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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.

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

Cyndi on May 11, 2014:

Fantastic Article

Karla Iverson (author) from Oregon on May 13, 2012:

I'm so sorry to hear about your childhood and your troubles with your mother.Crack has cost a tremendous amount to a lot of people, but most of all to the children of addicts. I hope that you can someday absorb that her issues with addiction are not something to be compared with her love for you. They are two very different things, even though her ability to show love and to provide for you was one of the beautiful things that crack stole from both of your lives. I also hope for you that you can find a good alanon or similar group so you can talk with others and find your way to some peace and joy in life without this tainting your days and nights. You are not alone, and others who have gone through this are waiting to help you.

shesastar on May 13, 2012:

Thanks so much for this post! It really is comforting to know that I am not the only one that has a difficult time celebrating Mother's Day. It's especially hard this year and while I do agree that every parental relationship deserves a chance to be reconciled, sometimes even a changed heart and a conscious effort will not change an estranged relationship.

I grew up with what's considered to be one of the WORST type of mother's anyone could imagine. She was an out-of-control DRUG ADDICT, that abused and neglected from as far back as I can remember. As a child, I watched her smoke crack, prostitute herself out to various men to support herself and her drug habit, rob & steal from people (including Christmas presents my grandmother would buy for me), go in & out of jail for various crimes and go in & out of rehab whenever she felt like she needed a change. Of course, it never lasted! We were extremely poor and many times I'd be left in a filthy house, sometimes without electricity, infested with roaches and mice. Most times she would take the money and food stamps given to us by the state government and use it for her drugs. I was even molested at an early age because she would leave me around strange men, while she was off smoking crack! By my teens, I attempted suicide twice and was eventually put in a temporary foster home because the courts "finally" realized I was not living in a stable home.

I went thru a lot as a child and my innocence was stolen at a very young age. But the good news is that when I turned 18, I moved away, went on to college, got a career and started a great new life! However the pain and scars from my childhood will NEVER go away. I spent my first 18 years of life in an environment that no child deserves and although it's manageable, I still suffer with depression even today. One would think I would be justified in never speaking with such an evil mother again however, I am a spiritual person and I always try to do what's right. About 5 or 6 years ago, my mother decided that she was finally ready to turn her life around (again). She went to rehab, started getting more involved with the church, got a job, got a new place to live and really cleaned up her act. She PROMISED me and the rest of the family that she would never turn back to drugs or her old ways again. Call me crazy, but I believed her! I wanted to believe her and give her another chance, even if she didn't deserve it. I know there are a lot of people have mothers that are no longer living, so I felt like as long as she wanted to try to fix our relationship, I should at least be able to try as well. And I really did!

For a few years, things were actually going well and I was really proud of her. We were talking more, celebrating holidays together and I felt like God had given me back the mother I should have had in the first place. And then a few months ago out of nowhere, I could tell that something just wasn't right. I started seeing the signs again but because I lived in another state, I couldn't exactly be sure. I would only see my mother on holidays and such, so I hadn't really been back home in months. And when I finally did make it back home for a family event, it was confirmed! She was back on drugs -- pills, crack, cocaine, marijuana -- as well as drinking heavily. She'd lost a severe amount of weight, her face was sunken in, her appearance was disheveled, her speech was slurred, she was always anxious, barely able to sit still and focus, she lost her job, etc... bottom line, she's just back to her old self. I was hurt beyond belief because she PROMISED me.

Anyway, I haven't spoken with her since and for the past 5 years, I would at least send her a card and flowers on Mother's Day. But this year is different. Even though I do feel somewhat guilty because I know she'd want to hear from me, I just can't even bring myself to "text" her to say Happy Mother's Day. Do I believe my mother love's me? Yes. But I also believe she loves drugs more and if I'm not important enough to her to stay sober, why should I care about her anymore and allow her poor decisions affect me. I've given her multiple chances and she's already stolen enough from me. Therefore after some serious thought, I've made the decision to just write her out of my life. It's not right for her to continue to hurt me and take me on this rollercoaster ride, knowing how drugs affected her ability to be a halfway decent mother to me. I simply won't allow her to steal anything else from me anymore, including my happiness. Unfortunately, some people will never change.

All I can say to another one that has a estranged relationship with his/her mother, is to think about the true meaning of this day. It's not exclusive to actual "mothers". If there is ANYONE in your life that has been a mother figure to you -- an aunt, a teacher, a neighbor -- you can definitely show your appreciation to them. But even if you have a mother that did make somewhat of an effort, even if she wasn't the best mom or didn't give you all deserved in life, just be thankful that you didn't have a mother like mine. If all else fails, reinvent this holiday and take use it to simply celebrate LIFE... which is what I intend on doing.


Karla Iverson (author) from Oregon on May 11, 2012:

I agree, Jack Burton. If a resolution is needed, we need to put the effort in to make it while we can. Even though it might not make the practical side of things easier, it makes them easier to deal with inside. Having made my efforts in my twenties, I was able to be a daughter with love, and I had no regrets when my mother died.

Jack Burton from The Midwest on May 11, 2012:

Mommas always come with an expiration date that we never know in advance. You may be 20, 40 or 60 but at some point everyone is going to lose their mother. After that it is far too late for any reconciliation or "do overs."

In the black community they have an expression along the lines of "People never get the flowers while they could still smell them." Make sure that your momma can smell the flowers you give her... cause once she's gone she is gone forever and second chances don't come around.

Karla Iverson (author) from Oregon on May 10, 2012:

I agree that a mother should be forgiven if she's tried to take care of you, but what I was doing in this hub was showing that it's a process, and not an easy one. Especially for people who've also had a childhood of trauma caused by a difficult mother - who was damaged herself. I didn't delve into particulars on the negative side, because I wanted to focus on the process of forgiveness and what that can mean for the person who does the forgiving.

moonlake from America on May 10, 2012:

Most mothers you just have to forgive and go on.

I know there are mothers out there that shouldn't be forgiven at all.

Some mothers are just born difficult. If you were safe in your home,warm,fed and clean. If she got up every morning, fed you and sent you off to school, than I guess even those difficult mothers need a Mother's Day.

Karla Iverson (author) from Oregon on May 10, 2012:

I'm sorry to hear that, Becky. I have had better relationships with a few friends' mothers, and I felt some of that closeness that you are referring to.

Karla Iverson (author) from Oregon on May 10, 2012:

That's really true, jpcmc. It's good to keep your eyes open, as well as your heart.

Becky Katz from Hereford, AZ on May 10, 2012:

I have friends that feel this way about their mothers but I just wish I had mine back. She died 9 years ago.

JP Carlos from Quezon CIty, Phlippines on May 10, 2012:

It's a good thing I don't have any problems with my mom. But i do recognize the fact that some people don't have a good relationship with their mothers. Although a change of heart is needed, it will always depend on how deep the problem is. Moreover, it depends on the person's willingness to have a change of heart.

practicalmisery from Georgia on May 10, 2012:

Hello! I can somewhat relate with you on the difficulty of having a relationship with your mother. My story is very different from yours. My mom left me when I was two and didn't come back into my life until I was 16. It took me quite a few years to except her in my life and as my mother. My mother also doesn't live a normal kind of life, she is a very heavy drinker. And even though she is almost 50 she would rather spend time with men in the bars then her children and grandchildren. But still even through all of this and no matter how bad she has hurt me or continues to hurt me, she is still the one who brought me into this world. And I truly believe in her own way, which is unlike most mothers, she loves me and cares about my well-being almost as much as the children she raised. Your story kind of touched my heart and made me think about my troubles. It reminded me I am not the only one with a difficult relationship with my mother.

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