Can we learn to love someone we don’t like? With Mother’s Day on the horizon and with so many relationships of all kinds in transition, I’m here to share the story of how my mother and I would finally learn to love each other. It happened more than four decades after I was born. My sincere hope is, in reading our story, you’ll be inspired to try what we tried to create your own authentically loving relationships with your beloveds.
I recently found an autobiography Mom had written for a sociology class a few years after she’d suddenly lost her husband and her parents in quick succession. I think I was in my early twenties when she wrote the paper. She talked about me as if I was a rat in a lab experiment. She didn’t express feelings of love or even warmth; instead, she expressed a clinical curiosity about the behaviors of this strange person she’d birthed.
That paper sums up the first forty-three years of our relationship. We never said “I love you” to each other. We never hugged. Mom had had a difficult life that had left many emotional scars. Her family treated her like a porcelain doll in an attempt to prevent her from shattering. They taught me that her well being was more important than my well being.
Mom routinely made her wants and needs more important than mine, setting up many difficult years during which nearly everyone I knew made their wants and needs more important than mine. I hated being the afterthought. I knew none of this was healthy for me, but I didn’t know how to fix it. The family would discipline me for rebelling.
Mom used her head instead of her heart when dealing with me. She wanted to rule. She expected me to model my life on her life, the way she’d modeled her life on her mother’s life. She was angered by my refusal to be her Mini-Me and resented each independent decision I made.
I knew she’d live to be very old, I knew that as an only child I’d be caring for her for the rest of her life, and I’d become increasingly resentful of sacrificing my life for her. I knew that was the wrong reaction, but I didn’t know what I could do to bring love into our connection.
How on earth did that relationship turn into what the marketing director at my Mom’s memory care unit called the closest relationship she’d ever seen between a mother and a daughter?
Here’s my best recollection of the 1996 conversation that transformed two lives:
“Mom, my life is falling apart, and I need a mother to help me right now. Your family taught me to treat you like a porcelain doll. They told me you were weak. Well, they’re all dead now, and you’re still here. That tells me you’re a lot stronger than they thought you were. I can’t treat you like a porcelain doll anymore, and they’re not here anymore to tell me to keep putting you first. It’s too stressful for me to continue to place my wants and needs behind yours. What do you say? Are you ready to be my mother? Will you help me?”
She was in her seventies, and she’d really believed she’d been a good mother to me. I had no idea what her reaction would be. All I had was my desire to have an authentic relationship with everyone in my life. She was my mother, she was in my life, and I challenged her to either up her game or cut off contact with me.
I didn’t rehearse anything. The words flew from my mouth. They’d been stuffed down for too many years. She didn’t know how to respond to my outburst.
Neither of us knew what to do with each other after my explosion, but we stayed in contact. I made up my part as we very slowly went along. I began by saying “I love you” at the end of each conversation. It was a lie. I didn’t love her, I didn’t even like her, but I wanted to learn to love her. She didn’t say the words back to me for a long time. I didn’t expect to ever hear the same words from her, but I knew it was important for me to keep saying them to her. It took many months for her to say it back. But she said the words, I thanked her from my heart for saying the words, we continued to say the words to each other, and I gradually began to feel a real connection with her.
We had real talks. She was listening to me instead of telling me what to do. I was listening to her instead of judging her. She finally saw who I was, not the me she wanted me to be. I finally saw who she was, not the mother I’d always seen as the enemy. We discovered we both liked having real talks with each other. I discovered there were levels to her I’d never seen. She became my real friend and my real mother.
I also began hugging her hello and goodbye. It felt very weird to do this, and she didn’t hug me back with enthusiasm. Neither side of my family was physically affectionate, and neither side of my family spoke words of love to each other. I felt it was time to start. I was OK with feeling very weird if feeling very weird while doing something new would help our relationship. She eventually hugged me back with equal enthusiasm.
We’d traveled together, we’d lunched together, we’d done things together, but we’d begun to evolve a real connection. I brought her with me to spiritual seminars. I was amazed by how tuned in she was. She had a great gift for seeing energy, and the gift expanded as she practiced what she’d experienced. She was proud of herself! As skilled as I was at feeling energy, I wished I had her gift for seeing energy!
She took the long distance bus to visit me when my first dog was recovering from kidney failure. The photo you see here was taken during that visit. Mom had always hated dogs. She was terrified of this dog when they first met, insisting that I take her home right away because she was afraid of my dog’s big teeth. After a few years, they were sleeping together. I loved watching them! I loved that she’d made this long trip to support my dog and me, and I realized I loved her.
When I got the call that Mom had fallen, I instantly knew my full time job would be caring for her. The catastrophic head injury slowly turned into the dementia that ended her life. We both went through hell, but we went through that hell together. She knew she was safe with me. I knew I would learn a lot about love through being her primary caregiver, and I indeed would learn love lessons that would stay with me throughout the remaining years of my life.
The most important lesson I would learn was that love is about humbly accepting people exactly as they are, not as we want them to be or think they should be. We can hold the space for them to evolve into their most brilliant selves, as long as we love them for who they are right now.
If we can’t do that for them, then I don’t believe we really love them.
I went into PTSD the night she began to die, and I got to her bedside after she’d entered the coma. Someone I’d turned to for support thought it was more important to yell at a person who was worn out from over four years of caregiving; the resulting PTSD delayed my arrival.
I never had that last conversation with her. I spoke to her for hours when she was in the coma. I knew some part of her heard me, but I never got to hear her voice again. I wanted to make sure she knew I loved her, and the guilt was nearly impossible to bear. One of the caregivers at the memory care unit eased my guilt by saying, “Your mother knew you loved her. She’d tell me, ‘I know Sheryl loves me because she always says so when we get off the phone.'”
It was a long shot, but we did it. Maybe you can, too.
“Mom, is it sunny today?” “Yes, it’s sunny, and the light is a thank you.” Me and Mom, 2010
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