In the old days, if you were estranged from your mother or had a difficult and disappointing relationship, the holiday might be cause for a little sadness. In the era of social media, that sadness can easily morph into despair and tears as you jealously watch women across Instagram and Facebook posting pictures and paeans to their "best friends" and "perfect" mothers.
While it must be painful for men as well, there is something unique about the power of mother-daughter relationships. They are famously complicated and intense. Our mothers are our role models for how to be a woman. They are also supposed to be the people who enthusiastically love and adore us no matter what. It's why there's a saying, "a face only a mother could love."
When women feel rejected and unloved by their mothers it is a deep, gnawing, existential pain -- sometimes dubbed the "mother wound
" -- and I've found out the hard way that there are very few people you can talk to about it, unless you want to be on the receiving end of a barrage of Hallmark cliches about motherhood that bears no connection to your reality.
Until a few years ago, my mother and I had always had a difficult and at times extremely painful relationship. Indeed, she claims I started yelling at her almost as soon as I had exited the birth canal. This is obviously hyperbole, but probably only slightly. We could not have been more temperamentally different and fought constantly.
The relationship was so tumultuous that most people -- including me -- assumed that after I went away to college it would end. It nearly did, but in my mid-20s we went to family counseling and forged a fragile peace that was threatened many times over the years though miraculously held.
But I always wanted more than peace. I wanted the "best friend" mother. I wanted my mother to be someone other than who she was. I had a deep well of resentment and pain that no amount of therapy could alleviate.
Then in 2020 when I was deep into writing a book on grace
, I had an Aha moment. I had been marinating in this idea of grace as unmerited favor -- and as a way to create space for other people to not be you, rather than demonizing or even dehumanizing them. I had delved into this topic to help myself and others cope with our toxic political era, but in the process, I suddenly saw my relationship with my mother through a different frame.
In my mind's eye, I had an image of my 20-something unmarried mother facing an unplanned pregnancy while pursuing her PhD in anthropology. My body was flooded with empathy. I thought of how she was forced into a more conventional life than she wanted by the expectations (and laws
) of society and her Catholic parents. By the time she figured out she was living someone else's life, she had two children and a husband. In another era, she might not have had either.
I realized also that throughout my childhood, she was also dealing with Olympian levels of stress as she worked as a trailblazing archaeologist and professor leading the way for future women. She was perpetually battling the discrimination and sexual harassment she and her female students experienced in an unapologetically male-dominated environment. She was underpaid and overworked. It must have been exhausting.
I could see it so clearly now: my mother was doing the best she could with what she had. No parent has a child with the intention of hurting or disappointing them; parents want their children to be happy. My mother was no different.
Once I had this breakthrough, I also realized that there are so many great things that I got from her. I inherited her adventuresome and independent spirit that took our family from Madison, Wisconsin, where my parents were getting their PhDs up to Fairbanks, Alaska, where I was raised. It was from her that I learned about feminism, gay rights and fighting racism during a time that hardly anyone I knew was talking about these things. She modeled for me the importance of standing up for other people who were being harmed, as she regularly did for her female and Indigenous students.
I ended up writing a letter to her saying (and meaning) words that were previously unimaginable: "I'm glad you are my mom. I know it's been hard, but I'm glad we never gave up on each other."
She's 84 now, and I wish it hadn't taken me so long to get to this point, but I hope we have broken a generational cycle. This problem didn't start with us. My mother had an even worse relationship with her mother than we had.
I remember one day when I was in my 20s, my mother told me that my grandmother -- who I adored and was tremendously close to -- had said something to her that was particularly cruel. I couldn't imagine my sweet grandmother saying such a thing. In fact, I was positive that my mother must have misunderstood. But when I asked my grandmother about it later, she admitted she was guilty. "Why would you say something like that?" I asked.
Looking completely puzzled she said, "I don't know."
I often wish I could talk to previous generations of my family to find out how far this cycle of mother-daughter dissension goes, because I've learned that it is often a repeating pattern
. I believe that my grandmother really didn't know why she was mistreating her daughter, because she was almost definitely unconsciously passing on behavior she had experienced.
This story does not end with my mother and me as Instagram-perfect best friends. The truth is, very few people are actually "best friends" with their parents, something to bear in mind before grabbing that box of tissues and descending into a chasm of envy and self-pity as you doomscroll through Mother's Day posts.
Rather than being wrapped up and tied with a perfect bow, this story ends with something different: acceptance and appreciation for what we did have, grace for what we did not and gratitude for the years we have left to try and live a different and imperfect story.