Mothers and Daughters: The Tie That Binds

mother_daughter_200x300Karen always knew she wasn’t the daughter her mother wanted. She was a free spirit, a pixie-girl who loved dangly earrings, dancing wildly about the house and disappearing for hours in the pages of fantastical novels. Her mother, Irene, found Karen exasperating, like a foreign language she couldn’t begin to understand, even if she had the energy to try. So, with a cancer-stricken husband and worries of her own, Irene rarely tried.

Fast-forward 20 years, and what exists between this mother and her adult daughter is complicated at best.

“We were always two completely different people,” says Karen, now 38 and living in Dallas, says, “She’s more interested in being heard than trying to listen or really connecting with me. I think sometimes she’s just missing that nurturing gene. So over the years, I’ve learned what not to expect from her. Emotionally, she just doesn’t have it to give. It took me awhile to get to that place… you can only shed so many tears over it.”

Undeniable, Instinctive Bond

Every relationship between mothers and their adult daughters—and to some extent, fathers and sons—is a twisted cord of often disparate strings, an undeniable, instinctive bond that connects deeply. You can grow up, move away and do your best to ‘not be your mother,’ but your mother is always with you, always part of who you are.

“It’s the relationship that affects all others,” writes family counselor and author Dr. Linda Mintle, author of I Love My Mother, But… (Harvest House). “It’s a relationship that can be painful—and can bring immense joy. And here’s the really amazing thing: It affects every current and future relationship. That’s why we have to pay attention to it and make it the best we can.”

As if our own relationship future did not depend on making peace with our parents, as Christians we’re commanded to love and honor them. The Bible is very clear on the subject: “Honor thy father and mother” is not only the fifth commandment (Exodus 20:12, 21: 17, Deut 5:16), but the first command with a particular promise attached, the promise being a blessed future, a long life. The New Testament echoes the mandate in Matthew 15:3-5, with a less than happy conclusion for those who do the opposite: Death to those who curse or revile their parents. You simply can’t get more serious than that.

Large theological minds like Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible, explain: “‘Honor thy father and mother’ —This word was taken in great latitude of meaning among the Jews. It not only meant respect of submission, but also to take care of a person, to nourish and support him, to enrich (Numbers 22:17, Judges 13:17; I Timothy 5:17) And that was the sense of the law, as it respected parents.”

Whew… it’s a lot to digest, especially given the challenges many adult children face in finding some common ground on which to build a mature relationship with their parents.  ‘Honor’ sure is hard to come by when unconditional love is missing in action.

Mama Drama

“I used to think that my mother did the best she could for us,” says Colorado native, Jennifer, 32, whose mother, Patrice, married and divorced four times during Jennifer’s formative years. “But the more I understand what it means to be a grown up, to nurture the people and things I love in this life, the more I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that my mother really did what she did without much thought for her children.”

Entire books have been written about the complexities of adult children relating to their parents. The emotional variables are as widespread as the DNA among us, but most of the challenges can be traced to these common threads:

• Unresolved anger or resentment

Children of neglect, abuse, divorce and addiction often carry repressed anger toward their parents, and rightfully so. But even good parents make infuriate and frustrate their children. The high emotional intensity of the mother-daughter bond is especially ripe for anger.  But anger, if allowed to dominate your relationship with your parent, quickly leads to bitterness, which is a soul stealer.

• Unmet expectations and ideals

All parents have expectations of their children, just as grown children have expectations of their parents, and when those ideals aren’t achieved, we’re not always emotionally healthy enough to spare each other the disappointment or anger we feel.

“My mother always seemed to thrive on drama,” Karen says. “When I was single, it was ‘When are you going to try to get married, focus less on your career?’ When I got engaged, it was ‘What about your career? Are you just gonna throw all that away?’ After I got married, she was always looking for the holes in it….’”

“When expectations come head to head with reality, we experience loss,” Dr. Mintle says in her book, “[We think] ‘How could she…?’ ‘Why would she…?’ ‘I can’t believe she…!’ Our task as daughters is to accept that loss, grieve it and move forward.”

• Poor communication, lack of understanding and empathy

Once children grow up, parents often have difficulty changing gears from being the ever-present teacher to being the contracted advisor. Parents often don’t want to acknowledge their grown children’s need for autonomy and respect their rights as individuals. And because they don’t, adult children get as far away, relationally, as possible.

On the flip side, adult children often lack the maturity it takes to see their parents as people, apart from the parental role. We don’t consider their histories, their cultures, their generations, their feelings and—driven by our own emotional connection to them—we judge them more harshly than we should.

• Boundaries that have not been drawn or respected

“All parenting should be a giving relationship, out of the fullness of the parent’s life, she gives to her child,” says Nashville-based marriage and family counselor, Betty Tyndall. “But all too often, to meet his or her own needs, the parent sticks their adult straw into the child’s juice box and sucks the life right out of their child, drawing them into their adult issues and problems. A child has neither the size nor maturity to bounce those off, or draw boundaries for herself.”

Inappropriate emotional intimacy during childhood contributes to emotional dependency later in life. Setting boundaries as an adult with an emotionally dependent parent is essential. Keeping them is difficult.

• Ongoing, present day conflict

Conflict is a natural part of growing up. It pours out of the behaviors and beliefs, the labels and loyalties (or lack thereof) that we experience in our families. But without the skills to resolve disagreements and relationship problems that arise, adults tend to avoid them. Just because you avoid them doesn’t mean the stress and tension goes away. And conflicts simply don’t just disappear over time. “Problems come,” Dr. Mintle says, “when we try to change the other person. But remember, you can’t change another person, only your response to that person.”

Defining and Making Peace

Whether your relationship with your mother is healthy, complicated, difficult or even estranged, the essential question we all must arrive at is, “How can we make peace with our mothers (and fathers) and make the most of the relationship, going forward?”

Own Yourself

Defining who you are as a person is the beginning. Decide what kind of woman you want to be, how you will and will not behave, what values and beliefs and opinions are important to you, and commit to be true to who you are as an individual.

Seek God’s wisdom and guidance in Scripture and prayer, measuring by his Word what is right for your life. Take responsibility for your own actions and feelings, don’t seek your mother’s approval or acceptance of who you are.

Part of taking ownership of your life, of claiming your stake as a mature adult, means you come to terms with the fact that relationship problems require two people. It simply cannot be ‘all her fault.’ And blame accomplishes nothing.

Communication, Conflict & Boundaries

Because we are not clones of our parents (thanks be to God), we will always have differences of opinion, values, beliefs, needs and ways of living and responding to all that comes with it. Conflict is simply part of the package, but if we work at resolution through open, honest, direct communication—with a huge dose of grace for our parents, even if they seemingly lack it for us—there is common ground worth exploring.

Even when conflicts cannot be resolved, it is possible to acknowledge the disagreement and how each person in the relationship feels and then move forward.

At that point, setting boundaries is crucial. Sometimes a mother expects more time and attention from her daughter than a daughter has to give. The goal, Dr. Mintle says, is to “come to an agreement about what is expected and then try to honor those boundaries with each other… Generally, mothers love and care about their daughters and want the best for them. They may have trouble showing love in healthy ways and may be uninformed and inconsistent because of their own problems. But usually love is an underlying motive.”

Aim for Understanding

An essential part of making peace with your parent lies in gaining the maturity to see her or him as a human, to cultivate empathy towards them. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Ask. And listen.

For family systems therapist Betty Tyndall, it’s all about the searching for understanding: “So much of our connection with our parents lies in understanding the ‘Why?’ Talk to your mother about what it was like for her when she was a young girl. Get the details. Ask the obvious questions without judgment. Get a well-rounded picture. If you’re a child of divorce, get a more objective view of your parents. In those stories, you’ll begin to understand why your parents, why your mother is how she is. And if you begin that process, you’re likely to find some grace, maybe even some accolades for your mother, as you discover what she’s been through and that you came from tough stuff.”

Letting Go and Holding On

Ultimately, we have to let go while holding on. Let go of the ‘ideal’ relationship with our mothers and fathers, those dreams of being perfectly understood and perfectly loved by our parents. Underneath that dream is our desire for unconditional, unrelenting perfect connection, but that kind of love can only be found in God. And still, because we are people of faith—children of God who are called to love and forgive and reconcile—we must take steps toward that place where we can hold on. A place of compassion and, yes, even, honor for our parents.

“I pray every day for my mother, and I call to check on her every couple of weeks. She’s 73 now.” says David, 51, whose entire childhood was scarred by neglect and abuse of every sort. “She really was and is a product of her upbringing, and I can’t change what happened to her or to me. But she’s my mother, and I choose to love her. Just like I chose to love and protect and cherish my own children in ways I never was as a child. I will never stop praying that my mother will come to know Jesus the way I know him. I never will.”