Tomorrow is Mother’s Day in North America and for those of us who have complicated relationships with our mothers, this can be a difficult day. The archetypal mother-daughter relationship is one of close, nurturing connection. We’re sold the idea that we’re supposed to be best friends with our mother. If this is your reality, that’s amazing! However, I know the reality for so many women is far more complex and the idealized version of the mother-daughter relationship can leave us feeling like there’s something wrong with us. This internalized sense of insufficiency is deeply rooted in the history of the mother relationship and to heal it is a journey of self-love and discovering the inner mother. This process takes time and, I also believe we can lighten the load by speaking the truth of our story.
I am currently estranged from my own mother…the last time I saw her was in September 2018. However, even in the years where I was still trying to build a better relationship with her, I felt like I was the only one who didn’t feel a close and nurturing connection to this woman who’d raised me. Even though I was regularly giving voice to my experience, the stigma around discussing these challenges often left me feeling alone in my experience. To say out loud that I didn’t get what I needed from my mother made people uncomfortable. The stigma and shame around having these discussions doesn’t leave space for the nuance of the conversation. When there’s no room left for the grey, we’re left with black and white; in the case of relationship to mother, we’re left with the polarized views of idealizing or blaming mother. In the polarization, there is always a “right” and a “wrong” and those of us who long for the ideal while living a reality far from it are left blaming our mother while feeling guilty about it and internalizing the responsibility to fix the relationship. Allow me to state this outright:
There is nothing wrong with you if you don’t feel a close connection to your mother. The shame that’s become enmeshed with a challenged mother relationship is not yours to carry. And it is not your responsibility to fix your mother or your relationship to her. Your only responsibility as an adult daughter is to take care of you; to hold yourself with love and compassion as you share your story, allow space for your emotions to be held and witnessed, and learn to be for yourself the mother you wished you’d had, to offer yourself what your mother could not.
Now, I’ll invite you to pause for a moment and take this opportunity to find your ground. To get into these truths can be activating for our nervous systems and before we get into the more nuanced conversations you might explore the following:
Take a couple deep breaths, let your exhale go with a sigh
Feel the support beneath you…can you allow yourself to be held by that support, as if you’re unhooking some of the holding within your system
Offer yourself some loving touch, maybe by bringing a hand to your heart, by caressing your arms, or by bringing your hands together and feeling the palms touch
The More Nuanced Conversation
Even 2021, household and child rearing responsibility still falls disproportionately on women (during the pandemic, significantly more women than men left the work force in order to manage the increased demands placed on families as a result of schools and daycares closing). In addition to this, the cultural messages we’re steeped in are still vastly different for mothers and fathers. Selflessness (focusing on the needs of others over one’s own needs) and self-sacrifice (giving up one’s own desires or wishes to support others) are still two of the most primary expectations placed on women as a whole, and particularly mothers. These are messages that we’ve integrated into our bodies and our nervous systems through the way we were mothered. They are messages that our mothers passed down to us because they were stored in their systems through watching their own mother. These messages of selflessness and self-sacrifice have been passed down from generation to generation through the matrilineal line of our families. They’ve been reinforced by the shame that’s rained down on mothers (and women in general) when they’re called selfish for prioritizing themselves or doing something that goes against what others deem is acceptable.
When we hold selflessness and self-sacrifice as epitome of motherhood, we put a huge burden on both mothers and children. We leave mothers in a state of feeling isolated and alone in their struggles. We create a culture where it becomes shameful to speak of the wounds created in your own relationship with your mother because it becomes ungrateful to say anything negative, to limit or cut off contact with her after all she’s sacrificed. It also creates an unhealthy power dynamic where children feel they owe their mothers because of their sacrifice which can leave adult children feeling trapped in harmful dynamics with their parents because of this perceived indebtedness.
The truth is, we evolved to live in community and to have child rearing fall on the collective, not the individual. Yet in our individualistic society, these responsibilities have become siloed so that each nuclear family is largely on its own, even more so since the dissolution of the multi-generational family home. When the responsibility of child rearing is more diffuse, falling to the collective, there becomes more space for mothers (parents in general really) to rest into their full humanity. If children have more adults available to meet their needs, mothers no longer need to be all things to all people and children can feel more secure in knowing they have others to care for them if mother (or both parents) are overwhelmed and unavailable to support their physical or emotional needs. In so many ways, the pandemic has further exacerbated the concentration of child rearing responsibilities to the nuclear family and I know there are many with children who are acutely feeling the truth of the added burden of losing the support of the collective.
I believe why we revere Mother’s Day so highly, why we feel pressure to put on the mask of the ideal and celebrate (even if what’s beneath the surface is so much more complex), is rooted in this sacrifice. Mother’s Day is an opportunity to celebrate mothers for all they do and all the sacrifices they make. But here’s a radical question for you…what if instead of giving mothers a single day each year where we thank them for all their sacrifices, we designed our lives in a way that made them feel loved and supported every day? This is my big dream for the world. Within the context of our societal systems, it’s a dream that’s easier for some to realize, or even move toward, than others. Within the patriarchy, it’s a revolutionary dream. I wish I could share with you the answers about how we overhaul the broken system to make it work better for us…I don’t know. What I can say is that I believe change begins with a quiet inward revolution.
The image of the ideal mother as self-sacrificing and selfless is one that’s stored in our bodies. We play this out in overt or subtle ways until we’re able to heal our mother wounding at the level of being a daughter. To do this healing work is to break the cycle, to pass to our daughters fewer limiting beliefs than were passed to us by our mothers before, and to begin to awaken to our role in supporting the movement of the collective. The patriarchy has left us with a collective mother wound and the first step toward dismantling it is to dismantle it within our own heart, mind, and spirit.
As a daughter who is estranged from my mother, I know deeply the grief, guilt, and heartache built into Mother’s Day. I know it can be a painful reminder of the disparity that exists between the idealized mother-daughter relationship and your own lived reality. Our hearts have an infinite capacity to hold a seemingly conflicting range of emotions. As we approach Mother’s Day this year, I hold my own grief which connects me to the collective grief. I connect to the grief of mothers who’ve lost themselves in selflessness and self-sacrifice. I connect to the grief of women who cannot or choose not to be mothers in a society that ties so much of a woman’s worth to fulfilling this role. I connect to the grief of those who’ve lost their mother and miss her dearly. I connect to the grief of those who have a strained or estranged relationship to their mother in a culture that leaves us feeling isolated and shameful in this experience. As we approach Mother’s Day this year, I also hold hope knowing that as we step up to break this cycle, we learn to be the loving & nurturing space for ourselves, and in this rediscover our own inherent power and the courage to do things differently. This connects me to the collective hope. I connect to the hope that we can find freedom and liberation to own our dreams and our desires, to pursue them without apology. I connect to the hope that this empowerment is the legacy that we can pass on to our daughters.
May we know our power. May we take up our rightful space. May we be confident and rooted in our enoughness. May we live our one beautiful life with abandon. May we bring to life the dreams that support the betterment of ourselves, our loved ones and humanity as a whole.
Let’s start this conversation. I invite you to leave a comment or reach out to me privately and give voice to your story. What is your experience of Mother’s Day and the mother-daughter relationship?