My Relationship with My Mother is Strained, But I Wish it Wasn't

Kerry Kerr McAvoy

Photo by August de Richelieu from Pexels

I watched the cars pass and the mile markers whip past my passenger window. I’m heading home after visiting my mom. Each second takes me farther away from my hometown and from her.

These days, I don’t see my mom often. Maybe once a year, maybe less. Her age makes it hard for her to travel. It’s expensive for me to visit a rural area far from a metro airport. I don’t know when I’ll be back this way — when I’ll see her again. This thought makes my chest ache.

The thing is, we could be overcome these issues. If I’m honest, they’re just convenient excuses. Distance or age isn’t the reason we aren’t closer. It’s something else.

This visit didn’t go well. Her disappointment that we’re not closer oozed into our time together.

The truth of the matter is that, despite our efforts and best intentions, my mother and I have a strained relationship. Something important, maybe even precious, is missing. It’s a hollow ache that blooms in the center of my chest. It’s a familiar throb. A hole.

I have a name for it: unconditional love and acceptance.

While going through some of my grandmother’s things, my mom found a nearly one-hundred-year-old handwritten note of her mother’s.

Money had been tight back then. My grandmother, a teenager at the time, boarded with another family, and earned her keep doing household chores. The work took too much of her time, making it nearly impossible to study. Her grades were suffering.

My grandmother began the letter with an apology. I don’t know as I could say all I want to and say it decent. I never seen it before I guess as I see it now that I have really been mean you might say or as ridiculously sassy…I’m sorry beyond words I have been so.

The use of “mean” or “sassy” to describe my grandmother is ridiculous. A highly moral woman, she never uttered an unkind word or said something in a fit of anger. Not ever. Yet she starts this letter by ingratiating herself with her mother. Why?

Then she made an indirect request, hiding it in a rhetorical question: Why do I want to stay away from home and go to school and spend one year of life and then fail for? I’m at ends what to do. You folks have done what you thought best, of course.

There was my answer — my grandmother wanted to come home. She owned her mother’s poor opinion of her in the hope that she could garner her mother’s sympathy and be allowed to come home.

But, the letter didn’t change her mother’s mind. History tells me the reply was, “ No.”

This letter reveals a long legacy of broken mother-daughter relationships. My grandmother hadn’t been loved well by her mother, and subsequently struggled to love my mother well enough.

And like her mother before her, my mom loved me the best way she knew how — what she’d learned from her mother. Like a reflection of a mirror within a mirror, stretching into infinity, each woman raised her own children in a busy-with-too-much-of-life kind of way. Any neglect was accidental.

Yet each of us seems to have felt the same insatiable hunger. A desperate ache for maternal love. Despite each woman parenting with the best of intentions and to her greatest abilities, a key emotional component has been missing. I see its absence in my mother and in myself.

Many mothers and daughters enjoy a special kind of camaraderie in their relationship. They find reciprocal, mutual joy in each other’s accomplishments. They confide in one another as friends.

I want that with my mom. Desperately so. I think she does, too.

Up until now, I’ve believed that if I healed her, she in turn would do the same for me. So I poured all the love, admiration, and support I could muster into her, hoping that this would fill her up and make her whole. I even sacrificed a bit of time from my marriage and my kids in hopes it would make a difference. I watched her do the same with her mom.

But it never worked. Each of our mother’s wounded hearts needed more than could we could give.

Was I a good enough parent to my three children? If not, it wasn’t for a lack of effort. Like each woman before me, I loved my children from that same empty place. With a hole in my heart.

I cried as I left my mom’s house. For her. For me. For my kids. How do we overcome this legacy? How do I fix the strain I feel between my mom and me, each of us wanting more than either of us can give?

I’m not sure.

Maybe acknowledging the problem is the first step. Perhaps admitting things aren’t the way I wished will provide us an opportunity to start talking. Maybe if we give each other the room to grieve what’s been lost, we can discover a way to accept the reality of what is.

I know those past moments when I needed a different kind of mom can’t be undone, but perhaps mourning their loss with her can bring both of us healing. Maybe our acknowledgment of the pain is the start of showing up for each other in a different kind of way. Maybe we can begin a new kind of legacy with a different mother-daughter tradition.

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Psychologist, Kerry Kerr McAvoy, Ph.D. writes about dating, healthy relationships, narcissism, and various other mental health-related issues. She is a mom to three grown sons. Loves to swim, snorkel, and read, and enjoys traveling. She lived in the Caribbean for two years. For her monthly letter or to listen to her podcast

Austin, TX

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