her. Though I had learned mostly from my dad to let go of the bad in favor of feeling gratitude for the good, this was my first awareness of consciously deciding to make that shift.

Mother and older sister preparing the holiday table

Mother and older sister preparing the holiday table

When the heart changes, there is room to celebrate a difficult mother on Mother's Day

I had known all of my life that she was usually busy, but I stopped then and made the effort to itemize the daily work I knew that she did for a husband and five children, the cooking and cleaning, the washing and ironing, sewing and hair cutting, making bread twice a week, raising a huge garden, teaching us how to care for our own practical needs.

We learned how to do these things by helping her. While it wasn't pleasant to work beside her because she was very moody, we did leave home equipped with the skills to meet our own practical needs.

And we did have good times. When my dad was around, she was a much better person. He worked two jobs, so he wasn't at home as much as he was needed, but he had the ability to make her feel better, and to naturally act better.

She tried to make holidays good times around our house. We could count on her making a supreme effort during the weeks before Christmas to keep her temper and to make the holiday a very good one. Even her spirits seemed to lift during Christmas time.

After I focused on her accomplishments, I realized that It was worth it to make that effort. When a mother has tried within her limits to be a good mother, she deserves the time taken to celebrate her efforts and the good times that did happen, regardless what else has happened.

After all, we have the entire rest of the year to ponder her faults. No matter what we do, memories will surface at times that we have to deal with, and there will be times that we really don't want to feel generosity or appreciation.

But Mother's Day is one time to remind ourselves that our mother bears scars, too, or she wouldn't act the way she sometimes does. We can take that time to also ask ourselves where and when our mother received the scars that she carries - the scars that made her the difficult mother that she is. We can show pity both for her limitations and for the unresolved traumas that formed her and that she obviously still lives with.

In our moment of compassion, more appreciation for the good that she's done can grow. Gratitude, no matter how grudging, can open other doors that hurt and resentment have closed in our hearts.

As time progresses, and we think more about what made a difficult mother the way she is, our ability to be more compassionate naturally grows, and we change as well. As time passes, we realize that being more understanding of her has also made us more understanding of other people. It's a lesson that a difficult mother doesn't intend, but that she can unwittingly teach, anyway.

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