Emotional Health · Family & Friends

Understanding and Forgiving our Mothers

Depression is another way in which a mother’s abilities are compromised. Whether a result of childhood scars or biological factors, like post-partum depression, its consequences can be devastating to children. Mild, chronic depression can cause a mother to be distracted and unresponsive, while clinical depression can cause a child to feel psychologically orphaned.

Depression and other mental illness can also lead to addictions. While there is evidence that predisposition to addiction is inheritable and can occur in the absence of depression, many turn initially to drugs and/or alcohol as a means of self-medication. Again, the children of such mothers can feel orphaned, and sometimes hopelessly confused by her unpredictable behavior. Never sure whether her mother will be OK (sober) or not (high), often these children become caught up in a cycle of over-watchfulness and are tyrannized by the wish to please others, trying to find the magic formula that conjure the “good” mother.

Some mothers carry the terrible scars left by physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse. These injuries leave deep and often unconscious memories and conflicts that seriously limit a mother’s parenting skills. For example, mothers who have been victims of sexual abuse can be overprotective to the point of injury, instilling in their daughters a sense of mistrust and vulnerability. Conversely, when the memories of the abuse are repressed, a mother’s denial of her history can blind her to dangers that her own children may be facing. The most devastating legacy of childhood abuse is the compulsion to repeat it as a way of gaining mastery over one’s own injuries.

Many of us with mothers like these harbor anger and even rage at them that goes well beyond the average, expected ambivalence. As adults, they seek therapy as a way of coping with anger and resolving crippling bitterness. How does the process of forgiving your parents work, if ever? People often misconceptualize therapy as a process of parent bashing, rehashing the past and taking the view that you are a victim.

In practice, however, the process is quite different. While the first important step is recognizing the reality of one’s history, including acknowledging the ways in which injuries may well have been sustained, the crucial phase of emotional growth is understanding.

Understanding is a multi-step process that entails seeing the way that a mother’s faults affected you as a child. This involves an appreciation for the person you were at the time, and the needs you had that were frustrated then. Now no longer a child, your needs, though they may not have been met when you were young, cannot be satisfied by people in your current world—not by your mother or anyone else. Many of us go through life seeking reparations for childhood injuries that can never be made because the time for them to be effective has past.

The healing phase of understanding involves accepting that this opportunity is gone. It is truly difficult: it is much easier to get up and leave the table if you have had enough to eat than if you are still hungry. But sitting endlessly at that table is futile if the food has gone stale.

Finally, while it is important to acknowledge our anger at our mothers, and though it makes sense, the final therapeutic phase involves letting it go, which can only occur if we understand and forgive them. This happens when we put ourselves in her shoes, empathizing with her and recognizing how she became the person she is.

Sometimes becoming a mother yourself can accelerate this process, and, not surprisingly, it is often a time for reconciliation between mothers and daughters. Knowing how challenging it is to be a mother from actual, current experience, a woman can acknowledge the ways in which her mother struggled with her circumstances and personal demons. Even if you see yourself as a “victim,” recognizing that she was a victim too can lessen the sting.

As one woman who had a highly narcissistic mother put it to me when she had her first child, “I immediately saw two things: she must have loved me! . . . And yet how could she have loved me as little as she did?” This insight led her to finally understand that her mother tried to love her but was a casualty of her own narcissism, which she could not overcome. And it was her mother’s loss as well as her own.

Being a victim is a terrible thing. While we must acknowledge it, in order to overcome our injuries it is not always necessary or even desirable to seek reparation or retribution. Though it can help in some current circumstances—such as injuries suffered as an adult, childhood injuries cannot be directly ministered to. We can mourn for the child we once were, but the only way to move forward from the bitter taste of victimhood is to let it go. If we understand our mothers, we can let go of our anger, free now to forgive them and love them for the flawed human beings they are.







Join the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  • Judy Orlando May 11, 2018 at 10:19 am

    In my experience (granted not professional), the universal, ever-present cause of depression in mothers – and fathers — is sleep deprivation. You can be a perfectly balanced human being (and aren’t we all?), but you’re not going to sleep unless you have a baby-nurse. Even if you have one and you’re nursing, you and your husband are still awakened constantly and you must whip out the ever-leaking breast, that recently-morphed sex-object-turned-appliance, lest your baby starve and you be deemed wanting for the rest of time.

    Rather than talk about the inevitable failure of mothers, and calling on us to forgive their (and our own) flaws, how about talking about the amazing resilience of both parents in the face of overwhelming exhaustion? How about the incredible strength of the parental instinct that turns ordinary (rested), independent people into willing slaves for as long as they’re needed (with residual lifetime strings), and the modern fiction that parenting is our greatest calling? Fie on this fiction. Parenthood may be rewarding, but it is neither sacred nor perfectible. Those who come to it with psychological problems are hampered, of course, but so, to a lesser degree, are the rest of us. It’s a design flaw — or maybe not a flaw but a necessity for insuring our children’s independence, and the restoration of our own.

    As for mutual longing for the symbiotic bond of infant and mother, where is it written that dependence feels good? It may be necessary at the beginning and end of life, but I, for one, would not choose to be on either side of it.

    How about taking a less judgmental turn? How about just enjoying each other as we are?

    Happy Mother’s Day!

    Yours with feeling (and apologies),
    Judy Orlando

  • Aly May 11, 2018 at 9:10 am

    Such a beautiful as well as informative article!

  • Cara May 10, 2018 at 7:14 am

    Very well-thought out article at a most appropriate time. Thank you for your research and I pray it helps many children and Mothers on their journeys ahead in life. Mother’s Day is not a “contest” of gifts given or “best” Mom awards, but a day to rest. Despite what impressions others might have of someone else’s Mother (especially those left as single parents for a time), a Mother’s love for their child comes from the heart always, and never the pocketbook.