TTC: Let’s talk about how to manage difficult mothers as you ttc*. Time and again I hear stories of anguish and heartache due to disappointing behaviour from the one person you need support from the most, your mother. Mother and daughter relationships can be fraught, even at the best of times.
Research by Carol D Ryff academic and psychologist from Pennsylvania State University, backs this up**. In her book, The Parental Experience in Midlife, she found that even within the tightest of relationships, mothers and daughters clash more than not. Interestingly her research also showed that far from mothers being proud of their successful daughters – their achievements actually made them feel worse about themselves, (this wasn’t the case with high-achieving sons).
In her thought provoking book, You’re Wearing That? Mothers and Daughters in Conversation, Deborah Tannen writes, “Women are healed by, or ache for, satisfying conversations with their mothers and adult daughters; in some cases, to build on already excellent relationships, in others to break out of cycles of misunderstanding that can turn amiable conversations into painful or angry ones in the blink of an eye.” Both want to maximize the gifts of rapport and closeness while minimizing the inevitable hurts that come along with any close relationship but can be especially intense in this one.”
I love this. It really resonates with me.
How to move forward
From a daughter’s perspective, the relationship that you have with your mother will be framed around how she brought you up. I have put together a few questions you might ask yourself, but by no means have I exhausted to pool of relevant questions to ask. Feel free to add others that relate specifically to your situation:
- How did your mother show her love to you?
- How strict was she?
- What happened when you messed up?
- What does she judge you for?
- What did she do to show that she listened to you?
Your mother’s point of view will be based on her own values system. Here are some questions you might reflect on. If she’s open to it, ask her to share her understandings as well.
- What sort of relationship did your mother have with her mother?
- Has she been loved (by her mother, father, husband, children)?
- What role did religion play in her life?
- What was her job/career?
- What would she say about how she mothered you – did she do a good job?
Understanding is key
Understanding the background to these questions is the basis for moving forward. Clearly, there is not one answer, but many. This is not a black and white issue. As humans we are more complicated than that.
When you take the time to understand the past, it’s much easier to figure out (not approve), how you’ve ended up where you are. This understanding doesn’t make excuses for difficult or destructive behaviour, but instead gives a more rounded perspective.
Rather than seeing your mother as being all bad – you might start to see her as a fallible, mortal being, that has had to deal with difficulties and challenges, just like you. Allow this understanding to encourage you to be more open, so you can explore your relationship in a more balanced and realistic way.
Two tips that can help
As much as you may like your mother to support you right now, she might not have the skills to help. This sucks. Having spoken to many women about this over the years, I have found that these are two of the best tips to help you to connect without shaming or blaming:
- Focus on the parts of your relationship that do work. Talk to her about your work, partner, friends or furbaby, and ask her about her own life. Stay on neutral topics which you both enjoy talking about.
- Set clear boundaries around how she can help. If you know that speaking about your fertility issues isn’t helpful, maybe say something like: ‘I want to be able to connect with you and talk about all the other things that are going on in my life. Of course I will let you know if anything important happens with my fertility treatments – but if you could leave it up to me to tell you, rather than you asking each time we catch up, I’d really appreciate it.’
… and finally
If the relationship with your mother is not helping, then distance yourself. Remember this time in your life will not last forever, but now you need to be surrounded by people who lift you up, not bring you down. Protect yourself by taking a step back and use the energy that was being wasted on frustration and conflict to support your own fertility journey.
I would love to hear how you manage a difficult relationship with your own mother. What works for you? Email me firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know your thoughts.
*TTC – Trying To Conceive
**Ryff, Carol D., Pamela S. Schmutte, and Young Hyun Lee, “How Children Turn Out: Implications for Parental Self-Evaluation,” in The Parental Experience in Midlife. Ed. Carol D. Ryff and Marsha Mailick Seltzer. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996)