Accepting the mixed emotions of Mother's Day

mixed emotions of mother's day, conflict with a parent

Like most of us, I have a complicated personal history. Between my two parents, there have been 6 marriages, which is, by most standards, complicated. My first divorce happened when I was 4 and my brothers were 2 and 5. I vividly remember my devastated mother, my flustered grandparents and the constant look of terror on my big brother’s face. At the time, divorce was still viewed as shameful. For many years, I didn’t know anyone whose parents were divorced. I’m reflecting on the mixed emotions of Mother’s Day in this post.

My mother has many remarkable qualities: I’ve always known that she loves me and she was never one to play favorites. On long drives, before the advent of personal video players (or mandatory seat belts!), she’d entertain us with stories about when we were born. For my older brother, who was adopted, she’d talk about the moment she saw him and how she knew immediately that he was her baby. She’s also a friend magnet- within a week of moving to a new neighbourhood, she’ll already have a social network. She’s now in her 80s and she still has friends from kindergarten.  She loves to be loved (thus, two more husbands) but also, she loves to love, especially her children, grandchildren, step-children and dear friends. My mom loves with her whole heart.

Chaos breeds contempt

Mother-daughter relationships can be fraught. For some, the more challenging times are fleeting, while for others, the discord persists. Regardless, conflict with a parent can be incredibly painful and difficult to endure, for both parties. I didn’t always appreciate my mom’s assets, because I didn’t thrive in the chaos of my childhood. In fact, for a long time I resented it and her, leading to times of estrangement.

As a critical aside, sometimes there are insurmountable barriers to saving a parent-child relationship. For instance, there have been countless books written about the havoc a narcissistic parent can wreck on the life of their child. As a psychiatrist, I’ve seen too many patients spend their lifetime trying to make a parent love them as they should be loved. My professional experience has taught me that some people are incapable of parental love. They control, belittle, humiliate and criticize. Their love is offered in a quid pro quo. Their child is a reflection of themselves, so they can only accept perfection, which is vaguely defined and unattainable.

Feelings of anger and resentment towards a parent often comes with other painful emotions, like sadness and guilt. Most societies have deeply ingrained beliefs about the sacred role of a parent, which sticks to the soul.  The bible says to “honor thy father and mother.” Friends say, “You shouldn’t hate your parents.” Children ask themselves, “What are you doing that makes you so unlovable? You need to try harder.” These entrenched beliefs and painful feelings can be so overwhelming, children of narcissistic parents may endure years of cruelty, trying to earn an unwinnable love. It’s difficult for an adult child to learn, accept and integrate this understanding, but after years of trying, my patients often express relief- they can finally stop torturing themselves. Just because you’re a parent doesn’t give you the right to be part of your adult child’s life. Adults have the right, and sometimes the need, to call the game and say, “I’m out”.

Apples that fall far from the tree

Despite our challenges, I’m fortunate that my mother knew how to love, along with her other attributes, and we’ve found our way to have a strong adult relationship. I’ve also lived a very different life from hers- I’ve been married to the same great guy for more than 30 years.  We have two wonderful children, both with their own unique gifts and peccadillos.  The youngest, my daughter, is an old soul; she’s been more mature than me since she was about 10. Now 21, going on 85, she has diverse and eclectic interests that couldn’t be more different from my own when I was her age. She’s her own woman and she always has been.

When people would ask me about my daughter, I’d say, “She’s a peach. We’ve never had a screaming match. She’s never said she hates me (at least to my face).” Most mothers of daughters would respond with a look that said, “Is she ok?”, as if that was abnormal. Turns out, it was.

One day, when my daughter was maybe 13 or 14, she was obviously frustrated with me. I can’t remember why she was angry, but I can remember the awful feeling I’d always experienced when she was annoyed with me. A feeling of dread and anxiety would rise up from the darkest places in my brain, provoked by painful old memories of the anger I once had for my own mother, and I’d suddenly feel terrified. “Does she hate me? Will she stop loving me?” On this day, however, my daughter had clearly had enough.  She saw my dread and distress and said, “Mom, I have to be able to be angry with you sometimes. And, you have to trust that I will still love you, even if I get angry.”

The impact of her words was immediate. Aside from losing one of my children, my daughter hating me was my greatest fear. Even the thought of it felt like an unendurable wound. So I tried to protect myself from that possibility, any way I could. Those mothers who gave me the “it’s abnormal to never have overt conflict with your daughter” look were right- it’s normal to have conflict with the people you live with and love. This is especially so as children are maturing, testing their limits and seeking independence. I certainly had no problem arguing with my husband and son and never worried that they’d stop loving me.

I had to get my head out of my past and acknowledge her need to feel safe expressing normal emotions. It would be an understatement to say her words came as a relief. They were transformational. While she still hasn’t screamed at me because I annoyed her, as mothers tend to do, her obvious frustration has never again provoked the terror it once did. By her bravely staking claim to what are normal emotions, she made us both feel safer.

Mother’s Day, like all special days, can be bitter-sweet. As I reflect on my own journey as a mother, I feel even more grateful for my beloved grandmother, who was a safe-haven during my childhood, my mother-in-law, who is a force of nature and an inspiration, and my own sweet mom, whom I adore.

This blog post is part of a series looking at the state of our mental healthcare system and ways we can create sustainable change to improve quality and outcomes for anyone impacted by mental illness. 

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