Mother’s Day

An opportunity to reflect how our mothers,
present or absent, shape our lives

The relationship with your mother has a far-reaching impact on many of the choices you have made or will make in your life. Often people don’t realize the extent to which this happens.

Here’s a list of general descriptions of mothers—which comes closest to your experience in general, growing up?

___Physically absent due to death
___Physically absent due to divorce
___Physically absent due to inability to care for child such as mental illness or addiction
___Physically absent due to work demands
___Physically present, neglectful
___Physically present, overbearing, critical or demanding
___Physically present, emotionally absent
___Physically present, unable to care for child due to disability
___Physically present, preoccupied with other activities
___Physically present, technology occupied
___Physically present, attentive to basic needs
___Physically present, attentive to emotional needs

Each of these situations has its effect on your development, no matter how well-meaning your mother was/is.

If you are fortunate enough to have been raised by a mother who was loving, kind, supportive, willing to accept you for your unique self, reading this article can help you appreciate her even more, gain some additional insights, and be more understanding of those you know who weren’t so lucky.

Because mothers are our first connection to the world and central to our physical and emotional development, the relationship we have with her strongly influences our identity, our relationships with others, and our view of the world.

In my 25 plus years of working with individuals and families, I’ve seen a variety of ways people react to and adapt to their experience with their mothers. Certainly we are influenced by our fathers, siblings, extended family, teachers and others. Our mothers however, are our most primitive exposure to the world, before we have developed language to express ourselves, or the ability to understand and make logical sense of what our world is about.

Because we are physically, mentally and emotionally dependent on our mothers for our very survival, and don’t yet have the brain development to reason, we often react based on trial and error. For example, we smile and see a positive response so we smile more; we cry and see a negative response, so we either stop crying or cry harder to see if we get a better reaction. We may cry and get some cuddling and soothing and see this as a good way to get attention, or it may lessen our need to cry, as our need is satisfied.

The following responses are some general ways we respond as children to behavior that is confusing, upsetting, or interferes with our healthy emotional development and emerging awareness. These coping mechanisms can become habitual, and influence how we react to others in our lives as adults

  • We try harder to please—since we are so dependent on our mothers for our physical and mental well-being, we may think we just need to do more to get the response we need, and are afraid not to please for fear of her withdrawing or getting angry with us. Many children react to anger as a form of abandonment and will try to avoid anything that might bring it on.
  • We create a fantasy version of who our mother is–and go into denial of the source of our painful feelings and unmet needs. This often results in blaming ourselves for having those feelings and contributes to low self-esteem.
  • We withdraw—when we feel helpless to understand how to please Mother, we retreat into ourselves hoping to avoid any further interactions that will be upsetting. Often people who do this will create an imaginary friend to replace what they aren’t getting from their mothers.
  • We form alliances with anyone who might be supportive–this can be another family member, friend, teacher, or anyone who seems sympathetic. We may or may not try to use these alliances as surrogate mothers to support us to speak up or challenge our mother’s actions.
  • We get angry or rebellious—this is a form of giving up on getting what we need, or it may be another way we try to get attention, out of desperation. Rebellion can take the form of talking back, using foul language, insults, or refusing to cooperate with any requests or demands.
  • We act out in destructive ways—this can take the form of destroying toys, lashing out physically at our mothers or other people, or even pets. It’s a sign of such extreme frustration that we feel out of control of our lives.

We can become fixated on our negative childhood experiences which will prevent us from healing and forming a more healthy and rewarding relationship with our mothers—and others.

As adults, how we can develop more positive reactions and find ways to improve or heal our relationship with our mother:

  1. Recognize and acknowledge any unproductive reactions. “Holding on to anger or resentment is like swallowing poison, hoping the other person will die.” (author unknown)
  2. Write down a description of the behaviors and attitudes you found troublesome or upsetting in your childhood. Do those same issues still exist in your relationship today?
  3. Have you taken a step back to look at how as an adult, you might contribute to the perpetuation of the dysfunction in your relationship? Some ways of doing this are by staying angry or withdrawn or rebellious
  4. Have you noticed any efforts on the part of your mother to improve your relationship? One of the most significant actions I have seen in healing relationships is this one. No matter how bad the relationship was as a child, including children who were physically and/or emotionally abused, efforts on the part of the mother to take responsibility and make changes did the most to heal the relationship. This was true even if the efforts were not totally successful.
  5. Focus on what is positive and working well in the relationship, and what else could make it better, rather than on what is wrong. This creates a more positive energy and helps eliminate negative thoughts and actions.
  6. Recognize that your mother is human, and can’t always read your mind or see into your innermost needs, even if she wants to. You may not even be able to clearly define those needs in yourself. As long has she is making the effort, and undoubtedly will slip up sometimes, recognize this and accept her imperfections as human and not a form of neglect or rejection.
  7. Have you made any efforts to sit down with your mother (or written to her) and describe what behaviors of hers have caused you pain or distress—and still do? This needs to be done in a calm and kind way, not coming from a place of anger or frustration. It’s best done by describing the effect on you–your emotional reactions and the resulting behaviors. e.g “When you criticize me, I feel hurt and diminished, and tend to withdraw (or get angry and yell back at you).”

Your childhood experiences don’t have to define who you are as an adult and in your relationships. It’s not too late—even if your mother is gone. The healing takes place within yourself, by learning to recognize your value as a unique and whole person and not the result of others’ words or actions.

If your mother is gone—or even still here, but you perceive her as unreachable, write her a letter that you won’t send, describing your own childhood experiences and how they have impacted your life. Then write a letter to yourself as an adult defining who you are as your best self, and what you need to do to eliminate your negative feelings. When you can fully recognize that your unpleasant feelings and judgments are harming yourself, and can truly let go of the fantasy that your mother will be who you want her to be, you will free yourself to be who You want to be.

“I Believe….That our background and circumstance may have influenced who we are, but, we are responsible for who we become.” –Author unknown

Next month this blog will be about fathers.

If you would like to explore this subject further, visit my website:
and check out my award-winning book on parenting: Your Living Legacy: How Your Parenting Style Shapes the Future for You and Your Child” You can purchase it through Amazon on my website or by going directly to Amazon.

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