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 stepmother, 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 well-being 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.
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.
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. 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.
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 mothers’ 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.