Let’s say you are deeply disappointed in your mother, who never was the mother you needed her to be when you were a child. You want to get past this because, after all, you’re not a child anymore, right? The story, as you tell it, goes like this:
My mother divorced my father when I was young and she had a series of relationships with men throughout my childhood. None of them were any good. They were drunken, violent louts. Nonetheless, she always chose them before me. She would do whatever they said and moved me in and out of different homes before she really knew any of them. None of these men wanted me around and I got the feeling my mother didn’t, either. I was just an inconvenience to her.
This is a heartbreaking story that is all too common. If this happened to you, the effects go deep and can persist a lifetime. You would really rather they didn’t. What can you do to let it go?
Here’s a place to start. Stop calling her My Mother. I don’t mean you have to stop calling her My Mother or Mom, or Ma, to her face. Nor, do you have to renounce her forever. She still is your mother. I mean, when you tell the story, refer to her by name instead of title. If her name is Alice, call her Alice.
My Mother is a being who came into existence when you did and exists only in relation to you. Alice was born long before you and has a life distinct from you. My Mother is so close to you that she’s an extension of yourself and you’re an extension of My Mother’s self. Alice is another person. You can connect as an equal to someone named Alice in a way you can never to My Mother. When Alice chooses the company of men over you, it might hurt a little, but when My Mother does it, it’s catastrophic.
It was catastrophic when you were a child, but you’re not a child anymore, so it’s not, not anymore. Now it’s as if someone named Alice did it.
Some people resist this exercise because they think it is disrespectful. I think it’s more respectful to understand someone as a whole person, independent of yourself, who is trying to play with the hand she is dealt.
The second step is take a look at Alice’s life, from the beginning to the end. Tell the story from her point of view; the whole story. How was Alice’s childhood? What were her parents like? How might Alice have been shaped by her relationship with her first husband, George, whom you know as Dad? What were the social and economic forces of her early adulthood, the period of time when you were a child? What were Alice’s dreams and aspirations?
I’m often amazed by how little adult children know about their parents, except the parts that directly pertain to them. You may be able to ask her to tell you these things. If not, then guess. You will probably be right. You probably know more than you know you do.
I’m going to go ahead and guess that Alice’s dad, your grandfather, was distant, hard working, but emotionally unavailable. A lot of fathers were, in those days. When she was a kid, Alice dreamt of going to college and traveling around the world, but she got pregnant in high school and married George, your dad. That’s what people did those days when they got pregnant. Shackled with a kid, little education, and in a shotgun marriage, she didn’t have a lot of choices. George had no respect for her and, when she never lost the weight she gained in her pregnancy, he ran off with his secretary. Now, she was really screwed economically and worried about raising her child without a male role model. She started to date, to find a man who would support her and her child. The prospects of an out-of-shape single mother in the marriage market were not good. She soon found herself scraping the bottom of the barrel. No matter how much she might have loved her child, she regretted ever getting pregnant.
See how different the two stories are when you are not in the center of it? You are seeing the context. You could conclude that she did the best she could. Maybe not. You could still be angry with her. That’s your prerogative, but now it’s an adult being angry with another adult, not a child being angry with his mother.
The third step is to calculate how old Alice was at the time in question. Let’s just say she was twenty-five. Now, look around at the people you know who are twenty-five. How mature, wise, and altogether are they? Some are, granted, but most haven’t got all the kinks worked out. Twenty-five year olds might actually be younger than you are right now. If that’s the case, then remember how much maturity, wisdom, and know-how you had. That’s what Alice had to work with. Now calculate how old you were at the time. Let’s say eight. Look at eight year olds you know today. How much maturity, wisdom, and understanding have they? Do you really want to look at the situation from an eight-year-old’s point of view?
It’s impossible to gain any of those insights about My Mother but entirely possible with someone named Alice.
You can use this method with all the disappointing people who have titles in your life: husband, wife, sister, brother, friend, leader, colleague. When you are no longer at the center of the story, blocking the view, you are better able to see and, if appropriate, genuinely forgive.