Like a mother bird who pushes her squawky little teen-bird out of the nest so that it can learn to fly, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that, in some way, all mother-daughter relationships are complicated…
Complicated does not inherently mean “bad.” It’s just that simultaneously, there are two different people (no matter how similar) with a lifetime’s worth of stuff between them, both trying to exist within the multifarious layers of their unique bond.
I spoke with three different women who identify their relationships with their mothers as complicated. Below are their stories.
Genevieve, 39, California
I would classify my relationship with my mom as being on the friendlier side of cordial. We hang out, have a lovely time together, but she wouldn’t be the first or maybe even the fifth person that I would call if I were having a hard time.
I had a really lovely childhood. My mom was home with all five of us kids, and she drove us to soccer practices and dance lessons. I remember sitting in the front seat and she would play the oldies station.
But as an adult, I left the religion that we had grown up in. To my mom, religion is one of the top priorities of her life, other than her family. Leaving the religion, and the community around it, was not just hurtful to my mom — she truly didn’t understand it: “This is such an incredible thing. This has brought me so much happiness.”
Overall, she was distraught. I feel like it broke my mom’s heart, and that’s… I don’t even know. It’s so sad. But I never did it to hurt her. I was just like, “This isn’t my thing.”
There were a couple of years where we couldn’t even talk about it. It was such a hot-button topic. I wanted to have a relationship with her, though, so for her birthday, I got us matching sets of stationery. I was like, “You write a letter to me, I’ll write a letter to you.” We ended up talking about everything — regular day-to-day stuff, as well as deeper issues that would be too hard to say in person. We did really well at writing those letters for about a year.
Finally, my mom and I had a big talk that was like one of those moments where you’re about to define-the-relationship with your boyfriend or break up. She was visiting us; we were in the car and she pulled over. She looked over at me, and the silence was so heavy. All the particles in the air came together. It was good. It was needed. We had been avoiding it for so long.
The end result was like, “We just see things differently and that’s okay.” But it does make me sad. It makes me feel like her love is conditional. If I were like, “Forget it. I’m coming back,” it would be like, “Oh, my gosh. Finally, our relationship can be 100%.”
She’s also referenced that talk a couple times, and it makes it clear that our communication is so bad. When she’s like, “Oh, remember what you said during that talk?” I’ll say, “That wasn’t what I was trying to say at all.” I feel like we’re speaking…not different languages, but maybe different dialects of that language. She’s speaking British English and I’m speaking American English, and there are just words that are not the same.
For a couple years now, we’ve had more of a “let’s just be friends” relationship. We avoid the deep stuff because it’s still raw. Neither of us are willing to concede our points, so we both try to keep up light conversation: “Here’s what we’re up to, here’s what the kids are doing.”
Now that I have three kids, I want them to feel like my love isn’t conditional, that I will always love them no matter what. I feel like it’s my duty to raise them with some kind of moral principle, but I wouldn’t expect them to do exactly what I did. Also, even though I feel differently about religion than my mom does, I now see the benefit of having something to cling to, that helps teach your kids. I do feel like I’m floating a little bit in that aspect, like I’m having to make this all up on my own.
When my mom says something I disagree with, I tell her, “I totally understand that’s so important to you; I just don’t feel the same.” I try to keep gratitude at the front. I feel like it was a gift to be raised with love and support, and to still have this person who wants a relationship, and that I want a relationship with her.
Frances, 32, Maryland
My mother is an alcoholic.
Growing up, my mom and I were close. She was funny and kind. We did so many things together. She was the CEO and founder of her business. My friends loved my mom, too. It wasn’t like she let us do wild things — she was just a smart, fun person to be around. My friends even called her for advice about difficult situations.
But my mom’s behavior started changing my freshman year of college. She seemed tired and depressed. She would curse at me. “Bitch” became a common word in our relationship. She’d tell my sister and me that we were ungrateful bitches.
My mom ended up going to rehab three times over the course of about four years, starting in 2009. Once was rehabilitation following a brain injury after a serious fall (she’d been drinking), which served as rehab because she wasn’t allowed to drink there. The other two times focused on her alcoholism. The last time she left rehab, she started drinking two weeks later. She’d get wasted at work; she’d drive home drunk from work; she could be erratic and cruel. I wanted so desperately to have our “normal” relationship back.
When I met my husband, and we got engaged, the first thing I said was, “How is this going to affect my mother?” She had never admitted that she was an alcoholic. That year of planning, she was still drinking, and 80% of the time she was her unpredictable, harsh alcoholic self. But 20% of the time — which was a lot more than before — she was actually her old self: supportive, helpful.
After we got married, we started spending more time together for holidays or family dinners on Sunday. And she was doing pretty well. She was still drinking, but it’s all relative. She wasn’t falling down drunk or passing out on the sofa.
Then, nine months later, I got pregnant. My husband and I looked at each other again like, “Will it send my mother off the rails?” I was always worried sick about her.
My husband and I both work full time, and both of the grandmas — my mom and my husband’s mom — said they wanted to watch our daughter one or two days a week, and could we mix daycare and them? We had a lot of family meetings about it. We knew it would be a huge savings, but my husband and I were honest: “Can we trust you with her?” We talked about it non-stop for the whole nine months I was pregnant. Finally, we all agreed to give it a try.
Flash forward: Our youngest daughter has just turned two, and our second daughter is about to turn one, and they still go to my parents’ once a week. It’s going really well. My mom is probably my kids’ favorite person in the world, and I think they really saved her by giving her something to live for. She still drinks, but she doesn’t drink when she’s watching them. And my dad’s there the whole time, too.
Our relationship will never be what it was before I went to college. She’s still someone I turn to for certain kinds of advice, like peripheral parenting stuff, but mostly, our relationship is transactional; we talk about my kids. She snaps very quickly. She has a lot of anger issues. And I would never call my mom after 5:00 p.m. because I know she’s going to be drinking.
Through all of this, I’ve realized that moms are human, too. Just because you become a mom doesn’t mean you’re transformed as a person. You just suddenly have much more responsibility.
I love my mom and want the best for her. But I wouldn’t describe her as a friend anymore. My old mom and I had a standing weekly dinner date, and we would go on girly trips together. Now we’d never do those things. I always say to my husband, “I wish you had gotten a chance to know my mom.” She was a really cool lady.
If you have a family member who is struggling with addiction, know that it’s not about you. If your family member is refusing help or is not getting better or is falling off the wagon, it’s not about you, it’s not your fault. It’s not a reflection of their love for you.
And to anyone with a difficult relationship with their mom: you’re not alone. There are so many people who do. You’re not alone, and you’re stronger than you think.
Mathilda, 34, New York
My mother and I are extremely close, and she has a big heart, but we’ve argued about everything. We’ve argued about my hair or my choice of apartment — we once got into a huge argument about Christmas tree decorations. Mostly our arguments center around my life choices, and how I’m not living my life the way she wishes I were living it.
My career is amorphous. I write about style, food, travel; I art direct fashion shoots; I have television goals. That career nebulousness is unsettling for my mom. She wanted me to go to medical school or become a doctor, and doesn’t understand what I’m doing with my life. It’s an ongoing point of tension.
Another thing my mom and I argue about is how I dress. Whenever I go home to visit her in Ghana, particularly for a wedding or someone’s birthday, she says, “You can’t wear that. People are going to talk about you.” I’ve never understood her preoccupation with the judgements others would make of me (and by extension, of her) based on my clothes. I simply wear what brings me joy.
My parents were never married, and I think part of the reason our relationship is so complicated is because every time she looks at me, it reminds her of my father and their very painful history. (I don’t know the details of what transpired between my parents; she says it’s none of my business.) I think she takes out that frustration on me without even realizing it. When I was little and would visit my dad, she would say things like, “You can just stay there. Don’t come back.” And I was like, What kind of mother says that to her child?
Something that caused a lot of strife for me is that I never knew if she was genuinely incapable of understanding my point of view, or if she didn’t want to understand.
A quote by Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet helped me get through that piece of it: “Avoid providing material for the drama that is always stretched tight between parents and children; it uses up much of the children’s strength and wastes the love of the elders, which acts and warms even if it doesn’t comprehend. Don’t ask for advice from them and don’t expect any understanding; but believe in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance, and have faith that in this love there is strength and blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without having to step outside it.”
I have always wanted so badly for my mother to understand the core of who I am. Once I accepted that she doesn’t need to understand me for her to love me — I began to find some peace.
When we’re arguing, I remind myself of everything that my mother has done for me. It’s a lot to go through within a split second, but I think the more you practice it, the more it becomes a conscious-unconsciousness. I’ve learned to just be like, “Arguing this point is pointless.” (And if I have to vent to someone later to get it off my chest, then I can.) The most important thing I remind myself of: arguing with her is not productive. It has taken me 34 years to understand how to apply diplomacy to our relationship: it’s not only about what to say, it is equally about when to let go of a point. As ridiculous as it sounds, I think I’ve been gifted with a more introspective sense than my mother, so I have also accepted that peace will not always come from meeting in the middle; sometimes the onus will lie more on me, than her, to accept or let go.
Mother/daughter relationships are definitely complicated. I mean, I love my mother to death. She’s the most important person in my life and my most profound support system, but good God: that woman has driven me through the wall and back.
Thank you so much for sharing your stories!
(Illustration by Alessandra Olanow for Cup of Jo.)