“The heart of a mother is a deep abyss at the bottom of which you will always find forgiveness"
Honore de Balzac
I've never met a woman who intended to hurt, shame, neglect, abuse, criticise, or abandon her child. Yet therapists' rooms are filled with adults who have experienced inadequate parenting.
We're bombarded by cultural myths about motherhood that all women are nurturing, that mothering is instinctual and not learned, and that all mothers love their children unconditionally (Psychology Today, 2017).
In my mother’s generation, there was an assumption that as long as a mother feeds, clothes, and puts a roof over her children's heads, she had done her duty. Emotional needs like encouragement, love, and support of the child were considered superfluous. If you complain, you were accused of exaggerating or being dramatic.
I recall as a teenager, that my siblings and I did complain. Our eldest sister called a family meeting to discuss our resentments with our mother. We took turns expressing our upsets, which included that our mother did not hug us, tell us she loved us, or show up at our school events. Our mother listened attentively and she took it all in.
There were six of us and she sat there defenseless. Looking back I can imagine how confronting that experience must have been for my mother. Although my grandmother was very loving towards my mother, she was a woman of few words and did not articulate her emotions to her. She mothered us the way she was parented.
My mother looked at each of us and asked for forgiveness.
I was about 15 years old and even though I expressed some of my resentments, I did not have the awareness or vocabulary to access the deep hurt I felt about being abandoned. During that family gathering, I thought I had forgiven my mother, but my later actions proved that I had not. I was not ready to forgive her then as I had not processed my hurt.
"Forgiveness is not the goal. Healing is the goal." - Pegg Streep
Many of my clients with mother issues ask me if they have to forgive their mother, especially when their mother committed what felt like unforgivable transgressions.
Although I agree that holding resentment is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die, premature forgiveness can be harmful, self-abandoning, and a form of spiritual bypassing.
The quotes below sum up the sentiment of many of my clients about forgiving their mother.
"How can I forgive a mother who not only refuses to acknowledge the hurt I suffered by her actions but is shocked that I see my childhood as painful or recall that she was cruel to me?"
"If I forgive her, it's like I'm abandoning myself and proving that she or her actions were right"
"I'm tired of turning the other cheek and offering the olive branch again and again with no change from her end"
"I cannot offer forgiveness to her while she is in denial of her mean cruel treatment of me"
"I refuse to validate her treatment of me".
Choosing to forgive your mother is a complex process and cannot be taken lightly. Nor should you forgive because of pressure and through guilt.
When you are ready, author Leslie Leyland Fields offers a number of reasons to forgive our mothers.
Six Irresistible Reasons to Forgive Your Mother
1. She chose to give you life. When we’re hurt and disappointed, often we compile a list of all that our mother didn’t do for us, forgetting to count all she did. Did she provide food, water, a bed, clothing, rides to school, and after-school events? Did she make lunches for us, take us to the beach, and buy us Christmas presents? Sometimes remembering what she did do well, can help lessen the feelings of resentment.
This sentiment can be controversial to some people as some clients say they did not choose to be born.
2. She tried her best. Even without knowing your mother, I know this is almost always true. Our mothers, birth mothers, stepmothers, and adoptive mothers all came to parenting with their own loads of baggage and circumstances. Some of our mothers were not mothered themselves. They simply did not know how to do it. Some were trapped in very difficult marriages or were alone without support. All of our mothers struggled with more than we knew as children and even more than we know now as adults.
3. She cannot repay her 'debts' against you. When we forgive, we release the offender from the hurts and 'debts' they owe us. We do this because it is impossible for them to pay back what they 'owe' us. They simply can’t. They’re unable either by temperament, circumstances, or by their own human limitations. We’re either stuck trying to exact from our mothers whatever debts they have incurred or we let them go. We give the gift of mercy. When we do this, we not only free our mothers, but we free ourselves from holding onto the injury.
4. Your negative emotions affect your own children and family. Your children may be missing getting to know their own grandmother. Not every grandmother is safe to be around; sometimes boundaries are needed. In most cases, though, even imperfect people have qualities and life experiences that your children can benefit from. While you want to protect your child, be careful as well not to superimpose on your children the relationship you had with your mother. She is older now and likely will interact with your children differently than she did with you.
5. So your children will forgive you. As hard as we try to break generational cycles of dysfunction with our own children, we are still imperfect mothers ourselves who have hurt our children at times. We will want and need from them a spirit of love and forgiveness, particularly as they become adults. If we are not modelling this towards our own parents, they are less likely to extend the same towards us.
6. So you can become the kind of person you want to be. It’s too easy to get trapped in anger and resentment, but most of us don’t like ourselves this way. You may not have to live with your mother, but you can't avoid living with yourself. Forgiving a parent of her deficiencies and hurts against you will bring healing to your mother and to you. It will begin to mend your broken and bitter parts and bring you closer to the woman you want to be: someone who is wise, not easily offended, compassionate, and quick to forgive. Take this step toward becoming the kind of person you want to become, and start becoming her this very day.
I forgave my mother after decades of recovery work and therapy. The journey was not easy but I can say without a doubt that it has been very rewarding.
We forgive, not for our mothers, but for ourselves. The corrosive nature of resentment, hatred, and rage can be debilitating, and it can contaminate our relationships and impact the life we build in the future.
To continue your work on healing the relationship with your mother, join me this Sunday from 10 am - 11.30 am for my online workshop, Healing the Mother-Daughter Relationship.
To continue your work on boundaries, join my self-paced Boundary Course my self-paced version