How Caregiving Can Help Us Redefine the True Meaning of Motherhood


To me, the definition of a mother is someone who nurtures. Yes, carrying a child in your womb for months and then giving birth creates a lifelong bond, but I feel it’s the unconditional support of a child throughout life that defines this role.

Many children face significant challenges as they grow up—some more than others. Even so, when a child knows there is someone they can always count on during difficult times, as well as share wonderful times with, their development and quality of life are significantly enhanced. This nurturing presence is symbolized by motherhood, but it does not necessarily need to come from one’s biological mother to be meaningful. Each family is unique, and true mothering can be provided by a birth mother, an adoptive parent, a step mother, a grandmother, an aunt or a father.

Learning to appreciate those who mothered us during our formative years and finding forgiveness in our hearts for mothers who faltered in their duties, either occasionally or chronically, can help us come to terms with these influential relationships. This is especially important for adult children who are currently providing care for their mothers or anticipate assuming this role in the near future.

Forgiving Mothers Who Could Not or Would Not Nurture

Growing up with a mother who was absent, neglectful or abusive has a lifelong effect on a child. The cause of this mistreatment may stem from mental illness, emotional scars from Mom’s own childhood or a self-centeredness that is intrinsic to her personality. If the children of these women are fortunate, they may have found a more appropriate mother figure in another family member, a favorite teacher or even the mother of a friend. Those who were unable to find a loving person to fill this role may continue struggling to understand what it is like to love and be loved in return.

If your relationship with your mother is strained or nonexistent, it’s important to understand that no human is perfect and no parent will make the right call for their child’s wellbeing every time. Forgiveness is essential for moving on from these hurts. It could enable you to develop a mutually beneficial relationship or, at the very least, it could help you acknowledge Mom’s inability to change and allow you to set boundaries and move forward with a clear conscience.

Deciding Whether to Care for Mom

By the time we reach middle age, our mother or mother figure may begin showing signs of needing assistance. This change in the dynamic can be confusing for even the most tenderly raised adult child. For those who were neglected or abused, this change is often considered a looming nuisance.

Significant emotional challenges arise when adult children are faced with caring for parents who are controlling, abusive or downright narcissistic. For many of these people, the concept of familial duty and devotion is still deeply ingrained, but it is strongly counteracted by old, hurtful memories and feelings of resentment. The result is usually a massive dose of guilt, both self-imposed and laid on thick by the parent demanding care.

So, the question is, how much do we owe our mothers?

If your mom was nurturing, do you owe her constant care at the expense of your finances, your marriage or own children’s welfare? I don’t believe so. What we do “owe” our parents is respect if they’ve earned it. Except for the most egregious situations, we do owe them some reverence for their place in society as seniors, even if their parenting wasn’t exemplary.

I’ve gathered from reading questions written by sons and daughters on the Caregiver Forum that there is frequently an inverse relationship between how nurturing one’s mother was during one’s childhood and how much care she expects as she ages. This is, I must stress, entirely unscientific and simply an observation on my part. Yet, it does seem to me that women who have nurtured their children into and throughout adulthood and find themselves needing ongoing help generally don’t want their children to give up their own lives in order to provide this assistance.

Conversely, many mothers who were especially selfish and demanding as they raised their children often retain these traits and continue to expect great sacrifices from their grown children. It seems that because of their innate selfishness, mental instability or scars from their own childhoods, these women continue their attempts to control their kids even though they are now grown. This is where the adult child needs to set boundaries.

Read: Detaching With Love: Setting Boundaries in Toxic Relationships

Providing some type of care for our aging parents is generally rewarding and done out of love. Turning over one’s life and future to one’s parents is a selfless choice, but it is often one that leads directly to burnout and breeds resentment. The challenge is finding a balance that allows us to appropriately care for our parents while we maintain healthy relationships with our spouse, our own children and others who are important to us. In some cases, balance may be achieved by saying “no” to caregiving altogether or setting well-defined boundaries before accepting this role.

Read: Not Everyone Is Cut Out To Be a Caregiver

Do We Ever Become Our Mother’s Mother?

I frequently stress that we never become our parent’s parent. While it may seem that there are some similarities between these two endeavors, caring for an aging or ill loved one is very different from childrearing. You might feed Mom pureed food, change her diapers and handle her money during her last years. These tasks may make us feel like the roles have been reversed, and I can relate to this.

However, it doesn’t change the fact that this person is still your elder. Remember that your care recipient has a considerable personal history comprised of years of challenges, happiness, pain, triumphs and failures under their belt. This understanding can help a caregiver keep their relationship in perspective and enhance their loved one’s sense of independence and self-worth despite the fact that they are declining.

Read: 9 Ways Caring for Parents is Different than Caring for Children

Make Your Own Rules for “Motherhood”

In the end, we all must make our own decisions about what motherhood means to us and to whom we owe our allegiance. Just remember that we also owe our children, our spouse and ourselves quality time, love and patience. Juggling these emotional and practical demands is an ongoing challenge, even for caregivers who grew up with the most traditional, nurturing parents.

I believe that we honor the concept of true motherhood when we strive to do our best to provide for those who need our assistance, whether they are children, elders, ill spouses or others whom we love. Ideally, we learn from our mother’s mistakes and our own to achieve a healthy and respectful balance.

Do not forget that motherhood involves caring for ourselves as well. A true mother would want her children to practice self-care and find balance and happiness. If your mother figure is now unable to communicate these feelings or incapable of taking your needs and wants into consideration, it’s important to be your own source of maternal wisdom. Do your best to take care of those you love, including yourself.

Carol Bradley Bursack

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Over the span of two decades, author, columnist, consultant and speaker Carol Bradley Bursack cared for a neighbor and six elderly family members. Her experiences inspired her to pen, "Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories," a portable support group book for caregivers.

Minding Our Elders

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I can so relate to this. I think my mom was on hormones after her hysterectomy 45 years ago. This may have contributed to her mood swings. To this day, I still have trouble forgiving her for many things.
Well written observations. I have a 'mother' unlike most of my friends' mothers. They cannot even relate to what it's been like with her. My husband and I got married twelve years ago and at the time we began seeing each other, I was not in contact with either of my parents. They were enraged because my brother had confided in my about his very complicated divorce plans and had sworn me to secrecy. The information was not mine to share. He wanted to get through it completely before telling either of them - because they are not supportive in any way usually, being self centered - and he is the type of 'avoid'. Anyway, when they found out later (he told them!) that I had known, they were made enough at me to say they were going to write me out of their will (this is the second time by then!) for such a heinous infraction. They simply believe they are the center of the universe. Both are NPD but my mother is particularly nasty to me. I am the classic scapegoat and we have always had what I now see as a very competitive relationship, not a normal mother-daughter-where-she-does-the-nurturing kind. I was very close to my paternal grandmother, who lived very nearby and she really was my role model 'mother' person. My mother saw that bond early on, I think, and was so jealous of it that when I had my first daughter (I am also the oldest daughter and first of five kids) she really did set out to alienate my daughter from me, in revenge for my closeness to my grandmother. No one would really believe all of this unless they lived something like it. My husband, thinking when we began dating, that it was not right to not speak to your parents urged me to rekindle a relationship. I tried - again - for him. I was in my heart before that sure I was ready to be done, but he convinced me and I thought that I had perhaps missed something. All these years later, he (a very dutiful and loving son to his now deceased mother with whom he had typical struggles growing up, etc) says that my mother is by far the worst person he has ever met. He says she is evil! She is.
So! Where we are today - I again had no contact with my parents. I tried for years - again - and even my dad would say to my mother that there is no way to move forward if we can't put 'the past behind us'. What my dad won't acknowledge is that he married a woman incapable of really being loving. And her focus of disgust and anger is me; it is easier for her to look herself in the mirror if she can justify that it must be MY fault because she can tell herself she gets along fine with everyone else. She doesn't. And she is calculated about where and how she expresses her vitriol so there is 'plausible deniability' on her part. My only saving grace is my faith. I believe you have to do the 'right' thing whether it's easy or not. Boundaries to my mother are unacceptable. NOBODY tells her how it's going to be. There is huge punishment for it that will not abate unless she can break you. And she cannot break me, so I am done. If she needed care in a nursing home, or otherwise, I would see that she got it. I would make sure she was clean and dressed and no one was taking advantage of her. I also would rarely visit her. I have 'forgiven' her for myself, not for her. She doesn't want to think she needs any forgiveness. After all it is my fault, all my fault.
My own daughter has many of her traits. So did her father, from whom I am divorced. It is not uncommon that with this primary relationship (with one's mother) being verbally and emotionally abusive, when marrying especially when you are young (I was 21 but dated him for four years before) that a person will recreate that bad relationship in an attempt to 'fix' it. Divorce then has it's own set of awful consequences, especially from a person who was abusive during the marriage. They certainly are not going to become less demanding and nasty when it is no longer all about them and you are no longer a doormat! It is what my counselor years ago called 'sins of the father', as in the Bible. We recreate these patterns for generations IF we don't 'get it'. Well, I got it, but not before I had three kids. My daughter would seize on everything being my fault too - it's what she heard from her dad and my mother all her life and I loved her so much, I apologized repeatedly for putting her through the divorce. It is a complicated and sad mess.
I do have one grown child, a son, who get it. He too has found peace, waited till his 30's to marry and married a girl who he share faith with, who is loving yet firm and honest about her feelings and boundaries, and with whom I share wonderful times. They have a sweet new baby so we can truly enjoy the pleasures of grandparenthood in a very normal way. I am married now to the love of my life.
My son and his wife want us to eventually move closer (we live out of town). They have expressed not only do they want to see us more and have us able to see our grandchild more, but also want to look out for us when we are older. It is what family does. My husband and I have made plans as thoroughly as possible for our care and finances so we won't be a burden. I have the huge blessing of being married to a man who loved and respected his mother and also the huge blessing of having such a son. We cannot re do the past but thank God my one child has chosen to truly grow up and not stay stuck in blaming or thinking that parents continually are expected to meet every need and desire or take the responsibility for disappointments in life. I am confident that whatever comes our way, we will move forward as a family and work through things 'together but separately'.
But let me say, having NPD parents is a lasting legacy that truly cripples a family and from which many do not survive in a healthy sense.
MikeGood, I have to say, I have been on hormones and it is NO EXCUSE for that kind of bad behavior.