Mother-daughter relationships come in many different stripes. But all have one thing in common: They involve a complicated bond.
Nothing brings this to light more than the holidays — especially if your relationship has been strained and shaky.
On Mother’s Day, in particular, it can be “hard to figure out a way to honor a mom that has been difficult,” said Linda Mintle, Ph.D, marriage and family therapist and author of I Love My Mother, But…Practical Help to Get the Most Out of Your Relationship. I spoke with Mintle for my article on mother-daughter relationships. (Stay tuned!) And I wanted to share her straightforward and wise advice.
So how do you honor your mother when your relationship is thorny?
Let’s be honest, most Mother’s Day cards are mushy, nauseatingly so. (My mom and I have a great relationship, but I find myself gagging at their sunshine-and-butterflies sentiments and sugary tone.) And you might find that no card captures what you want to say.
Mintle suggested buying a blank card and writing your own words. If your relationship is particularly poor, consider simply writing: “Thank you for choosing life for me. I wouldn’t be here if it wouldn’t be for you.”
In her book, Mintle writes:
“To honor someone means to give the person high respect. We can all honor our mother for giving us life and doing the best she knew how to do. No matter the status of your relationship with your mother, she is the one who brought you into this world.”
Mother’s Day is a time of reflection. “Rather than get[ting] lost in anger and hurt,” it can help to focus on “something that went right in the relationship.” As Mintle said, you don’t have to be dishonest, but you can “build on the positives, on the moments and memories” that were loving or joyful.
“I never discount the power of love,” Mintle added. Even if your mom “may’ve treated you poorly, if you show her love, that can move the relationship…in ways that you didn’t think [possible].”
So how do you honor your mom in general, holidays aside?
In her book, Mintle tells the story of a daughter who was able to do both: build on the positives and show her mother love. (Again, she acknowledges that this is far from easy when a mom “has hurt or failed [you] in some way.”)
Stacy had a very strained relationship with her mom after her parents divorced. Stacy’s mom blamed her daughter for the divorce, because Stacy knew about her dad’s secret affair (she’d “been sworn to silence” and her dad promised to reveal the affair). Not only was her mom furious, but she refused to talk to her. She’d hang up when she called and even refused to join her in therapy when Stacy suggested it.
When it came time for her mom’s 50th birthday party (she let Stacy come), the other siblings suggested that Stacy be the one to make the speech. It took a lot of convincing, but Stacy finally agreed, and starting writing her speech.
“So she thought about her life and the role her mother had played in it thus far. Prior to the divorce, her mother had been extremely devoted to the family. She laughed, played games, and took time to be with her children. Stacy had many fond memories of vacations, fun days, and her mother being by her side.
She thought about her mother’s secret desire to be an artist and how she had talked about pursuing her art when the children were grown. […]
Stacy began to write about her mother’s influence in her own love for art. As Stacy thought about the things her mother did to impact her life positively, the list began to grow.”
After she read her speech, Stacy’s mother was deeply touched and they were able to reconnect.
But reconciliation isn’t always possible. Forgiveness, however — which Mintle refers to as “an individual act,” and necessary in order for daughters to be healthy and to move on.
Also helpful for moving on is grieving the losses. For instance, Mintle said, if your mom has never been particularly affectionate, recognize that and grieve that loss. Then, consider “the other ways she shows love.” Even if your mom doesn’t change, is unable to express (or control) her emotions or won’t ask for forgiveness, grieve those losses, Mintle writes in the book.
“But in the process of grieving, find a way to honor her,” Mintle writes. “Honor is not about having a great childhood or about having a mom who got it all right. Honor is about gratitude and respect for the difficulty of the job.”