A week after my 16th birthday, my mother said she was leaving.
I was caught in a ball of confusion and hurt, split down the middle, as I teetered between the convenience of having her next door and the feeling of being abandoned, each time I exited my home.
I’ve always and still refer to my mother as a complex, unapologetic, colorful character. But I believe how we choose to frame our relationships with our mothers, the words we use, matter. Many use the word “toxic,” but I never have.
Toxic is such a harsh word, one that poisons our memories and is harmful to our own well-being and core relationships. I choose not to dwell in the negativity of the past, a past I have faced but cannot change. Instead, I have used the lessons learned and experienced to be the best version of myself to my own daughter.
Here’s how we can begin to break the cycle of the complex of mother-daughter relationship:
1. Dig deep. When we dig deep, we better understand what impacted our mothers’ lives and that their actions toward us, however painful, were based on her life experiences, not us, and the fact they never faced them. But we do have a choice and that is to change the pattern, and in doing so reflect on how that has impacted our own life. This will refresh our perspective.
2. Accept limitations. I know what it feels like when a mother makes a promise to boost her own image in the moment and continually lets you down. But I also came to know and accept her limitations—not my limitations—and manage my expectations. At a young age, I recognized and accepted Mum’s limited capacity to show affection because I knew something was lost, that she loved me, but she couldn’t express love the way my father did.
3. Encourage trust and evolution. For mothers, children need to know and trust that we’re willing to be fully engaged when they need us. Engagement where we hear and see our daughters and are open to what they are trying to say and contribute. Honest engagement is the foundation of any relationship enabling trust, clarity, and evolution; continued evolution together through the ever-changing phases of our mother-daughter relationship, as well as individually, is paramount.
4. Honoring dreams and time. Honoring my daughter’s dreams and my own makes us feel whole. I made that decision at the tender age of 16 to be involved in my child’s life, but not to control it. I have worked to create a deeper, more connected relationship by spending time with her, cooking together, sharing a meal, doing the day-to-day things, and traveling somewhere beyond our comfort zone together.
It doesn’t matter what happens in the world: she can trust that I will always make time and be the safe place she can come to for love, honesty, and advice.
5. Stop judging. What I know is “even a mother’s love can be imperfect.” We can’t judge our mothers by the worst things they’ve done, but by the good—even just bringing us into the world is something I’m grateful for. I survived my mother’s distance and turmoil because I had a strong foundation in those early years; she toughened me up for the world, and as my daughter phrases it, “I looked to the love”—the love my father had always given me, my sister, and my close friends. I didn’t always like it, but I accepted how my mother was.
My childhood shaped the person I am today. I learned to listen to both sides of a story and to have an open mind so I could navigate and flourish in the pure absurdity and beauty of life and people while finally understanding I can’t fix everything and that setting boundaries is important.
Ultimately, our mothers are flawed just like the rest of us. Mom gave me the gifts of acceptance, resilience, and the courage to honor and write my own story.
Breaking the cycle of a complicated mother-daughter relationship is possible, but first you may have to look at the story from your mother’s point of view, and if possible, ask those sometimes uncomfortable questions of who she was, is, and perhaps is yet to be. And then, hopefully you’ll find a greater capacity for compassion, love, and forgiveness—the root of our humanity.