“We come to love not by finding a perfect person, but by learning to see an imperfect person perfectly.” ~Sam Keen
Like so many of us, my relationship with my mother throughout my life is best described as complicated.
We’ve had our fair share of turbulent times in our journey, and her alcoholism and drug abuse while I was growing up fueled great dysfunction on every level: literal physical fighting when I was a teenager (yep, Jerry Springer-style), seemingly continual acts of rebellion, a total lack of understanding, deep mistrust, unwillingness (or likely even an inability at the time) to change, and ultimately a total separation when I was thirteen years old that would take decades to shift.
Today, I’m forty-eight years old, and my mother and I have been rebuilding our relationship for over twenty years.
I deeply acknowledge how her decision to get sober and stay sober in 2001 laid the foundation for me to develop the willingness to try and have a relationship. To get to where we are today has required a lot of deeply personal internal work for me, and it is my hope that by sharing my story, you may feel hope and even inspiration on your journey.
My mother was just twenty years old when I was born, and by the time my sister was born two years later, my parents were already divorced. My mother grew up in fourteen foster homes and became the first cycle breaker in our family by deciding to walk away from the system at eighteen and not seek contact with her family. (It’s so clear to me now how truly ill-equipped she was to be a parent.)
My sister and I lived with my mother, and we saw our father some weekends but there was never a consistent schedule, as consistency wasn’t a word that could describe any part of our childhood. I lived briefly with my father when I was five for one year, and my sister stayed with my mom.
Because of the inconsistent contact with my father, over the years I idealized him and his life, which was often a bone of contention with my mother.
By the age of thirteen, I had grown extremely tired of life with my mother and fantasized daily about creating a new one. After a particularly awful experience where she came to my school drunk and dragged me out of the school dance by my hair, I decided to take action and to seek refuge for me and my little sister by living with my father an eight-hour drive away (my paternal grandmother helped to facilitate this).
When we left my mother’s house, we didn’t have any contact with her for a few years. She moved away from California, and I turned my focus to my new and exciting life with my father. Boy, was I in for a surprise and more excitement than I could have ever wanted!
My father worked in the blossoming tech industry when we moved in with him in Southern California in 1989. He had a house built for us in a swanky new development, and at first, it really felt like life was taking a turn for the better.
Until it wasn’t. It really, really wasn’t.
One fateful day, my father went out for a haircut and didn’t return for three days, leaving us with our stepmother, who never wanted kids or for us to come and live with them. When he returned, he was disheveled—no haircut—and extremely quiet.
Through the angrily clenched teeth of my stepmother’s whisper in my ear, I found out that my father was a barely functioning drug addict who enjoyed cocaine, heroin, and eventually to his demise, crack cocaine (crack is definitely whack).
As my grandmother would say, we jumped from the frying pan into the fire, and after living with him for not quite two years, he committed suicide when I was just fifteen. Since we had no relationship with my mother and didn’t want one, my paternal grandmother graciously took us in, and I again turned my focus to starting a new life.
At the tender age of sixteen, I decided that both of my parents were losers and I only wanted to move forward with my new life with my grandmother. I turned my focus toward school but made plenty of room for recreational drinking, experimenting with LSD and mushrooms, and going to metal concerts in the Bay Area.
I went off to college at eighteen (with a decent GPA, considering), the first in my immediate family to do so, determined that I would be the next cycle breaker by being and doing better than where I came from.
Until it appeared that I wouldn’t be or do any better.
I got unexpectedly pregnant with my son when I was twenty (just like my mom) while in college, and this news was not well received by my grandmother, who “thought I was going to be different.” I was still determined to break the cycle, and my grandmother’s comment would fuel years of overachieving in an effort to prove myself (my story of incredible burnout is one for another day!).
I extended a tentative and boundaried-up olive branch to my mother, allowing her to come to the hospital when my son was born as long as she was sober (amongst other rules). It would take another four years, a second child for me, and a fateful DUI for her to choose sobriety. This was the fragile beginning of deep healing and transformation for me that would take many, many years.
“As traumatized children we always dreamed that someone would come and save us. We never dreamed that it would, in fact, be ourselves, as adults.” ~Alice Little
I can share four things that I did (and do) that helped me to come to the place where I am able to have a positive relationship with my mother after all of the dysfunction that defined our relationship for most of my life.
1. I looked at pictures of my mother as a child and committed them to memory.
Seeing my mother as a child helped me to view her as more than just my mother. I looked at photos of my mother when she was younger and imagined the trauma she experienced as a child and how much pain and suffering that little girl endured that affected how she evolved into an adult and a parent.
This practice gave me insight and helped me to develop compassion for her and her journey.
I learned that I had the ability to consciously choose another perspective, another way of looking at her. Picturing her as a young child and thinking of the experiences she has slowly shared with me over the years gave me a new light and new eyes with which to see her.
I still use this practice when I need to cultivate compassion for her, as we are not in the same place when it comes to our healing journeys, and sometimes I need this reminder when I interact with her.
2. I made a conscious decision to let go of my story about the mother I wished she was and my victim mentality around my childhood.
First, I had to become deeply aware of the story I told myself about my mother and my childhood. Writing in my journal about it helped me the most, knowing that this was my private and sacred place that I didn’t have to share with anyone if I didn’t want to.
I asked and responded to questions like “Who is my mother to me? How do I feel about my mother? Who did I wish my mother to be? How do I wish things were different when I was growing up? What were the best parts of my childhood? What were the worst parts?”
Once I developed deep awareness of my thoughts, feelings, and perspectives on my experiences, I made the conscious decision to let go of the story of the mother that I wished I had and how I felt like I was dealt a terrible hand in the parent department. I consciously decided that I was not a victim of my childhood, nor a victim of my mother. I embraced and eventually accepted that all of my experiences helped me to be who I am today.
On my spiritual and healing journey, I discovered that some people believe we actually choose our parents before our souls incarnate into this life, and that we choose the parents that can teach us the most in our lifetime.
This idea helped me to look at my mother and my childhood in a different way. I now deeply know that she is the perfect parent for me because I have never liked being told what to do, and she was absolutely the best at teaching me what I didn’t want so I could forge my own path (she always did say when we were kids that “I’m a warning not an example!”).
3. I let go of the expectations that I had created for her as a mother.
Society, family, the media, and movies all paint pictures for us about what parents and families should and shouldn’t be. We are both subtly and overtly programmed with certain expectations for how we and others should be and should behave, especially in specific roles, like that of a parent.
I realized by looking deeply that I had a lot of expectations for how my parents should be that were not realistic and not even fair given who they actually were. Recognizing my expectations and making a conscious decision to let them go allowed me to create space for my mother to just be who she is without me getting disappointed when she couldn’t be or do what I wanted her to.
4. I created boundaries for myself for our relationship from a place of love and compassion for both of us.
I looked deeply at what I needed as a conscious adult to have a positive relationship with my mother, and I created boundaries to support myself. It was important to me that these boundaries came from a place of love and compassion for the both of us, with the intention to keep our relationship positive.
One boundary that has really helped me with our relationship is to be mindful of what we talk about and how I choose to respond.
We don’t often share the same views on politics, for example, so I’ve set the boundary that we just don’t talk about this. If she happens to say something political that I don’t agree with, I usually just don’t say anything, as it’s really not that important to me to die on that hill (and I try to find a kind way to shift the topic of conversation without engaging).
My mother feels differently, but I believe that she still has deep healing to do around the trauma she experienced as a child. This topic has become a boundary for me because we are not yet in the place to have deep conversations about this, and that’s okay. I’ve accepted that we can’t go there right now (and maybe never will), so I choose to let it go.
It also helps me greatly to remember that we are all doing the best we can with our current level of consciousness, and that no matter where we are in the journey, there is always more to be learned. This reminder helps me to cultivate patience and grace with and around my mother (and others).
While I wouldn’t classify our relationship as perfect by any stretch, I’ve come to learn that there is no such thing as a perfect relationship, but there are times when making an effort to have an imperfect relationship is the perfect medicine for healing.