Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Charlotte County
"How to Get Along with Your Mother"
Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore May 10, 1998


Mothers, Daughters
Shirley Kaufman

Through every night we hate,
preparing the next day's war.
She bangs the door.
Her face laps up my own
despair, the sour brown eyes,
the heavy hair she won't
tie back. She's cruel,
as if my private meanness
found a way to punish us.
We gnaw at each other's
skulls. Give me what's mine.
I'd haul her back, choking
myself in her, herself
in me. There is a book
called poisons on her shelf.
Her room stinks with incense,
animal turds, hamsters
she strokes like silk. They
exercise on the bathroom
floor, and two drop through
the furnace vent. The whole
house smells of the accident,
the hot skins, the small
flesh rotting. Six days
we turn the gas up then
to fry the dead I'd fry
her head if I could until
she cried love, love me!
All she won't let me do.
Her stringy figure in
the windowed room shares
its thin bones with no one.
Only her shadow on the glass
waits like an older sister.
Now she stalks, leans forward,
concentrates merely on getting
from here to there. Her feet
are bare. I hear her breathe
where I can't get in. If I
break through to her, she will
drive nails into my tongue.

The Measure of My Days
Florida Scott-Maxwell

A mother's love for her children, even her inability to let them be, is because she is under a painful law that the life that passed through her must be brought to fruition. Even when she swallows it whole she is only acting like any frightened mother cat eating its young to keep them safe. It is not easy to give closeness and freedom, safety plus danger.
No matter how old a mother is she watches her middle-aged children for signs of improvement. It could not be otherwise for she is impelled to know that the seeds of value sown in her have been winnowed. She never outgrows the burden of love, and to the end she carries the weight of hope for those she bore. Oddly, very oddly, she is forever surprised and even faintly wronged that her sons and daughters are just people, or many mothers hope and half expect that their new-born child will make the world better, will somehow be a redeemer. Perhaps they are right, they can believe that the rare quality they glimpsed in the child is active in the burdened adult.

The Bad Mother
Susan Griffin

The bad mother wakes from dreams
of imperfection trying to be perfection.
All night she's engineered a train
too heavy with supplies
to the interior. She fails.
The child she loves
has taken on bad habits, cigarettes
maybe even drugs. She
recognizes lies. You don't
fool me, she wants to say,
the bad mother, ready to play
and win.
This lamb who's gone--
this infant she is
pinioned to--does not listen,
she drives with all her magic down a
different route to darkness where
all life begins.


I hear her breathe
where I can't get in. If I
break through to her, she will
drive nails into my tongue.

There is an intensity and passion to this poem which pricks my heart and makes it bleed. The poor mother in this poem has lost contact with her daughter who is possessed with teenage madness. I don't know how many here today have experienced this kind of pain in raising their children or perhaps were on the other side fighting furiously to be free of parental controlling tentacles. Whichever side was fought on, and I'm sure some here have been on both sides, the mother-child relationship was damaged.

Many people in our society have unhappy relationships with their mother or their mother-in-law. Even if they live far away or are no longer living, these unhappy relationships persist. The mom facsimile appears as a spouse or a boss or a friend or even as a nagging voice in the head to sit up straight and eat your vegetables. Whether or not mom is still present in our outer world, mom never leaves our inner world till the moment we die. If we had a troubled filled relationship with our mother, a path to peace of mind is through learning how to get along with both the inner and outer mom much better.

The process of going from complete dependence on one's mother to becoming an independent and autonomous person who takes care of her own needs and has his own family isn't smooth or easy for most of us. For even for the best parent, knowing when a child is ready to take on new responsibilities is an uncertain call. I don't think its until we have our own children we REALLY understand how hard each decision to hold on or let go is. It doesn't happen once or twice but gradually, day by day from the time they are born. Every parent and every child makes many mistakes along the way.

Unfortunately the Victorian image of saintly motherhood still lurks in the cultural mind and smiles smugly at us from the cover of Good Housekeeping in the supermarket check-out line--like a shaming conscience. Most mothers that I know suffer from measuring themselves against the perfect mom image and then find fault with themselves. The experience is profoundly isolating because mothers are constantly comparing themselves against what other moms are doing. They know it is impossible to be perfect yet beat themselves up if they aren't at least as good if not a better mom than the one next door.

The Victorian reincarnation in the 50's and 60's fantasy of motherhood was no easier to fulfill as today's supermom image. Today's mothers have new challenges of trying to do everything their mothers did as well as hold full time income producing jobs to maintain an acceptable standard of living. Being a perfect mom is even more impossible than ever and millions of mothers will trim years off their lives and add inches to their waistlines trying to do it anyway.

The bad thing about the perfect mother myth is the children believe it and demand it of their mother. Oh, most children accept that their parents will make a mistake or two, but will not accept any mistakes in their care and nurture. Having parents that make mistakes is terrifying to a child. Because of our profound dependency as infants, our mothers were our whole world until we could crawl then walk on our own. They were our source of nourishment, comfort and care. Our mother was our God from which all blessings flowed. Managing the transition from God to fallible human being requires a child to face a crisis of faith! Few of us manage this faith crisis well.

Our culture hasn't made it very easy for mothers or children to make that transition. Rather than accepting the imperfect humanity of our mothers, we make her wrong. Society blames mothers for whatever goes wrong. Mother blaming is so built into our culture we don't even notice it, we become inoculated to it. Dr. Paula Caplan in her book Don't Blame Mother puts it this way:

Mother Blaming is like air pollution. I live in a large city with moderate air pollution I rarely notice -- until I get out into the fresh country air, when I suddenly recall how good it feels to breathe really well. My students and patients swear that getting away from mother blaming helps them breath more freely[1].

Many psychiatrists and other mental health professionals have been more than happy to lay the blame for their patient's problems on their mothers. If you want to understand a patient's pathology, invite the mother in for a visit, is the folklore of the mental health profession.

In a culture dominated by the masculine mind, the feminine becomes a grave threat which must be controlled and devalued. Freud came out of this masculine mind and was one of the first to pathologize mothers. This has continued till the present day. It is the status quo view which can be seen in a survey done by Dr. Caplan of scientific journal articles for the years 1970, 1976 and 1982. In over half the articles, mothers were blamed for 72 different kinds of problems in their offspring, ranging from bedwetting to schizophrenia, from inability to deal with color-blindness to aggressive behavior, from learning problems to "homicidal transexualism[2]."

While in extreme cases, mothers can do great damage to their children, more often than not, she is doing the best she can loving the child with all her heart. More and more we are recognizing that certain personality traits and characteristics have a genetic component to them - which puts both the father as well as the mother in the box.

There is a whole lot more to say about Mother blaming and I commend Dr. Caplan's book to you if you'd like to explore this further. I hope I've said enough to soften up any judgmental attitudes you might be holding about mothers this morning. The vast majority did the best job they could. Our job is to grow up and stop the blaming process. Dr. Caplan relates one woman's experience of becoming willing to make that change:

I couldn't sleep last night. I kept thinking about my 85 year-old mother. She's in a nursing home, and she's very ill and may not live much longer. Every time my sister and I talk on the telephone, we moan and groan, saying, "Do you know what she said to me today!? She asked me why I'd had my hair cut so short! Do you believe it? Why doesn't she leave us alone?!"

I kept thinking about the things she says to me that make me crazy, and about the things I wanted her to do that she'd never done. Then, I thought about your book, and I sat up in bed and asked myself why I always focus on the ways she failed or upset me. Why do I never think about the good things she has done for me?... I thought of all the things she had done over the years to make my life easier or to make me laugh[3].

The first step toward a healthier relationship with one's mother is remembering the big picture. She carried you for nine months and endured the birthing process to bring you into the world. She fed you and changed you often at a time not of her own convenience. Most mothers love their children fiercely. I love Florida Scott-Maxwell's way of expressing this fierce commitment to the child:

A mother's love for her children, even her inability to let them be, is because she is under a painful law that the life that passed through her must be brought to fruition.

And she is right. That maternal sense of being pinioned to one's infant never fades for her. Understanding that whatever way our mother seems to be meddling in our lives comes from this devotion to bringing us to fruition rather than our harm can help us feel that caring and commitment.

And she must learn to let go and trust the work she has done raising us. As Gilbran puts it so wisely:

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you.
And though they are with you they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
for they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
for their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you[4].

This is the painful part of parenting - allowing children to make their own mistakes and go their own way in life. To allow this to happen parents and children must allow each other to be different and choose different paths in life.

We talk a lot about respecting diversity in Unitarian Universalism as almost an article of faith. People often think of it along racial and cultural lines, as something a little outside their daily lives. The work of respecting diversity starts at home in our most intimate relationships. It means being willing to appreciate, even celebrate, the ways our children and our spouses are not like us even in ways which make us uncomfortable. There are limits to this of course but those limits are usually much wider than our level of discomfort.

This personal process of learning to respect diversity is beautifully described in the book, The Dance of Anger, by Dr. Harriet Lerner[5]. Dr. Lerner describes one of her patients whose mother was constantly interfering in her life. This became acute when the daughter had a child and grandmother came for a visit. Their conflict became particularly sharp over whether to pick up the baby when it was crying before falling asleep. The daughter, after reading the latest mothering books had decided to let the baby cry herself to sleep. Her mother was horrified and couldn't stand it. She would go in after a few minutes of crying and pick up the baby. This created a great deal of anger in the daughter and the two would fight.

Now it is tempting for us to take sides in this struggle between the mother and the daughter. If you think the daughter was abusing the child by letting it cry, you might side with the mother. If you think the mother should mind her own business and let her daughter raise her child they way she thinks is best, you might want to side with the daughter. The problem is not figuring out whether the child should be allowed to cry. The problem is in the mother daughter relationship and the lack of room for diversity. The mother can see only one way to raise a child. The daughter resists all attempts by her mother to be helpful. There is another way.

In this case, the baby is the daughter's child and she has the final say unless she is doing something which clearly endangers the child's health. And the daughter's mother has a wealth of experience raising children which the daughter would be foolish to ignore. The reason they cannot talk to each other effectively is there isn't enough room in their relationship for differences. There isn't enough room for each person to be themselves.

Expanding the room for difference in a relationship can happen in two ways. The first is by letting go of trying to control or change the other person and accepting that difference, acknowledging to the other by saying, "Let us agree to disagree." If that fails, one individual sets a boundary with the other saying, "This is my way and I will not permit you to try to control me." The second way does not judge the other bad or wrong but rather clearly chooses one's own path. It does not withdraw affection, care and concern from the other person. It simply makes a demand for more room for diversity in the relationship. And that demand is almost always painful.

It is painful because it creates separation and distance from the other person. "She drives with all her magic down a different route to darkness where all life begins." The pain originates from having our own views and ideas questioned by someone close to us. And very few if any are closer to us than our own parents or children. Expanding our capacity for diversity throws into doubt our most cherished assumptions about existence. And sometimes they are wrong and need to be cast off like an insect skin which is too small for a new, emerging idea. Splitting open the ideological skin is painful but the new roomier one is well worth the effort.

Once the daughter made clear that she would be parenting the way she thought best, the two of them were able to start a new relationship with each other where there was room for them to get to know each other in their differences. When there was more room for the differences, there was also more room for them to be similar and listen to each other. Paradoxically, by expanding their capacity for diversity in their relationship, they were able to love each other better than they had ever loved each other before.

Pat Conroy in the book, Prince of Tides puts it this way: "Since I failed to know my mother, I was denied the gift of knowing the other women who would cross my path." Making peace with our mothers and allowing them to be different from us and we different from them is of primary importance to all the relationships in our lives. The more we understand the struggles of motherhood, the more we can stop blaming mother and let her be. The more we trust ourselves and our own judgment, the more we can allow ourselves to be different from our mothers. The more we can accept as well as set limits with our mother, the better chance we have of getting along with our mothers, living or dead.

And in the process, let us remember our mother with gratitude.

Copyright (c) 1998 by Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore. All rights reserved.

[1] Caplan, Paula J., Don't Blame Mother: Mending the Mother-Daughter Relationship, © 1989 Harper & Row, NY, p.39
[2] Capan, p. 47
[3] Caplan, p. 44
[4] Our Hymnbook, Singing the Living Tradition, #715
[5] Lerner, Harriet G., The Dance of Anger: A woman's Guide to Changing the Patterns of Intimate Relationships, © 1985 by Harper & Row, NY, Chapter 4, Anger at our Impossible Mothers: The Story of Maggie."