How you related to your mother when you were young has a profound impact on your adult relationships—and your relationship with yourself. Repairing your relationship with your mother is important. Your temperament, feelings of self-worth, anger style, sense of humor, and outlook on life are all things that were affected by your mother (or another primary female caretaker).
While some were lucky enough to have a loving, supportive, and present mother who never caused us emotional distress many of us weren’t. If you are one of the unlucky ones, this article is for you.
I wish I could say it’s never too late to repair your relationship with your mother and leave it there. But the whole issue of repairing is too complicated for that. For some, it is, in a way, too late. Your mother may have passed, or you may have decided that your relationship with her is too painful or harmful to keep her in your life. In cases like these, the repaired relationship is one you carry within yourself, which helps you heal and feel whole even in her absence. For others, though, the repairing may include her—if you choose to.
Remember: Your mother is a person who makes mistakes—just like you.
When you were a child, your parents were larger-than-life figures. They were your heroes or your enemies, your bosses or your protectors. They were not regular people. Part of growing up is realizing that our parents are just that, regular people. They’re flawed, and they screw up sometimes (or a lot of the time). Most people do the best they can with the tools they have, including your parents. Flawed parents often had flawed parents of their own. Sometimes we try to correct the mistakes our parents made and end up overcorrecting. If your mother didn’t show enough kindness and love, you might show so much warmth and love to your children that they feel smothered.
I’d like to throw out a fancy-sounding term from social psychology here that might help explain this concept better: fundamental attribution error. The fundamental attribution error is the tendency to view someone else’s flaws as representative of who they are, and your own as situational. In other words: When I cut you off in traffic, it’s because I’m late to an important meeting. When you cut me off in traffic, it’s because you’re a selfish jerk. Or: When I show a quick temper toward my child, it’s because I’m stressed out. When my mother got angry, it was because she was a bad parent.
Think back on interactions with your mother that have stayed with you since you were young and consider if the fundamental attribution error played a part in how you interpreted the event. If your mother was dismissive of your emotions, was it because she was a terrible mother? Or was it because she was wrapped up in her own stressful life, or because she didn’t know how to comfort you? Does that make her dismissiveness ok? Absolutely not. But it makes it more understandable, and therefore perhaps easier to forgive.
Becoming a parent may change how you think of your mother.
I laugh at some of the stories I hear about how people’s perspectives of their parents changed once they had children of their own. For example, the once-rebellious son who called his mother to complain about his infant daughter crying all night and keeping him up. He just wanted to thank his mother for “not throwing me out a window when I was a baby,” he said.
When we have children, it’s like a peek behind the scenes of our own childhood. Oh, so that’s what happened after they sent me to bed! At ten, you thought all the fun happened after your bedtime, and you resented your parents for making you miss out. Now that you have kids, you know that your kid’s bedtime means you finally have the freedom to…collapse into an exhausted heap, or to stay up late finishing all the work you didn’t get to do while you were busy driving them from school to soccer practice to the math tutor.
Healing when your mother is no longer with you.
When you can’t call your mother to tell her about your parenting experiences or ask why she behaved in a way that hurt you, it’s time to find a new “authority figure” or elder who can provide you with some of the benefits of a mother-child relationship. A supportive therapist, personal coach, religious leader like a pastor or rabbi, or older family member can be good options when looking for someone to fill this role. You want to find someone who can offer you the unconditional acceptance you didn’t receive—or can no longer receive—from your mother.
When you repair your relationship with your mother, you don’t only heal the fissures in your relationship with that one person; you’ll also improve your relationship with your significant other, your friends, your children—and yourself.