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Unpacking the Mother-Daughter Dynamic: Understanding and Healing the Relationship

"If unloving mothers were able to see their behaviours as abusive, they either would stop behaving that way or they would get help for their dysfunction. But many cannot: instead, they deny it, to themselves, their families, and the world at large, in order to avoid a sense of guilt, to avoid having to make changes in their lives, or to avoid the bruising awareness that they, too, were unloved children.”

~Victoria Secunda

I am writing this newsletter from my mother's living room. She's snoring happily after delicately eating her midday snack. We've just been to the markets to do her weekly shopping. My mother is getting frail and as I waited patiently for her to catch her breath as we walked, I reflected on how much our relationship has changed.

As I watch my mother sleep I reflect on the challenging dynamic we once had and I'm grateful for the work we've both done to transform our relationship.

There is an expectation that we should have a good relationship with our mother. Those with a toxic or unhealthy relationship with their mother admit to loving them even when they do not like them.

We are told that it is sacrilegious to say or think negatively about our mothers. Society tells us that we should love our mothers no matter what.

Here are some general characteristics of the mother's role in a mother-daughter relationship:

  1. Providing nurturance and support: One of the primary roles of a mother is to provide nurturance and emotional support to her daughter. This can include physical care, such as providing food and shelter, as well as emotional care, such as offering comfort and reassurance.

  2. Setting boundaries and expectations: Mothers are responsible for setting boundaries and expectations for their daughters, helping them to understand what is acceptable behaviour and what is not. This can involve enforcing rules and consequences, as well as providing guidance and advice.

  3. Serving as a role model: Mothers often serve as role models for their daughters, modelling behaviours, values, and beliefs that can shape the daughter's own identity and perspective. This can be positive if the mother is a good role model, but it can be negative if the mother has unhealthy behaviours or attitudes.

  4. Navigating power dynamics: The mother-daughter relationship can be complex, with power dynamics that may shift over time. Mothers may struggle with balancing their role as a caregiver and nurturers with their daughter's increasing independence and autonomy.

  5. Nurturing the relationship: Mothers may play an active role in nurturing the mother-daughter relationship, through communication, quality time together, and emotional support. This can be important for maintaining a healthy dynamic and fostering a sense of connection and closeness

Loving our mothers would be easy if they had all or some of the above qualities. This is not the reality for most of us.

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).

Without sugarcoating it, the mother-daughter relationship is by far one of the most painful to work with.

What do you do if you love your mother dearly but you cannot have her close to you or engage with her because she intentionally or unintentionally causes you harm?

What if you were a victim of abuse and your mother continues to side with your abuser?

What if you've forgiven your mother so many times but she continues to violate your boundaries and hurt you?

What if your mother died when you were still a child, and you can't forgive her for leaving you unprotected in the world?

What if your mother continues to gaslight, undermine and belittle you but you still crave her love and approval leaving you open to more hurt?

What if the person who is supposed to be your 'safe place to land', is the most unsafe place in your world?

Over the years as a therapist, my clients have presented with multi versions of the above scenarios.


  1. You have agency over how to react to her behaviour.

  2. You can limit your contact

  3. Remove yourself when the situation is abusive, toxic or plain harmful

  4. Make sure you have not internalised her abusive, belittling or critical voice. In other words, Do not let her live rent-free in your head!

  5. You can make up for her inadequate mothering by giving yourself the mothering that you needed

  6. Have the courage to see and accept her for who she really is


  • The need for her to approve of you

  • The need for her to love you

  • The need for her to be the kind of mother you needed

  • The fantasy that she will change. Don't get me wrong, some mothers do change, I was fortunate that my mother did but most will not

  • Your idea of what healing looks like. You can still find healing even if your mother or the relationship doesn't change

How to Navigate Mother's Day When You Have a Challenging Mother-Daughter Relationship

Mother's Day can be very painful when we have a difficult relationship with our mothers. However, instead of avoiding the day altogether, there are a number of ways that you can get through the day in a way that moves you towards healing.

  • Prepare yourself for the day by asking friends and other family members for support

  • If you are on talking terms, reach out to Mum before the big day with a card or gift. Then on the actual day, focus on self-care and self-mothering.

  • Honour yourself for having got this far without the support of a loving or present mother

  • If your mother has passed, create a shrine with her picture, candle or some of her possession and connect with her by sitting, praying and meditating with her in mind

If you want to continue doing this healing work, check out my self-paced course Healing the Mother-Daughter Relationship. Details to join both are below.

Lots of hugs until next time.

Faith xoxo

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