I used to love P.D. Eastman’s book, Are You My Mother? The story was about a baby bird whose mother was nowhere to be found when he hatched. The baby bird wandered about, lost and alone, in search of his mommy. He hopped everywhere, asking all the animals, “Are you my mother?” The dog answered “No”. The cow answered “No”. The baby bird kept on, asking every creature if they were his mother, until he finally found his mother again.
I identified with that baby bird.
In the beginning, I adored my mother. By the end, I didn’t even like her. She meant well, and she loved me, in her way, as best as she knew how. However, my mother couldn’t stop hurting me or those close to her. She never meant to hurt anyone, but she did, many times, sometimes in ways that were life-threatening. If she could have acknowledged the pain she caused me, our relationship might have recovered. Also, if she could have acknowledged hurting people, she might have been able to stop hurting people. (No one can control their behavior if they remain in denial about it). But my mother could never admit to her limitations, because she was a proud, or perhaps haughty, woman. Because she couldn’t admit to her mistakes, she also couldn’t feel remorse. In the end, her need to feel good about herself was stronger than her need to connect with me, her only living child.
In the last years of her life, I maintained a wary distance from my mother. I stayed near enough to be in contact, and to help when necessary. But I stayed far enough away that she couldn’t inflict more pain. One of the hardest things about my situation was trying to explain it. I am a loving, loyal person. I’m as dutiful as anyone you know. I write thank you notes. I send birthday cards. I keep in touch with every best friend I ever had. It was hard to explain why I didn’t see my mother much.
I find it hard to write about it now.
In fact, this is the hardest blog post I have ever written.
I have had many clients in similar positions. Many kind and ethical people struggle to make decent relationships with their difficult parents. That struggle is noble; relationships aren’t easy, and we are often called upon to be more tolerant and patient. But sometimes the struggle is of a different intensity. Clients cry, again and again, about their wish to be a good child to a parent who is repeatedly harming them.
Some people lose parents with whom they have had toxic relationships. An example is a client who, as a boy, was terrified of his violent father. As an adult, my client stopped talking to his father, who was unapologetic and still frightening. Years later, when his father died, my client didn’t lose a father he cherished. But he did lose the only father he would ever have, and he definitively lost the possibility that his father would ever manage to be a better father to him (Read more about it here: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/hat-like-grieve-parent-you-didnt-like.) Grieving parents who have been unkind, neglectful, or violent creates a tornedo of guilt, anger, shame, and sadness.
People are not always able to be who they should be. Just because a person is a mother, it doesn’t mean they are able to be motherly. Having the title of mother doesn’t necessarily transform a woman into a maternal person.
One Buddhist concept can help immensely. Buddhists are devoted to doing no harm; they will not even kill an insect. They are profoundly peaceful people. But Buddhists also do not believe in permitting others to be violent to themselves. No violence is condoned, not even allowing oneself to be hurt, because you are also a blessed living creature. Buddhists think you have a duty to protect yourself from harm. With that principle, I felt strengthened in my need to keep distance from a mother who could not help but cause me pain.
My mother is gone now; she died two years ago. Do I forgive her? In a way, yes. I forgive her because she was who she was. I understand her background; I know how she came to be the woman she was. I know she never meant to hurt me, or my family. I understand.
But forgiveness does not mean forgetting. And forgiveness does not mean minimizing the harm caused. And forgiveness also does not necessarily mean re-establishing a close relationship. You can forgive and still be wary. In some instances, you probably should.
Some people can’t stop doing harm. They really can’t help it.
If you know someone who has a distant relationship from a parent, try not to judge. It is possible that this person is a cold, selfish person who thoughtlessly abandoned his parent. More likely, this person has been deeply hurt by his parent, and he is doing the only thing left to protect himself: keeping distance. Scratch his surface, and you will probably find a dark swirl of guilt, pain, and ceaseless second-guessing.
One of the constant refrains from clients with emotionally damaging parents is, “what will people think? This is my mother. You are supposed to take care of your mother!”
Yes, you are. But, as I remind them, your mother is supposed to take care of you first.
That baby bird in Are You My Mother? employed excellent coping skills. He stayed hopeful, friendly, and active. He didn’t mope about. He hopped up and looked for someone to care for him. He kept engaging, talking to the kitten, then the hen, asking if they would help him. This is a great strategy for people with destructive parents. Look beyond. Stay positive, and make friends. See who else is out there who might come through for you. Perhaps your mother is toxic to you. But do you have a loving aunt? A kind older brother? A caring therapist? Warm and welcoming friends? The world is full of people; some of them are overwhelmingly generous and kind.
If you can let go of the ones who can’t come through for you, perhaps you will notice all the ones who can.