Not all fractured mother-daughter relationships can be mended, I get that. But if you and your mother choose to be in each other’s lives, consider what it’s costing you to carry on a toxic relationship that never gets better. This Mothers Day, consider giving your imperfect mother the gift of forgiveness.
When your mother’s actions (or inactions) created pain in childhood, the effects usually stay with you into adulthood and forgiveness can feel impossible.
How can you be sure she’s truly remorseful? Are you setting yourself up for more hurt and regret if you forgive her? And, if you’re to be honest, some part of you enjoy staying emotionally distant. It’s a way for her to pay penance or a way for you to protect yourself.
One of the reasons forgiveness feels impossible is tied to the expectations we have of our parents. When our mothers don’t meet our expectations, and if you experienced heartache and pain as a result of her failures, it’s hard to let go of the anger and hurt. It’s natural to want someone to “pay” for the harm that was done to you or to set things right. The problem is, we don’t often get that closure. And I can’t tell you or anyone whose shitty experiences have not been acknowledged and validated, to “Let it go, and forgive and forget.”
So, I won’t.
Instead, I would like to share my 5 steps to forgiving your mother. As you read, keep in mind that at the end of this, you don’t HAVE to. Deciding how you move forward is ultimately about what’s best for you. It’s about what will improve your life and emotional health.
Here are the 5 steps:
- Ask yourself if you want your mother in your life at all.
- If yes or maybe, learn more about your mother, her upbringing, influences, and challenges.
- Ask yourself what you would have done differently if you were in your mother’s position.
- Accept that your mother did the best she could.
- Have a difficult conversation with her (mediated is generally best).
1. Is there good between you and do you want your mother in your life?
Either she’s out or she’s in, but if you want a relationship, you can’t keep holding onto grudges. No one wins.
In my experience, some mothers are remorseful but they can’t (or don’t want to) accept full responsibility for the childhood hurt. Believe it or not, even some remorse is progress. Your mother might be unwilling to accept “full blame” because, like you, she’s thinking, “What about what I had to go through?” It’s very possible that she had her own unvalidated pain, which meant she couldn’t be the healthy supportive mother you needed. She may have felt wronged by someone else and doesn’t want to take 100% blame for what her parenting failures cost you.
DO THIS: Keep in mind that a little understanding can leave the door open — just enough — for acceptance to eventually creep in. It’s okay to attempt reconciliation and see this process through if there is at least, some acknowledgment that she or her actions hurt you.
2. Learn more about your mother’s background
There are so many things parents keep from their children (and of course, vice versa). Today, we have social media and we freely share our feelings — good and bad — with the world. But chances are, your mother didn’t have anyone to share her fears, frustrations, and hurt with. Women, since time immemorial, have had to play an accommodating and subservient role in most cultures. Many women of your mother’s generation and older, experienced discrimination, had to put their dreams on hold, and some endured rape, abuse, and other hardships in silence.
DO THIS: Speak to your aunts, your mother’s friends, and try to learn about your mother’s life as a young woman and mother. It’s surprising what you might learn.
None of this excuses your experience, but the knowledge may help shift your perspective and soften your heart toward your mother just enough to take some of the heat off your anger.
3. Ask yourself if you would have done the same things if you were in your mother’s position.
Your first reaction may be to say, “No! I would never treat my child the way my mother treated me! I could never be that mean, unloving, stupid or abusive.” Chances are, you’d be wrong. Most of us, put in certain situations would behave similarly
DO THIS: For this process to be successful, it might help to lose the expectations you have of mothers in general. Give up this idea that mothers should be selfless protectors, loving and fill-in-the-blank. Everyone deserves a good mother, but very often, it’s not the mother we get. And trust me when I tell you, you are not alone in this. The number of children whose parents were selfish or not well-equipped for parenting is alarming high.
4. Accept that your mother did the best she could
Can you accept that your mother did the best she could? We, and that includes you, can only give at the level of our growth. If your mother never healed her own generational hurt and trauma, she would have parented you from a place of hurt.
Before you can accept that your mother did her best, you may need to first express your feelings…. so:
DO THESE TWO THINGS:
A) Use a journal to write out your childhood experiences and how they show up in your adult life. Acknowledge the fear and hurt a younger you felt. State how you feel now, and what you think needs to happen for you to let the past go and move forward. Write down why it’s important for you to have a different, healthier relationship with your mother.
B) Learn how to give yourself the love and comfort you didn’t get growing up. Your mother couldn’t be who you needed her to be…but as an adult, you can find love and support from others and learn to give it to yourself. Think of this as you going back for that hurt child and taking care of her now.
The purpose of A is to acknowledge your experience and feelings and B to give yourself what you didn’t get so that you don’t pursue forgiveness in the hope that your mother will change and be able to make up for the past.
5. Have a difficult conversation
If you’ve done all of that and decide you want to try forgiveness, arrange to have a difficult conversation. Most people need help to prepare for one. Having a therapist, counselor, minister, or another expert in this field mediator the conversation will increase the chances that it’s productive.
No matter how terrible your past was, if you are both willing to be transparent, vulnerable, and open to forgiveness, you can forge a new healthy relationship.
A great example of a mother and daughter who successfully repaired their relationship is Jada Pinkett Smith and her mother Adrienne. Adrienne struggled with heroin addiction for years and experienced abuse in her first marriage. It took time and commitment on both their parts to improve their relationship, but look where they are now. And yes, they resisted the process too.
The difficult conversation you will have is not a fix. It’s a way to turn the page and start a new chapter in your relationship. Using Jada and Adrienne as examples of what’s possible, I hope you’re open to the process.
Here are 3 books to help you on this journey.
How Do We Forgive Our Mothers? by Hope Coleman
100 Questions for Mom: A Journal to Inspire Reflection and Connection by Amy Carney
It’s Momplicated: Hope and Healing for Imperfect Daughters of Imperfect Mothers by Debbie Alsdorf
Christine is a Life Strategist and Emotional Health Coach living in Los Angeles. She's big on meditation and believes in systems and routines, and in personalizing everything you do to help you get where you want to be.