I know this is a very typical problem, but here it is: I don't like my mother.
My parents divorced when I was in high school (I am in my late 20s now), and my mom was horrible to me. She told me that she solely blamed me for the divorce. She remarried and told me her husband was more important than me all the time. She ignored me when I tried to talk to her about my feelings. She specifically said to me, "I don't care if I am hurting your feelings." She repeatedly told me that I was an awful person and that my friends didn't really like me, and that she thought she raised me wrong and that I could never be successful. After all that, she divorced her second husband recently and is trying to reconnect with me, and now often tells me that I'm the only family she has and that she only cares about me in the whole world.
She has apologized to me, and I am working very hard on forgiving her in a real sense. I was in therapy for a few years about this. But now she calls me all the time, and even if I want to leave everything behind, I still am left with the nagging sense that I don't like her. I find her racist and judgmental and superficial and really, honestly, kind of stupid. She is extremely conservative. She only cares about money. We don't share the same values at all. When she calls me I cringe at her reaction to things that I say, and I ultimately don't want to talk to her. I don't return her phone calls anymore.
The compromise I've come up with is to just e-mail her about very trivial things so that I don't have to hear her opinion about anything of significance to me and so that I don't have to experience so much of her personality by talking to her on the phone. Isn't that horrible? I just want to distance myself from her as much as possible because I think she is, frankly, lame and stupid and offensive.
But, you know, doesn't everybody dislike their mother? I don't know how to get over my feelings about her and start to develop a real relationship with her. I am an only child, so I want to have a close relationship with my parents to have the experience of a family. I have a pretty good relationship with my father, because we are more alike. I don't want to keep avoiding my mother my whole life.
Dear Mother Disliker,
It's unfortunate that your mother is the way she is. She might not always be that way. But that's the way she is now.
I don't think there's anything wrong with what you're doing. You're protecting yourself. You're limiting contact. She's a destructive force in your life and you're taking steps to limit the damage she can do. Of course this brings up all kinds of conflicting feelings. It could hardly be otherwise. She's your mother.
So we go through life trying to protect ourselves from our parents and also avoid becoming our parents. In the obvious ways we often succeed. If they are stockbrokers we can become firemen. If they are strident, we can be thoughtful. If they dither, we can take action. But our struggle to differentiate takes a paradoxical turn as we go deeper. The farther you go away from your mother, the farther you go away from yourself. The farther you go away from yourself, the more you become like your mother.
If your mother is a snarling beast, then you become quiet in response. But you, too, need the snarling beast. It's part of your birthright. Watch what happens as you find ways to avoid becoming your mother. As you perpetually turn away from her, be careful that you are not turning perpetually away from yourself. That snarling, frightening power may turn inward and show itself in covert ways.
Looking back through time, we find that each generation has turned away from the other in some way, and thus sacrificed something authentic but emblematic of the parent. Perhaps your mother considered her mother too weak and doting, so she has made sure that she is not too weak and doting toward you. She made herself tough. That kind of thing. We're oversimplifying, but you get the idea.
Also, however distasteful it may be to consider, try asking this: Is there something your mother is trying to tell you by her behavior? Is there some weakness she wishes for you not to repeat? Is there some weakness she is trying to warn you about or some lesson she is trying to impart?
We could go on. It is a labyrinth.
Basically she is not like you on the surface but neither is she the opposite of you. She is your mother, inside you and outside you; you were inside her and now she is inside you, and she is outside you and everywhere: at the liquor store, at the lingerie store. You try to move away from her but there she is at the end of the road waiting for you like an angel or a ghost or a monster.
If you back away from her, you back away from yourself; if you move opposite from her, you move opposite from yourself. So better to take her in, be larger than she is and stronger. And note this: You are stronger than she is. And you will continue to grow stronger as she grows weaker. She will decline and you will thrive, until finally you are caring for her and then she will rise again to drive you mad with her demands and her long-held recriminations!
Oh, lord. Do not think of that now. When the time comes, you will be strong enough.
Look at all the tasks before us: to cherish and develop the talents we got from our parents, shed their destructive habits and beliefs, be who we are as individuals and at the same time protect ourselves from their attacks, their subterfuges, their maddening ability to get under our skin and drive us over the edge! We ask ourselves, Are we heading this way just to go a different way? Or is it truly our direction?
How to know? We cannot see ourselves from inside. We need a witness. You said you were in therapy for a few years. Was that therapist really, really great? Were you challenged? Were you changed? Or were you drifting? There's more to self-exploration than "adjustment." There is the ecstatic quest for self and soul. You may need to restart that process with someone dedicated to helping you see more deeply, more clearly, more uncompromisingly who you are, what you need and where you are going -- after clearing your mother's image out of the mirror.
What? You want more advice?
- Read more Cary Tennis in the Since You Asked directory.
- See what others are saying and/or join the conversation in the Table Talk forum.
- Ask for advice. Letter writers: Please think carefully! By sending a letter to email@example.com, you are giving Salon permission to publish it. Once you submit it, it may not be possible to rescind it. So be sure. If you are not sure, sleep on it. You can always send tomorrow. Ready? OK, Submit your letter for publication.
- Or, just make a comment to Cary Tennis not for publication.
- Or, send a letter to Salon's editors not for publication.