Feel like strangling your mother on a regular basis? You’re not alone. While others always seem to have such reasonable parents compared to yours, the fact is that conflict with those we know so intimately is virtually inevitable for us all. So what should we do when Mother Dearest nags incessantly, panics needlessly or expresses her opinion with all the subtlety of a weapon of mass destruction? Family therapist DR LINDA MINTLE has a few thoughts…
Ok so she drives you crazy at times, but you can work around this if you know how, says family therapist Dr Linda Mintle  |  Photo: Tonya Hester

Something profound connects a daughter to the woman who responded to her cries in the night, changed her nappies, coaxed her into her first steps, acted as paramedic, went head to head with her over a thousand teenage issues, and prayed constantly for her protection. As the daughter grows, her craving for autonomy increases, but the need for connection with Mom remains.

Ideally, this primary mother-daughter bond grows in intimacy over the years. In reality, most of us struggle to find balance in our emotional relationship with our mother.

Maturity means coming to terms with the fact that we are still our mothers’ daughters. Don’t be afraid of this thought. Being your mother’s daughter doesn’t ultimately define you. However, it does influence who you are and your choice of life partner.

Finding a balance between our individuality and our intimate connection with Mom takes some work. It requires getting a good handle on who we are in the relationship and not just focusing on how crazy she ‘makes’ us feel. In fact, it’s healthy to admit that we are like her in some ways. Maybe that’s why we butt heads so often!

The real challenge then is how to deal with our differences. How do two women, so alike and yet so unique, manage to get along? The answer begins with identity. The more we have developed our own ‘I’ and know who we are, the healthier we’ll be when interacting with our mothers. Do you know what you think, feel and believe to be true, regardless of what she says? Can you voice your thoughts and feelings openly? Or are you easily influenced by her and uncertain as to what you believe?

Many of us never really develop a sense of identity separate from Mom (or others). Consequently, we carry that undefined self into our relationships. When this happens, problems emerge. We have difficulty finding balance between who we are and the demands of others.

When a woman hasn’t developed a sense of self apart from her mother, she usually operates from one of two extremes. Either she uses distance, both physical and emotional, to cope with relationship problems or she becomes excessively close to and dependent on Mom. And the smallest conflict becomes a blow-up because she hasn’t learned to establish appropriate boundaries or assert herself in relationships.

So what does it mean to take an ‘I’ position? Simply put, it means being true to self while relating to others. You can have your own opinions and behave in ways you know to be right, yet still love and relate to other people like your mom. You decide what’s right and true for you without becoming defensive and emotional. It’s important to work on intimacy because it is every mother’s and daughter’s desire to be known and appreciated by the other. It’s also a sign of your maturity when you can think, feel and behave according to your own beliefs without just reacting to emotional triggers from others.

Our task then, as adult daughters, is to balance our need for intimacy with our need to be autonomous. As we continue to develop a better sense of ourselves, we can begin to sort out our needs versus Mom’s and be less reactive to her.

One of the greatest gifts you can give your own child is a mother whose identity is firm and certain. Today, begin to build a legacy for your children. It’s never too late to love, honour and connect with your mother. Teach by doing. Develop the ‘I’ in ‘you’, because a mother who knows who she is passes that legacy on to her own children.

10 tips for separating from mother without melodrama

  1. Don’t try to always have your mother on your side. Stop looking for her validation and develop your own
  2. Be open to your mother’s feedback. If she is giving you good advice, listen to her and be open to change
  3. Don’t underestimate your mom’s reaction when you disagree. She may react negatively to your individual expression, especially if you are breaking a pattern from the past, so be ready to feel uncomfortable. Hold your ground anyway
  4. Question your overly intense reactions. Why do you get so upset? Can you admit when you’re wrong or when she gives helpful advice? Lose that stubborn attitude
  5. Take a ‘time-out’. If, when you confront your mother, she is overly critical, verbally abusive or controlling, take a ‘time-out’ and allow both of you to cool down. Try again when you’re both calmer
  6. Deal with one issue at a time. If there are multiple problems, begin with a minor one and build success in solving it. Gradually move on to more difficult issues
  7. Express yourself in a letter. This helps to organise your thoughts and allows you to practise what to say about an emotional issue
  8. Change your routine. If you feel you need space, change your routine so contact isn’t such an obligation or expectation. If Mom asks why, tell her nothing is wrong, you just have personal things to do
  9. Decide how you feel about important issues. Think for yourself. Be honest. Don’t allow Mom to tell you how to feel
  10. Take responsibility for your own beliefs, actions and feelings. Stop waiting for her approval and don’t blame her for everything you do

And if it’s probably never going to work?

Rebecca Parry, a clinical psychologist in Cape Town, writes:

What if your mother-daughter relationship can probably never be properly repaired? Your mother may not be alive or she may be battling a difficult marriage, an addiction or a mental health condition like depression, anxiety or a personality disorder. She may be manipulative or absent in your life. This can amount to a profound sense of loss, akin to bereavement. The grieving is for ‘the mother I needed but never had’, and can occur while your mother is still living or after she’s died.

Ways to grieve the mother you never had:

  • Realise you may only be able to get ‘so far’ in the relationship
    Learn to say no without feeling guilty (and take better care of yourself)
  • Develop healthy mother substitutes
  • If your mother has died, writing letters to her can still help you come to terms with the relationship (just don’t expect a reply…)
  • Accept that your experience of your mother may differ significantly from the experiences of others in your family
  • Seek the support of a friend, mentor, support group and/or professional counsellor when you need it (eg, before spending extended time with your mother, and afterwards to debrief)
  • Enjoy life…even in the midst of a less-than-ideal mother-daughter relationship
  • Read about loss and co-dependency. Try Co-dependent No More by Melody Beattie or The Twelve Steps – a Spiritual Journey, which is a working guide for healing damaged emotions

Oh, Mother! What irked our straw poll of offspring?

…she still writes me letters all the way from New Zealand and refuses to use email even though it would make contact SO much easier!
(Phil, geologist, 58)

…she tries to take major decisions about my life even though I’m nearly 50!
(Veronica, domestic worker, 47)

…her definition of whining isn’t always accurate!
(Angie, student, 22)

…she focuses on the worst-case scenario! I know she’s trying to protect me but I’d prefer her to be more optimistic
(Melissa, fashion designer, 27)

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Want more insight?

Read I love my mother, but…by Dr Linda Mintle, a clinical social worker and assistant professor at Eastern Virginia Medical School.

Visit her website, www.drlindamintle.com  or read her blogs at www.beliefnet.com

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