How I Learned to Forgive My Mom Without Expecting Her to Be Perfect

Time helped me see my mom in a new light.
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Time helped me see my mom in a new light.

A few months before my wedding, I took a weekend trip to my mom’s house to check off a few final preparations. But what I thought would be a time of excitement and celebration quickly turned into one of the worst weekends of my life.

My mom was helping me with several aspects of wedding planning, and as parents and children do, we disagreed on something. But what started as a trivial conflict quickly escalated into an ugly, tear-filled outburst. I unleashed a torrent of grievancesa lifetime, really, of built-up hurt and anger. When I finished blaming her for every parenting mistake she’d ever made, I packed my bags and left, vowing never to return home again.

Most mother-daughter relationships experience tension at times—whether it’s friction over our need for independence during adolescence, or our choices in parenting or our careers as adults. Moms can also be particularly critical of their daughters because they see so much of themselves in them. As linguist Deborah Tanner points out in her book, You’re Wearing What?, “Mothers subject their daughters to a level of scrutiny people usually reserve for themselves.” This dynamic can leave daughters feeling misunderstood and hurt by their mother's expectations and subconscious disappointment long after they have grown into adults. I certainly struggle with this with my pre-teen daughter. Our worst arguments right now are about what she wants to wear or how she’d like to fix her hair, versus what I think she should wear and which hairstyle I’d prefer. And I admit, my dreams and expectations for her do not always match up with who she is and what she wants, which is a natural recipe for conflict. 

My relationship with my mom was perhaps more complicated by my parents’ divorce and the fact that she raised me alone. As I’ve researched and written about before, single motherhood is hard—not just on mothers, but also on their children who often spend time in complex families as their moms enter into new romantic relationships. Life can be chaotic, unstable, and uncertain, and research shows that children of divorce are more likely to have poorer relationships with their parents as adults.

I am the oldest child in our family, so I not only served as my mom’s confidante but also a type of co-parent to my younger siblings, helping with everything from homework and cleaning to discipline. The pressure of these adult responsibilities took a toll on me and on our relationship, especially during my teen years when I frankly would rather have been hanging out with my friends. I resented having to babysit my sister and brother when my mom had to work late, or when she went out on a date with a new guy. Because of a bad experience with a stepdad, I also feared every new man she brought around and questioned her ability to protect me from harm. At the same time, I struggled with issues related to missing my own father, including depression.

Instead of telling my mom how I felt, or how some of her choices impacted me, I rarely said anything because I did not want to hurt her feelings. Over the years, a lot of resentment built up toward my mom, just waiting for the right argument to set me off.

Thankfully, my mom and I were able to restore our relationship, in part, because when I was ready to give up on her, she refused to give up on me. After months of silence between us, she was right there beside me on my wedding day. Even though I acted like I didn’t care, it meant a lot to me that she came in spite of the many months I refused to speak to her, and the terrible way I acted the day we fought. 

Although I have always been taught that we need to forgive others as God forgives us, it took me some time to get to that point of complete forgiveness with my mom. But life has a funny way of helping us get perspective, and the more I looked the bigger picture of my life, the more I was able to see my mom in a new light.

Being Honest

My first step to forgiveness occurred when I finally let go of the hurt and anger about my childhood that I’d been repressing and shared it with my mom. While I definitely do not recommend letting loose on a person all at once the way I did, I do believe that honesty in relationships is critical, including with our parents.

From my perspective, our argument served as a turning point because it allowed me to get a lot of things off my chest—feelings that I’d only shared with a therapist. As counselor Kathryn Casey wrote in a Verily article on forgiveness, “The mental and emotional relief one experiences in naming the wound and letting it go can provide that individual with the freedom needed to rebuild his or her life.”

Sharing my pain with my mom opened the door for me to let go of some of the bitterness I’d been holding inside for way too long. It also gave me the strength to begin expressing my feelings instead of keeping them buried.. Although it did not erase the past, I no longer felt silenced, and I finally felt free to forgive. Thankfully, I discovered that my mom and I share a bond that is deep enough to withstand the truth about the past and to heal from it.

Experiencing Motherhood

Becoming a mom myself also changed how I viewed my mom. It’s so easy to judge our parents harshly when we don’t have kids of our own. Before I had children, I expected to be the “perfect” mom who would do everything “by the book” with my kids. Then, I gave birth to my daughter and later my son, and reality hit: parenting is hard, and it tends to bring out the best and worst in you! I began to see weaknesses in myself I never knew existed, and to realize that no parent is perfect, certainly not me, so how could I expect perfection in my mom?

Having kids and raising them with my husband helped me to appreciate everything my mom did for me and for my siblings as a single parent. Our family life may have been messy, but never once did we feel unloved. No matter what happened, my mom was always there. And even though she’s never had much money, to this day, she would give her last dollar to help us out of a tight spot. Her love for her kids is truly unconditional.

Looking Outside Yourself

According to Kathryn, an important part of the journey of forgiveness is working “to reframe your view of the [person who’s hurt you]—to see his or her side of the story.” This has definitely been part of my experience with my mom. While I’ve never walked a day in her shoes, as a child, I marveled at how hard she worked to ensure we had the best opportunities in life. I watched her fall apart, but I also saw her get back up and keep going. Also, as part of my job with a family policy group, I’ve had the opportunity to research divorced and single parent families, and to listen to the stories of other adult children of divorce through my involvement with the story-sharing community, I Believe in Love. What I’ve found is solidarity with many other women (and men) whose parents divorced and whose childhood struggles often mirrored mine.

This knowledge helped me to better understand the pressures my mom faced, and to see that many of the problems we experienced in our family—such as money problems and instability—tend to be more widespread in divorced families. Looking back at my childhood with this information helped me to see the past differently, and to view my mom with more empathy than judgment.

Embracing Forgiveness

For me, forgiveness wasn't so much about my mom saying, “I'm sorry,” as it was about her allowing me to be honest and then acknowledging my pain.

Our reconciliation did not happen overnight or in one “magic” conversation where she said all the things I needed to hear. In fact, my mom and I never really discussed that fight, and for a little while, things were awkward between us. Honestly, we just kept going until things eventually got better.

Still, I knew I needed to forgive my mom, and I discovered that forgiveness doesn’t depend on the other person’s actions as much as on our own. 

Over the years, because I’ve been more open about my feelings, she has come to better understand what I experienced as a child of divorce and how some of her choices impacted me. At the same time, through my experience of motherhood and my efforts to recognize the hardships she faced as a single mom, I’ve come to value her sacrifices and to give her the gift of unconditional love she has always given me.

When it comes to our relationships with our mothers, most of us—at one time or another—have faced a choice between remaining bitter about something our moms did or failed to do in the past, or finding our way to forgiveness. I am so thankful I did not allow resentment about my childhood to destroy my relationship with my mom because I not only would have lost a huge part of myself, but also my biggest fan and best friend.

Photo Credit: Cathrine Taylor