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Although it is becoming less taboo to admit, most adults still find it difficult to accept the repressed hostility we carry toward our parents.
The inner conflict starts in childhood, when while seeking exclusive love and undivided attention that no human parent can provide, we may feel rejected. This can cause hatred, resentment, and aggression toward the people we depend on for survival and whose love we crave.
This then causes guilt because we are taught that it’s bad, wrong, and sinful to hate, particularly our parents whom we are supposed to love and honor. Ashamed of these taboo emotions toward parents, we repress them in our subconscious, where they fester, causing all sorts of problematic manifestations throughout life, including expectation of punishment and denial of pleasure.
For me, it is precisely by diving into my own conflicted feelings toward my mother that I finally discovered the love I craved.
I recently traveled to spend some quality time with my 78-year-old mother.
Last time we properly connected was five years ago, when we spent a summer holiday together with my daughters. It was a rare and memorable occasion when we truly bonded. I felt seen and understood by my mother, and cried with sadness when she left.
Since then, we lost that connection, which hurt me. My mother, returning to her natural habitat, also managed to return to the judgmental, critical, old-fashioned woman whose imprint on me I’ve been fighting for most of my adult life.
Last year, when reacting to some of her words that I found to be shaming, I allowed myself to feel deep, thick, delicious anger. Maybe it was hate. My body broke out in a rash, as my whole being unleashed the poisonous emotions I’d suppressed for decades.
Hating my mother felt good. It felt like a relief. It was freeing.
My mother’s judgment displayed a shocking inability to understand me or my situation, and felt like a betrayal. I indulged in my anger, and it felt cathartic. A week later, after going through many layers of darkness, pain, hurt, anger, and frustration, I unexpectedly found stillness. Then peace. Then clarity.
My rash cleared up on its own.
So now, a year later, as the day of my trip approached, I was able to access a deep well of love. No longer polluted by suppressed anger, my love felt clear, compassionate, and grateful. Learning to validate my own inner child, I no longer needed validation from my outer mother. By reparenting myself, I was returning to my mother as an adult, with no demands or expectations. Or so I thought.
The first few days, as we were getting used to being together again, I found myself vigilantly watching for all the signs of her behavior that would explain my childhood wounds.
Within the first week, I snapped at her. I completely forgot all of my own teachings on nervous system regulation. The reaction was so quick, so automatic, so old, my inner child took over and the adult me had no time to redirect it.
The subject was food, which has been the source for power plays between us for as long as I can remember. My nervous system activated and I spilled my inner poison on her. The energy in motion that is our emotion needs to be discharged. When we learn to release it regularly through self-soothing practices and non-violent communication, it does not accumulate into a volcano that bursts out of us one day with force and violence.
But even with regular practice, I wasn’t able to catch it this time.
Processing what happened, I was able to see that the burst of spilled emotion had much more to do with my own inner processes than anything my mother has done. In fact, after I calmed down, I was able to see that her behavior was motivated by love only. The way I interpreted it was me being stuck in the wounds of the past. Now I had to act like a grown up and apologize.
Relating to my mother is easier when I act not only as her child, but a grown up, too. I can be more gentle and compassionate when I remember that I am also a mother. And that sometimes I’m not ready for a conversation that is difficult in the moment when one of my daughters needs to have it. So if my mother could not meet me where I wanted to take our conversation, I would try to lay off and let her be.
My mother is not me. She doesn’t think like me, doesn’t feel like me. Many subjects I’m passionate about are incomprehensible to her. Relating to my mother is an exercise in letting her be who she is, rather than demanding that she be who I need her to be.
What motherly love means to my mother may be different than what motherly love means to me when I relate to my own daughters. But that is of secondary importance. What I am working on right now is expanding my heart to include all of my mother—things I find easily lovable and things I find harder to love. I’ve been practicing this acceptance toward myself, my children, and my husband. I am learning to love people in their entirety, in the wholeness of who they are.
Relating to my mother is an exercise in letting her be who she is, rather than demanding that she be who I need her to be.
Dehumanizing other people into acting as our need fulfillers is such a habit. I remind myself regularly that she is not “mine,” as I learn to love her for the separate being that she is. An imperfect, traumatized, messy human—just like me. As an adult, I don’t need her to be anything other than who she is.
This requires me to step into the full range of who I am, too. When I engage with my mother as her child only, there’s a long list of grievances, but when I relate to her as a woman and a mother myself, there’s access to compassion and understanding of the complexity of this human experience. With that comes softness and acceptance. And love.
Spending time with my mother felt bittersweet. There was sadness and there was sweetness weaved together all the time. At first, I kept trying to have a conversation to get to a depth I needed to connect, but she either could not focus or it got interrupted by some banality every time. On a few occasions, spontaneously, we’d share a spark of connection again.
Toward the end, I let go of my agenda and just being together became enough. Walking, sharing a meal, playing a game. Sometimes we were in different rooms, but knowing we both were there, under the same roof, was reassuring.
Three weeks together flew by. And yet, there was enough time. I left my mother with a feeling of satisfaction and peace. And gratitude, because although it wasn’t always perfect, it somehow ended up perfect just the way it was.
The most pronounced realization I’m left with is how much love is available underneath the grievances, the blame, the guilt, the wounding. When we dare to return, to repair, to try again, to talk it through, that heavy layer of pain lifts and what remains—what is always there, waiting, available—is love.
In the end, I did not get to have many deep conversations with my mother. Not the way I intended. I did not have a chance to tell her my stories of rising from the ashes and what it cost me. I wanted her to know me, see me, be proud of me. She could not always focus, would dissociate, or couldn’t remember some important pieces of information. But through it all, I was able to connect to something more than her pride and validation.
She does not need to know the intricacies of who I have become. She loves me already, and she loves me regardless of anything I have accomplished or achieved. She loves me just because I am.
At nearly 57 years of age, I finally find myself feeling securely attached. I no longer need to be anyone or anything other than who I am in order to feel love.
I just need to remember that I am a grown up now and can remain open to receive.
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