This Sunday is Mothers’ Day. Usually on that day my Facebook feed is full of posts talking about how wonderful individual mothers, and mothers in general, are. Lots of soft-focus photos with touching words about how a mother is a best friend, loves unconditionally, and is the one person you can rely on lifelong.
But what if she isn’t?
I’m not talking just about those people whose mothers have died, although obviously Mothers’ Day can be tough on those people because they no longer have their mothers around. For them it might be a very sad day, or perhaps they focus more on how much they loved their mother and on some happy memories of them. I’m talking about those people whose mothers were dysfunctional, abusive, addicts, or otherwise unable to fulfil the traditional, ‘normal’ role of motherhood.
I see people in my clinic all the time who had bad relationships with their mothers. The mother who gave them cocaine on their 14th birthday to cheer them up. The one who beat them regularly throughout their childhood. The one who threw them out of the house at 15. The one who left them when they were 10, never to be seen again. The one whose alcoholism left them unable to function much of the time. The one whose clinical depression meant they couldn’t relate to them at all. The one whose poor health turned them into carer rather than cared for. The one who refused to believe and protect them when they told of abuse at the hands of a relative.
Happily this kind of mother is in the minority, and for very many people it’s so far outside their experience that they can’t really believe it actually happens. When people share their stories of being under-mothered on social media, there are always plenty of others to join in and share theirs; but there are also lots of people who talk about ‘hateful comments’ and criticize these people for not sufficiently loving or appreciating their mothers. That adds guilt to the pain and sadness and leaves under-mothered people feeling they have something to hide. Bad mothering is not a socially acceptable topic.
The thing is, if you weren’t mothered effectively as a child it doesn’t matter how understanding you’ve become in adult life. You can rationalize the situation and explain it to yourself as due to problems your mother had which she wasn’t able, or didn’t get the help, to deal with effectively. That doesn’t stop the little girl or boy inside you hurting, and being sad, angry and confused because the loving mothers that other people describe just didn’t exist for you.
My mother was a wonderful person in many ways, but because of her own mental health issues she wasn’t able to demonstrate how much she loved me when I was growing up. She was critical, demanding and obsessive. I’m sure she would have done anything for me, but it didn’t feel like that at the time. That left me with self-esteem and self-confidence issues that took thirty years to overcome. She died 20 years ago, so I will never be able to have that best-friends relationship that some of my friends talk about. We never went on mother-daughter trips; we didn’t go shopping or have coffee together or share our feelings. I don’t think she could have, but to me it just seemed she didn’t like me very much.
The relationship between mother and child is critical to the wellbeing of the child, not just physically for food and warmth, but emotionally as well. We’re programmed at a fundamental level to love our parents and want their approval. If we don’t get it, not only is our emotional development stunted but we can decide that we’re not worthy of love. If our mothers can’t love us, who could?
So if you have a wonderful, loving relationship with your mother I’m thrilled for you. You are so fortunate; please cherish and celebrate your closeness. If you don’t, please don’t feel guilty or ashamed. It wasn’t your fault. It wasn’t anything you did or didn’t do. You’re unlucky, not unlovable.
If you have found this article helpful, please share it with a friend.
Caeredwen is a counsellor, coach and physical therapist based in Coleford in the Forest of Dean. If this blog has touched you and you would like to contact her in confidence, you can reach her at email@example.com or via her website at www.magichandscalmminds.com.