Mother-daughter relationships are difficult. They're even harder when your mother is selfish, distant, or uninvolved. The scars from an unhappy childhood can run deep, but that doesn't mean that they have to mark you for life. Relationship expert and author Susan Forward explains in her new book, Mothers Who Can't Love, how you can forgive your mother, move on and move forward. YourTango recently spoke with Forward about her book and advice for daughters dealing with the fallout of an unhappy childhood. This is a must-read for anyone struggling to forgive and forget.
YourTango: We tend to view women (or mothers) as nurturing, and men (fathers) as not. Does this stereotype hinder parent-child relationships?
Susan Forward: I agree that there is a stereotype of the "good mother"; there's so much romanticization around the idea of "mother", and I think it starts from the [concept of] the Mother of Jesus. She was such a saintly character, and I think that has created damage to our culture. So people who have lousy mothers have a very hard time getting their head around that and do a great deal of rationalizing and a great deal of denial. When they get to that moment where they can finally say "My mother didn't love me," it's just overwhelming.
Unless you've had the experience yourself, it's hard to grasp the fact that a mother can be anything but kind and loving and nurturing and wonderful. We've done so much to protect mothers, and at the end, children get the short end of the stick.
YourTango: Are there any unhealthy behaviors that all mothers are susceptible to? What should we, as mothers, be mindful of?
Susan Forward: I don't want people to be walking on eggshells with their kids. It's gotten to be a very child-centered society, and it's a real switch from what it used to be when kids were just viewed as objects who didn't have feelings. But I think it's now become too child-centered. Especially in California, where I live, you see it all over. Children are just running the show. It's a fine line between giving them enough freedom and also setting boundaries for them — which is a necessity. A lot of people struggle with "how much is too much? How much is not enough?" and it's a seat of the pants thing. If your child is doing well in school, if they've got friends, if they are affectionate with you and relatively obedient, you're doing a good job.
YourTango: So would you say we place too much pressure on mothers to be perfect?
Susan Forward: Yes, absolutely. They load the kid up with activities, and they just want to show "I'm giving my kid every opportunity I can," and "I'm spending my life going to karate and carpooling and... what happened to my life?" The more that they sacrifice themselves, the more bitter they get and the more they're going to take that out on their kids.
I think the best mother a child can have is someone who has confidence and self-respect, takes good care of herself and does the things that she wants to. Plus, a mother who devotes all of her time and energy to her kids isn't taking care of her romantic relationship. She's not available! She's exhausted by the end of the day, and by the time it comes time to spend time with her husband, she's a basket case.
YourTango: What is your advice for mothers who recognize they're slipping into "bad behavior"?
Susan Forward: A lot of women beat themselves up unnecessarily because they think if their child doesn't excel at everything, there's something wrong with them. And what they can do is shift the focus to yourself from your kids. Do what you have to do for your kids — of course — be sure they're consistently honest and apologize for wrongdoing. But see, don't be too preoccupied. Look at the overall picture.
Kids try out all kinds of things and it doesn't mean they're going to grow up poorly. I think that you can err on the side of caution, err on the side of being a little more permissive than too rigidly strict. I think mothers can find that nice middle ground. I don't want that kid to get the sense that Big Brother — Big Mother! — is watching them. It's always better if they can make a mistake and learn from it. They'll be fine. Kids are incredibly resilient, and I'd rather have that happen than have the child be so controlled, so concerned they're going to do something wrong.
Just relax. If you have a child, and you really love that child, you'll probably be OK! I think mothers these days expect too much of their kids.
YourTango: Can you suggest any healing affirmations for working through the pain of an unhappy childhood or a mother who can't love?
Susan Forward: I have some great ones in the book. For example:
- I can stand more than I think I can. As far as I know, no one ever died from guilt.
- Be assertive.
- Feel your anger without judging it. Acknowledge you have the right to be angry. Say, "I'm really angry, and I have a right to those feelings!"
- It wasn't my fault.
Memorize these phrases, too:
- I am no longer willing ...
- I am willing ...
- It is not acceptable to ...
- It is not OK that you ...
- I need you to ...
More relationship expert advice: