After all I've done for my mother, I'd like to strangle her!

I realize how much of myself I sacrificed, and I'm furious.

Published September 20, 2006 11:00AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

My mother and I have always been extremely close -- maybe too close. I was always the good daughter and never had a day of rebellion, even in my teens. But lately, after a whole lot of therapy and meditation, I've gotten in touch with a well of anger toward her. I've come to recognize her fearfulness, her neediness, and how I crippled myself to try to keep her safe.

Now when I'm around her I'm miserable. I'm furious. I think hateful thoughts.

The problem is, I love her so much. In many ways she's remarkable for her age, bright and funny and loving. She's in her 80s and still great company. She still thinks we're perfect best friends.

My boyfriend keeps urging me to talk to her about my resentment, but I cannot see what that will accomplish. It's not what she does that bothers me; it's who she thinks she is. It's her whole stance in the world. It's not like there's some behavior I can ask her to change. It would only hurt her if I bring up her character flaws. She is who she is; she meant well. What's the point?

But I'm stuck with this sickening resentment, trying to act like everything's OK, and it's tearing me apart. I'm also very aware that she's getting older and who knows how many years we have left together? I can't bear to think that our relationship will end with my feeling this way.

Got wisdom?


Dear J.,

Indeed, what would be the point of getting into it with her?

I think the saving grace in all of this is that you already have wisdom to spare, you can see what's going on, and you're going to get over this difficult period. This anger will pass. It is the price of recognition. You will move through it.

But let's say that yes, right now you do feel this dizzy displacement, this fearful disappearance of self, this hollow vertigo when you see your mother because you did put yourself aside when you were very young. You did try, in your own childish way, to shield her from the threats you perceived. And you did wake up later and ask how you could have possibly spent so much of your precious self in that way. And now you are full of anger about having done so.

And rightly so, in a way. Because what does the anger do? How does it help you? It feels powerful, does it not? It feels righteous. It feels as though finally some authentic self-protective impulse is at hand, finally some authentic feeling of self-love is here, finally you are not putting yourself meekly aside to see to the needs of your mother. And so it feels good.

And perhaps you would like to share this feeling with your mother. But these things that happened are invisible to her, and they happened long ago. If she failed to differentiate her needs from yours, if she siphoned off some of your youth to feed her own impossibly needy pit of lifelong yearning, then that is done. Even if in doing so she failed in the most basic of ways to care for you as a mother, failed even to recognize you as her daughter and respect you for who you would become and see you as you deserved to be seen, which is evidently not the case, still: That is all in the past. It is probably too late to bring it to the attention of your mother and get some kind of understanding about it. Moreover, she probably does not have the vocabulary or the frame of reference for such an understanding. If she is self-involved and unaware of how others perceive her, that is not likely to change at the age of 80. So having a reasoned conversation with her about how her parenting style influenced the pattern of your emotional development is a rather remote possibility -- and if you attempt it, I would think it would bring nothing but frustration and confusion.

Here are some things you might do, though. You might tell her some of the things you actually did back then to protect her without her knowledge, if you can think of them. What did you do? What did she fail to do, and how did you step in to help? It will help you to think of the specific things you did. It will also tend to make specific her failings. Did she fail to pay the bills? Did she embarrass herself? Did you stand between her and an abusive spouse, placing your fragile body in front of possible blows? If you can identify the concrete things you did for her in this phase of being protective and split off from your own needs, you can then tell her: When I was 5, you might not remember, but I ... helped you take a bath when you were too depressed to move, or ... when I was 16 and you were poor after the divorce I cooked dinner for the others every night for a year.

You might tell her these things. She might not hear it. She might not thank you. But at least it is a way for you to discover those positive and esteemable things you did do at that time, and to declare yourself in front of her -- without accusing her, without dragging her into a discussion, without letting your anger seep out in subtle ways that simply fill her with baffling woundedness.

Doing this may also help you to see that this was not just a twisted codependent relationship but a situation in which certain concrete and necessary things had to be done, and you, though a child, stepped in to do them.

Many times, through no fault of the parents, children undergo trauma and stress or have to step in and play adult roles they are not emotionally prepared for. To lump all that in with bad parenting and codependence sometimes, I think, distorts, or pathologizes, actions that are actually heroic and inventive and truly marvelous. Children perform these things; they save their parents. They do not receive credit, of course, and later they resent their parents. But if you consider how you selflessly looked after your mother during difficult times, you may find that you were in fact a heroic and resourceful child.

That is the benefit of trying to focus on the concrete, rather than on these feelings that have erupted. The feelings are good. They are authentic. But you do not need to share them with your 80-year-old mother.

She is just a mirror now. That is the process you are going through. So what would be the point of shouting at a mirror, complaining to a mirror, asking the mirror to change?

No, just go look in the mirror, a real mirror, and look for your mother there. Look into the mirror and see if that's not your mother staring back at you. Are you angry at her for being who she is? Can she help being who she is? No, not anymore than you can help being who you are.

Look in the mirror, find your mother there, and forgive her for being who she is.

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