Therapy is Not about Blaming Mothers

Mothers worry a lot when their  adult children begin therapy. There is a cultural perception that problems must be all mom’s fault. The truth is ALL mothers have strengths and weaknesses. We are all a mixture of good and bad in what we offer our children. Popular culture divides moms into good or bad, as if there are only two choices. I reassure a lot of young mothers or grieving mothers about the truth of motherhood, we as parents are ALL a mixture of good and bad. While we are all lopsided in some behaviors such as careful, loving or affectionate; that doesn’t mean that impatient, exhausted or crabby in the morning isn’t the other side of real parenting. It is helpful for all of us to get perspective on both sides of who our parents were to us as children.

Mothers of my clients often get very scared about what will be said about them. As a mom, I accept the reality that there have to be both good things I’ve done and ways I’ve added to their pain, because of not understanding them well enough, no matter how hard I’ve worked at that. It is impossible to be only a good parent. Accepting this truth in the context of the world we live in seems to be a surprise to most young mothers. I often suggest mothers pick two things they are determined to do well and consider what you don’t do well. Be honest with yourself. If you are a parent ask your kids what their favorite two things about you are and what two things might you improve. Be open to their answers and not so fragile that you don’t want to know. When you give your kids opportunity for feedback, you are creating a more trustworthy environment. Power can’t be in only one direction. It is powerful for your kids to experience they’re worth listening to.

Often, I get teens and young adults who are very afraid of crushing their moms by talking honestly about things that bother them. I am especially concerned about this when a young man refuses to invite his mom in, because of long-term consequences. I suspect they will repeat this pattern of silence with a future partner. I believe teens and young adults struggle with wanting to protect their moms to stay in the good category and fear a conversation will slam them into the bad category. In reality the conversation is a teachable moment where greater understanding of differences will create a closer connection. When these conversations are avoided moms miss out on knowing who their kids really are. Hiding out from truthful encounters cheats the relationship.

So therapy becomes a setting to digest both sides of the clients’ experiences growing up. I’ll never forget when Miriam Polster flipped the silence of my father never saying in words “I Love You” to an endearing story. The truth of that perspective stayed with me the rest of my life. Her gentle reminder was that actions and deeds really are what matters. Moms with mental illness can not simply be dismissed into the pile of bad mothers. Moms with mental illness have both strengths and weaknesses like everyone else. A mom who suffers with being unmedicated bipolar can be very difficult because of their unpredictability. They also can be fun, playful and creative. When it comes to moms we seem to easily dismiss them as good or bad which denies the more accurate, complicated picture of reality. As a mom, it can only be a good thing to consider the whole picture of who we are. (Maybe the “greatest generation” is the greatest because they never wanted to explore their own dark sides and were content with the surface.) While there may be a small percentage of poisonous mothers, it is not the vast majority. Most moms are ordinary in their mistakes.

Love can be defined as loving someone enough to have the courage to be authentic with them. For example, if “Gee Mom, we love it when you visit and a month can be too hard.”  goes unsaid, then grumpiness, irritability and resentments happen instead of problem solving.

Mother and daughter

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