When I was young me and my mama had beef
August 16, 2008 9:09 AM   Subscribe

How do I let go of the past?

When I was growing up, my mom and I fought constantly. Sometimes, the fights were very bitter, and we would end up not speaking for months. During the worst fights, she said things to me that I have not forgiven. I definitely behaved badly, but I have been working on letting go of my guilt on that score, which has really helped us have a better relationship now that I am an adult and out of the house. However, I think I have reached a plateau. We don't fight, and we generally get along when we're together, but I can't get myself to include her in my life in any way. I want to have a good relationship with her, but I don't know what to do to get there.

I'm starting to think that at some point, I will have to talk to her about these issues. This is complicated by the fact that any time my childhood comes up, she starts crying and saying that she was a bad mother, which I resent and see as a manipulative move meant to make me feel sorry for her and reassure her, and to take away my ability to confront her with my feelings. Also, it works. I can't very well say, yes, you were a bad mother, and what are we going to do about it, when she just cries and generally acts wounded and makes me feel like a villain. Or maybe I should, but currently can't. In part, this is because I really don't know what I would want out of the conversation. I would tell her that she did x, y, and z wrong, she would cry, and then what? I can't visualize a way for the conversation to help or end constructively.

I really want to work on this on my own before I start working on it with her. Right now, despite the fact that she hasn't said a cross word to me in years, I am still incapable of opening up to her.

If you have had experience with a similar situation, please let me know if you think there are any ways of thinking about this that could be useful, or if you can suggest a way to talk to her, or really any advice that you have. I would like it if I didn't need to keep a wall between me and my mom. I just don't know how to unbuild it.

Finally, I very much appreciate all of your advice and help. However, I am hoping for answers that contain advice other than "seek therapy."
posted by prefpara to Human Relations (23 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
I think the most important step toward letting go of the past is accepting that your relationship with your mother will never be the one you wish you had growing up, and that your mother may never become the mature, accountable person you want her to become.

It sounds like you are really looking to do two things here -- heal from and find closure with the past, and craft a relationship for the future. You may be able to do only one of those things. Facing the past head-on the way you want to might make things too raw and painful for a great future relationship to be possible, but you would set yourself free from the expectation, which is a huge gain. Conversely, deciding to have a great future relationship with your mother might require that you close the door on the past without further discussions about it, and staying in the present when being with her. That would mean accepting that you will never get resolution on those old wounds. But living in the present can have huge benefits as well.

At the base of it is the idea of accepting that you cannot change the past, and accepting that you cannot change other people, only your responses to them.
posted by headnsouth at 9:37 AM on August 16, 2008

At the base of it is the idea of accepting that you cannot change the past, and accepting that you cannot change other people, only your responses to them.

This is exactly right, and what helped me change my responses was the knowledge that (in all likelihood) I am going to outlive these people, and I don't want to be left here on earth with regrets, wishing that I had let the past go and tried a little harder to fix things before they were gone.
posted by amro at 9:41 AM on August 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

can't very well say, yes, you were a bad mother, and what are we going to do about it,

Not to sound like a jerk, but what ARE you going to do about it? You can't change the past, only make peace with the present (sorry if that sounds too Dr.Phil-esque, but its true.)

I have an incredibly strained relationship with both my parents - my dad was a controlling, manipulative, abusive alcoholic, my mom was neurotic and really didn't care about my view of things, being too busy trying to keep us all together, driven by cultural norms and the need to not breakdown. Suffice it to say, I resent them a lot.

But, I still talk to them. I still love them. But I don't expect them to make amends. Because what good will it do? Will it make me feel better for them to acknowledge how shitty they were? Momentarily, yea, of course. But...then what? Our dynamics are so ingrained that its not going to miraculously make us into one happy family.

So you know what? My friends are my family. The people I care about that aren't tied by blood know me and support me. My parents are important but I don't look to them for things I know they can't give me.

Meditating and learning to accept the present moment also helps to not dwell in the past. Its hard, but all you have is this moment and every moment after. Don't do yourself and your life a disservice by living in things that have happened, that you can't change. Try to forgive if you can, and accept that its ok if you can't. Do what you can for yourself, now.
posted by Eudaimonia at 9:53 AM on August 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

There is surely not a one-size-fits-all answer to your question, since many of us end up as adults with variations/iterations of just the issues you talk about. One thing that was helpful to me was to write a letter to my (dad) and state some of the most egregious ways he hurt me in my growing-up years. While I am NOT suggesting therapy, I happened to be in therapy when my childhood issues came up, and I did this, although I had not initially entered therapy for those issues. Anyway, the plan was to write the letter, and not mail it. However when I gave it to my therapist to read, he felt it was such a good letter, he recommended I mail it. I think he suggested this because my letter was very clear and not blaming, but simply stating the facts of how my father had injured/wronged me in my years at home. I ended it with the statement that the ball was in his court...a more real and deeper relationship could come about between us by his simply acknowledging how he had hurt me, and by making amends.

I think some variation of this idea might be helpful to you. You could write the letter, detailing the overall issues and being specific about several incidents to be certain you are communicating the reality of the deep and painful ways she hurt you. Then read it, maybe even have an understanding and trusted friend read it...It might be that just the writing of it would sort things out enough for you that you could forgive your mother, who seemingly deeply regrets the ways she hurts you, yet hasn't made amends in a manner that is meaningful to you. As an aside, while you feel manipulated "when she just cries and generally acts wounded..." she may not intend for you to feel the way it makes you feel. While a mature mother would be able to stand up and be accountable in an adult manner for the ways she hurt you, a mother who hurt you, her child, through hurling hateful words may not, even now have the maturity (or courage...) to respond as an accountable parent, but rather simply emotes...more as a child might when confronted with a wrong. That's why I think a letter might be a good way to go. You'll either be able to move on in your relationship w/ her having gotten clarity and "closure" in the writing of it or it will be so appropriate and just "right" that you'll decide to mail it to her. And by doing it in writing, rather than in person where emotions can run high on both sides, you won't say a single thing you don't intend to say AND say everything you need and want to say...She can read it multiple times, and if she chooses to respond in writing, (which you could suggest she do, in YOUR letter), she won't say anything she doesn't really mean...and won't be able to use tears and self-pity...at least in person, to slough off her guilt. Oh, and DO keep a copy of the letter so you can't ever be accused of saying something that wasn't even IN it...(as happened to me!)

If your mom truly loves you in an unselfish way, as a mature parent loves a child, she may jump at the opportunity to clear the slate with you and build a better relationship in the future. It might take awhile, but it sounds to me like she may respond this way. I know I would. You clearly love her and have gone MORE than the extra mile to address your own issues and to forgive even without receiving an apology. The grace you are offering her is a rare gift. I would be grateful and proud to have a daughter like you...I hope your mother is. Blessings to you.
posted by mumstheword at 10:14 AM on August 16, 2008

I have a very similar situation with my mom. I find that trying to address issues from the past with her is kind of like picking at a scab and does absolutely no good. But yeah, it takes a lot of work and self-discipline to build a relationship with a parent you've had a dysfunctional relationship with in the past.

There's nothing she can do about the way she behaved in the past. As an adult, you can set up boundaries to help build a healthier relationship with your mother. I had to get over the fact that I'm never going to have a "best friend" type relationship with my mom. I'm never going to trust her completely or be able to confide my deepest innermost thoughts because I know there is a part of her that is capable of hurting me.

My mom is back in my life, but in a very structured way. I keep our conversations fairly "light" and don't bring up negative episodes from the past. When we do stuff together, there is usually an organized activity or event, so we aren't just idly sitting around together and picking at past wounds.
posted by pluckysparrow at 10:29 AM on August 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

I need to add that if you chose to mail a letter and your mother either ignores it or responds inappropriately, you will be faced with the reality of her real commitment to you...which is that it must be on her terms, not yours, and meeting only her needs. There is great advice from the posters above if that is the result...I guess you'll have to decide if you even want to KNOW if that is to be her attitude...because mailing a letter will definitely clarify, but not definitely resolve in a mutually agreeable manner, your issues with her.

I should have added that in my original post. My father's wrongs were so deep and far-reaching and so a part of the narcissistic life he'd always chosen to lead, that he had no desire to make amends or resolve things in a manner that would allow for a healthy relationship to grow between us...or indeed anyone else in our family. However, your mother's issues don't seem to compare to those of my father and I guess I feel optimism that she may be open to resolving past issues and moving forward in her relationship w/ you. You'll have to decide if it is worth the inherent risk in mailing a letter.

posted by mumstheword at 10:35 AM on August 16, 2008

There's nothing she can do about the way she behaved in the past

Can you simply forgive her? As long as she is treating you right in the present, that might be the most productive.

Guess what? Your mom probably already knows she was a bad mom. She probably already beats herself up about it. And if she cries, it is not necessarily manipulation, but the very real and deep hurt and shame that she hurt her child and cannot undo what was done.

The love of a child for a parent and the love of a parent for a child are both very intense yet different. Those of us with adult children generally do have regrets and things we wish we could change.
posted by konolia at 11:32 AM on August 16, 2008

Oh, and thinking about it a minute more-if you can possibly deal with her crying perhaps it isn't a bad thing to gently bring up what happened in the past. Perhaps all you need is for her to tell you she is sorry and has regrets. Crying won't kill her. And you won't be a villain as long as you do this in a gentle way and simply tell her you need her to hear your own pain so that both of you can put it behind you.
posted by konolia at 11:35 AM on August 16, 2008

Pour out all your honest feelings in a letter. It will be very cathartic for you and will get your thoughts and feeling communicated to her. Just make sure she GETS THE LETTER. She will have a hard time manipulating a piece of paper with her croc tears, and the ball will be in her court, so to speak. Depending on how the communication is followed up, on her part, if she can't respond rationally and honestly, you may ask her to put her words in a letter as well. Good luck to you.
posted by Acacia at 11:58 AM on August 16, 2008

On a much, much smaller scale I had a particular incident with my own mother that I was angry about as an adult---when I was 17 and in therapy for my eating disorder, my mom kept trying to pull me out of it saying that I should be able to "talk to the family."

Years later (maybe I was 21?) I approached it by asking her why she did that. She cried a little and said she just wanted to help so much because "when it comes to stuff like that, they always say the mother is at fault." I was able to tell her I hadn't ever blamed her and I finally felt better about what had happened.

Perhaps try by asking about why she did certain things? If she starts to cry and say she was a bad mother, tell her that you don't think that but you need to understand some things. If she keeps crying/protesting about the kind of mother she was, calmly tell her that you will leave and revisit the topic when she can think about it.

One reassurance should be all she gets---then it's time to focus on you.
posted by lacedback at 11:59 AM on August 16, 2008

I had a lot of terrible experiences with both of my parents as I was growing up. My mom is a passive-aggressive, needy alcoholic (still) and was very verbally and emotionally abusive to us kids, and my dad was a violent, critical man. I spent miserable years not even realizing the extent of the things I needed to get over, and then years after that trying to work through my issues with my parents and come to some sort of closure.

The problem is that no matter how much you might need to talk about something and attempt to come to terms with it - your parents may either not agree to participate, or, in the case of my parents, they might show you that they are completely incapable of empathy and lack the emotional tools to even understand what you are trying to say.

I've found that attempting to work through my parental issues with my parents was far more damaging to me than leaving them out of it. In the end, I stopped talking to my father entirely, and was warned by many people that "I should make my peace with him before he dies or I will be sorry." Well, I made my peace with my past on my own, and when he died, I waited for the avalanche of regret and emotion that was supposed to smite me....it never appeared.

With my mom, I keep my visits structured - I love her as much as I can and don't expect her to have any brilliant flashes of emotional insight. Sometimes you just have to punt and make your own good memories. My suggestion is to do what you can on your own, you might be surprised at what you can get over if you allow yourself to grieve and heal, and leave your mom out of it.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 2:31 PM on August 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

Humble yourself. If you become willing to accept that everything that came between your mother and yourself was your fault, even if it wasn't, then you will be well on the way to beginning a new relationship with her that doesn't include the past.

Release regrets. Whatever it is you feel you missed while growing up because you didn't have a strong relationship with Mom need to be smashed. As others above have mentioned, it's all water over the dam now. So instead, think about how you can make today and your future life with her like your imagination would have it.

Eliminate resentments. You will not be able to get out of the past until you are willing to forgive your mother for everything that transpired between you. You are a grown man. Swallow your pride. As long as you believe she is manipulating you, you allow it to happen. Be better than that. Forgive, and forget. There's a reason those two words go together.
posted by netbros at 2:53 PM on August 16, 2008

As I read your entry, I was struck at how much of what you described resembled my own relationship with my mother. 3 years ago, she was diagnosed in the late stages of cancer and she just passed away this past Christmas. In the time leading up to her passing, I had a lot of things to work through, and so did she. 2 weeks before she passed away, I had a chance to tell her, "you've been a good mother and you did the best you could. I love you." I love you was particularly difficult, because I always had a hard time saying that. And it brought about a great deal of peace. I wish I could have said it in a different context, because really, that could have been said even if she wasn't facing a terminal illness, but sadly it is often these kinds of circumstances in which we are forced to confront these things.

One thing that has helped me and perhaps it will help you to frame some of the things your mother said or did in the past is that they did the best they could for the most part and just made mistakes at times. My mother had me when she was somewhat young and now, being at the age that she once was, I cannot imagine having a 2 year old child in my life. And I acknowledge now that I was a very difficult teenager to deal with. Sometimes I wonder if I had simply asked her, what was it like to be a parent? And to hear her response as an adult now, I think it may have changed things a bit. I am much more conscious in my interactions with youth having gone through some of the experiences I have and more than ever, I try to keep on looking ahead to build new memories.

In terms of opening up to your mother, take it slowly. Often patterns we established as youth will manifest themselves well into our adulthood. Telling your mother what she did wrong may make you feel better to get it out there, but it won't change what has happened in the past. This really hit home as I was writing my mother's eulogy. Moving forward, like a humble author, try to credit your mother for the good things she has passed onto you, personality traits, discipline, etc. but take full responsibility for anything negative. It's a heavy burden at first, but things will get better with time.

On a lighter note, sometimes I wonder if forgetting is when forgiving gets too tiring. After years of thinking things through and trying to forgive, I just let out a big sigh and my mind lets it go.
posted by perpetualstroll at 3:14 PM on August 16, 2008

Sometimes it's easier to look at people who do have good relationships with their families of origin. What do they do when they're angry at one another? You didn't get lessons on how to have a good mother/daughter relationship. Try to pick up some behaviors from those people who did.

If you study people with good relationship within their family, then you'll probably find that there's a lot of forgiveness.
posted by 26.2 at 3:20 PM on August 16, 2008

I would like it if I didn't need to keep a wall between me and my mom.

Consider whether this is a realistic and healthy goal. It sounds like she was abusive. We can't all be close to our parents. A somewhat distant relationship might be the best thing for you both.
posted by sondrialiac at 3:36 PM on August 16, 2008

Give yourself permission to grieve for the mother you wish you had. After the grieving, there might come acceptance for the mother you actually have with all her inadequacies and all her good qualities. None of us is perfect.

Forgiveness should be given only if she truly wants to be forgiven, signified by her admitting shame and regret for the hurtful words. If she is not at that stage, and in your opinion she is not capable of reaching that stage, forgetfullness might be better than forgiveness: put the memory of the hurfull words, fights and scenes away in a small corner of your mind, to be visited as infrequently as possible.

A civil, cordial, mature relationship is still possible, not perfect but good enough. I know it is possible because I had a similar situation with my father (just heated name-calling on both our sides) and, after a few years of separation, we were able to be loving toward each other when I learned to steer the conversation away from certain subjects.
posted by francesca too at 3:38 PM on August 16, 2008

So she cries and says she was a bad mother; but has she actually apologized? I mean, I don't know if your mom is manipulative or genuinely remorseful or some combination of them - I think most manipulative people are not fully conscious of what they are doing and are self-deceptive about their motivations, she's probably not thinking "fuck, this again, now I will cry and shut prefpara up." And we all manipulate, consciously or unconsciously, with our emotional reactions to things. Maybe you don't want your mother to be genuinely remorseful because it calls upon you to forgive her and grant her permission to get over her own negative feelings about the past. Maybe you're the manipulative one. Maybe you want your mother to have to feel bad about it forever. Or maybe you just can't really believe in her remorse; maybe that's your problem, or maybe she's not genuinely remorseful. If she is genuinely remorseful and if you can explain to her that part of what you need to get over this is to talk about your history, then she should be willing to talk about it.

I think your feelings of ambiguity about what talking about your negative history with your mother will accomplish is obviously a critical missing link in making any progress with this. To my mind there are a few main things this kind of conversation can accomplish. It can give you the chance to express something that maybe you've never done so, at least not in a relatively calm, rational way: that your mother said things to you that hurt your feelings so badly that they still affect you. This can result in her making an apology that you can take seriously, which is a significant thing, and it could result, through talking about the shared experience, in you getting some insight into what she experienced, resulting in some empathy and greater understanding which can maybe help you put the memories in a context that you can better live with. All these could help you to forgive your mother, which I think is critical to moving past this history.

Of course, such conversations can go badly also, with the person refusing to take responsibility or feeling that it is unreasonable or merely hurtful to want to get into the details or offering excuses or justifications that you don't think are acceptable. Or again, maybe it could come down to you not being willing to meet her halfway, not being able or willing to answer genuine remorse with forgiveness. The fact that your mother has apparently gotten past being hurtful to you suggests that you might benefit by talking these things out, as opposed to, for example, The Light Fantastic's experience (which I don't discount at all - some people are beyond sorting things out with, but I do reject this as a general reality).

A big problem with this kind of thing is not being able to master the emotions that the conversation creates; you're getting resentful and your mother is getting defensive and it turns into an argument instead of a conversation. One thing that has helped a lot of people is to start with writing things out. You could try writing some letters to your mother that you may or may not send. Even though it is sort of a gimmick, I suppose, just adopting the form of communication - writing "to" your mother rather than just writing a journal about it or whatever - could help you get your head around what you're feeling and what you want from her. And eventually an actual letter could help you prepare her for a particular conversation at a particular time - rather than just springing it at some point. Because the element of surprise is definitely not an advantage in these kinds of situations. I think obviously saying that "she did x, y, and z wrong" is not the right start. I think you have to get to talking about how these things made you feel, and the fact that they are still affecting you, and that you want to talk about what was going on with her, and how she felt then, and the fact that your goal is to be able to have a relationship where you feel like you can open up to her, and be more emotionally close. Which is a lot of emotional vulnerability on your side, but I honestly don't think you can get to the heart of this kind of thing, whether you involve your mother directly or not, without opening up the vulnerable emotional territory that is at their heart.

I have to say, because I am a strong proponent of therapy, that you should think about why you are against it, if you are (and it sounds like you are). Because this is the kind of thing that a good therapeutic relationship excels at working through. Terrible parental interactions are pretty much classic therapy fodder, so a good therapist has tons of experience with preparing for, initiating and dealing with the aftermath of getting into this sort of history with parents, and with helping you work on whether it is really worthwhile to do so.
posted by nanojath at 3:42 PM on August 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

The Dance of Intimacy was really helpful to me in dealing with this sort of thing.
posted by selfmedicating at 5:29 PM on August 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Hmm. Been thinking about your post and what came up for me was to think about what you hoped to achieve in communicating with your mother.

She has expressed regret for not being a good enough mother. You have expressed regret for behaving badly.

She feels guilt. You feel guilt. You have both worked on letting go of the past by having more pleasant communication, behaving better with each other and not having the fights you used to.

So what is the residue that remains that you find hard to let go of?

It seems that when your mother cries, when you try and discuss the ways in which she hurt you, it's as if she is sweeping away the past without hearing you, the specifics of the hurt she caused you. Perhaps it's as if she is not 'seeing' you, the person, the details of what mattered to you. And possibly, as a reaction to that, you feel like emotionally withholding from her?

To me it sounds like as long as she is unable to talk about the specifics with you, that you cannot get to a place of deeper trust or authentic emotional connection with her.

Her overly quick tears and blanket remorse, not listening to you, sound to me like she is playing victim, unable to take adult responsibility for her actions/words and going into an emotional hiding place of childish tears. Kind of like she plays the tearful child, while you end up having to play the understanding adult.

You might consider if she is capable of emotional maturity. At core, do you think she's trustworthy now, enough to make the effort to connect with her?

If she is, then it's worth the try to communicate that you would like a better understanding with her, for her to know you and for you to know her better.

And if she cries, let her cry. Don't let her tears silence potential understanding between you. You may also cry.

If she isn't mature enough to have a deeper talk with you, it's not about you. It's her inability. And on some level you may have to accept her as unable to make a deeper connection, most likely not just with you but maybe with anybody in her life. If this is the case and you accept her as she is, find a way to love her, flaws and all, she may mature into a deeper person. Your relationship may be more satisfying. If she doesn't change, and she might not, you have at least found a way to live in a more comfortable peace.
posted by nickyskye at 6:14 PM on August 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Over time, it helps a lot to look at what your parents did right, and be grateful. My parents paid for my college education. In some ways I had a privileged youth. We lived in a great neighborhood, and there were some neighbors who gave me support that I needed. As a young adult, when I wanted to borrow money, my Mom really came through, and encouraged me in a business venture.

There were lots of negatives, and all I need to say is that a lot of what I read in this thread is familiar.

You have a Dad, too, most likely. What role did he play? In my family my Mom gets all the blame, much of it well-deserved, but my Dad opted out of most of the parenting, and he should have been there for us a lot more.

Your mom probably did her best. Maybe it wasn't good enough. The crying and self-blame suggest depression. Suggest therapy for her, even if it's not what you want for yourself.

Look forward. She's going to be your Mom for a lot of years. Start building a better relationship now. Don't buy into manipulation. Be honest but fair, and kind. It took many years before my Mom learned that I wouldn't participate in game playing, or in big emotional blowouts. I moved 1,000 miles away, and for a while had no home phone, which made it easy for me to control how much we could communicate. (Once upon a time there were no cell phones. I used the phone at work. ) If I was at home, and she started to get into a drunken emotional scene, I simply left. I did that quite a few times.

Go ahead and write that letter, but don't send it. Be adult, and try to understand why things happened the way they did, and try to develop compassion. Forgiveness is really good for you. Try to listen to her; ask her about he parents & her childhood. You may develop insights that will help you grow.

I never had the relationship with my Mom that I wanted, but she loved me and I loved her, and we made progress. She died not long ago, and I'm very glad we developed a loving relationship.
posted by theora55 at 8:47 PM on August 16, 2008

I think you're right, and if you confront her again, she will cry, because she doesn't know what else to do. As you already know, this doesn't help you. Ideally I suppose you'd like her to say, You're right, that wasn't right, what I did. But you know that's not what's going to happen. So I find in these situations, you just have to know yourself that what happened wasn't right, and reject it on that level, and go on with YOUR life trying to do the right thing. SInce it wasnt right, there is no use hanging on to it. There is a quote I like "Resentmet is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die." I think it's pretty accurate.

At the same time, I think you are doing the right thing trying to have a better relationship with her. I think it helps trying to understand parents as People, rather than Parents. I have a lot of acquiantances and friends who have been through therapy, and it seems if they stay in that place too long (making lists of all the things that were wrong in their lives), the worse their mental outlook gets, the stronger the self-pity. Ultimatley i think if you are alright with yourself, these things don't matter anymore (the ways in which you were wronged).

Like with the things she said to you that you haven't forgiven - just knowing what she said was incorrect will liverate you from being mad about them. If you know in your heart/mind the things she said weren't true, you are free.

My mom once said she could see me joining a cult one day (I think it was just because I am vegetarian, which she doesn't get, and I was buying Dr Bronner's soap at the time, which is covered in his rants on the wrapping), which I was pretty hurt by for a week or so. I got over it be just realizing that that was absurd and patently not true, though it blew my ego for a few days. But you just go on with your life not letting those words have any power over you, because you KNOW they aren't true, and that's how you get over them.

I read an interview with Ashley Judd the other day, where she talks about her childhood (apparently she was left behind while her mom and sister toured, and once missed school for a week, 'cause she was too embarassed to call friends for rides anymore). Anyway she was saying that she now lives close to both of them, and their current/past behavious doen't matter anymore because she's over it, she's over it and knows who she is. I thought that was a pretty mature way of looking at things.

I don;t think throwing things in people's faces from ages ago ever helps. Sometimes they can't even remember their offence, and often don't have the emotional maturity to respond in a way that will help the person who is hurting. They get defensive, angry, or pathetic, or something. So I really don;t think bringing up stuff will get you anywhere at all. It's up to you to get over it, not her. I don't mean that to sound harsh, but I think it's true.
posted by Penelope at 10:59 AM on August 17, 2008

I want to have a good relationship with her, but I don't know what to do to get there.

You're doing this backwards. What does "a good relationship" look like to you? You have dinner once a week? She comes over for holidays? You pour your heart out on the phone about your current relationship? You say you want to include her in your life but can't bring yourself to. The minimum requirement for having Mom over for dinner is picking up the phone and saying "Hey, can you come over for dinner on [date]?" Everything that stops you from actually doing that is stuff you've created in your mind. So do that FIRST, without even thinking about it, and see what happens. Don't have any expectations about her response or how it's going to go. Well, you will have some expectations, but just recognize them and vow to let them go.

It's not easy, but it doesn't have to be difficult. It's like getting up at 5 am to run. Your body does not want to get out of bed and your mind makes all kinds of justifications why you should sleep more. It's raining, you need new running shoes, you were up late, etc. The only thing that works is to get out of bed without giving any credence to those thoughts. Just put your damn shoes on and get out the door. Same thing with relationships. You know what you need to do to include your mother in your life. It's not about letting go of the past. Yes yes, mean and manipulative things were said and done. Do you want to have a relationship based on that, or on a future that you create yourself?

It really doesn't matter how she responds. I know this makes no sense, but I've seen it happen. All it takes is for you to shift your perspective from "what she did" to "what I'm going to do." You don't have to forgive her. You don't have to forget what happened. However, if you honestly do want a good relationship with her, the only way is to look forward and not back.

A real and recent example: my mother has bipolar disorder and she was unmedicated for most of my childhood. It was, um, interesting. There were lots of crying jags of the type you mention, and several suicide attempts (and subsequent hospitalization). I wanted nothing to do with her for a long time but guilt kept me from cutting her off completely. I'd talk to her and see her but I'd come away angrier. I felt controlled by her. I came to the conclusion that this internal tug-of-war was costing me way too much. She is going to be the way she is going to be. I was always trying to tiptoe around that, and in doing that, I lost any possibility of having a real relationship. You can't have love and joy where one person feels controlled. Yet, I secretly savored that because it was proof that there was something wrong with HER, and it was a sick badge of honor that I'd survived my childhood.

When I gave up that badge of honor, everything changed. I wasn't in survival mode when I went to her house for dinner. I could have conversations with her without feeling threatened or guilty, because I recognized that I was the one who'd been making myself feel that way, because I liked it. I liked being right about her, I liked making her wrong, I liked feeling superior. Again, that's no basis for a relationship. So I gave it up, and I can talk to her as a person, as my mother, not as who she was 20 years ago. When she starts driving me nuts (I'm getting married in six weeks, so the opportunities are ample right now), I focus on being assertive and not letting myself feel controlled.

God, I've rambled on endlessly and I'm going to quit now to conserve Matt's bandwidth. Hopefully some of this is of some value to you; if you want more info, mefimail me.
posted by desjardins at 3:21 PM on August 18, 2008 [4 favorites]

Thank you, everyone who took the time to comment and memail me. I am slowly digesting all of the advice that I've been given and the personal stories that you shared with me. Already, I feel less anxious when I think about this subject, because you guys just didn't jump all over me and judge me (as some of my friends have done), and thank you for that.

In fact, I have had a small epiphany. I realized that there is something that I want her to tell me -- that she didn't mean the things she said to me when we fought, that they were emotional outbursts, and that she was not right to have said those things. So that makes me feel like something positive can come out of a conversation on the subject, and I am feeling somewhat more motivated and optimistic.

Again, I really appreciate the time and care that you have given to my problem. You have already helped me, and I think I will continue to make progress as I reread your answers.
posted by prefpara at 6:36 PM on August 20, 2008

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