With Mother’s Day fast approaching, I’ve been thinking about the special relationship between parents and their children. It can be the most positive, nurturing and important bond that a person can ever have. But, as a psychologist, I have treated many people for whom it is anything but that. This hurts; because all people crave a good relationship with their parents, and because not having one just feels wrong.
The situation often presents itself in therapy when a patient’s aging parent needs help; say, to manage the upkeep of their home or for medical issues. Often, these patients feel grateful toward their parents; even love them for their role. But they still don’t feel warmly towards them.
Some are quick to show their anger for all the things their parents did or did not do. Others feel indifference toward them. But behind those initial responses, they all feel a deep sadness. There are the unfulfilled dreams of what could have been. They long for a parent who could have understood them better, been more available, or somehow provided more of whatever it was they needed. So, these people are left with, at best, a more impersonal kind of love and a feeling of obligation or duty.
When people don’t like being around their parents, they often feel guilty about it. This can be confusing when people are sure they love their parents — even with their negative feelings. They know that they want to do their part as a child and help out Mom or Dad. But they also harbor secret feelings of preferring to be doing something else.
The short response to this dilemma is, “relax.” Satisfying your duty does not require that you like or love your parents. Even the Ten Commandments direct you to “honor” your father and mother; not to love them. So being a good person is all about how you treat them, not how you feel about them.
If you’re sweating out Mother’s Day, there are innumerable ways for you to do your duty and honor her — on this day and year ’round. Listen patiently to her advice. Do not interfere in her affairs with others. Do not sit in her favorite chair. The list goes on.
As she gets older, you can honor her by attending to her physical needs. Clean her home. Drive her places. Help her dress. When you cannot take care of her, honor her by finding someone or some institution that can. Honoring your mother in these ways shows that you acknowledge and accept her position in life.
Determine for yourself what it means to honor your mother. Does it involve changing the subject or getting off the phone when she begins to criticize, rather than giving in to verbally jousting with her? Does a weekly or monthly visit fulfill your responsibility as her child? Decide on ways you should (according to your own values) be honoring her. Then live accordingly. And please, take whatever time is necessary to recognize the ways you are already honoring her.
Regardless of the Hallmark ads every spring, most parent-child relationships are far less than perfect. So, although your relationship may be lacking, it need not leave you feeling inadequate or guilty. If you can nurture positive feelings and like or love your parents, you will certainly be better off. However, it’s possible to harbor negative feelings toward your parents and still respect yourself. So, no matter your relationship with your mother, you can live your life — and through each Mother’s Day — with your integrity intact.