Forgiving The Unwell Mother

When my husband and I started thinking about having children, I did an internal inventory and decided it was time to take a big step: forgive my biological mother. My mother (who I only call “my mother” as an adjective to identify her) was a young and impulsive teenager when she gave birth to me. She considered giving me up, but claims that she just couldn’t go through with it. When I was less than a year old, I was taken away by police after she attempted to commit suicide. I have heard many conflicting stories about that first year of my life, and where I was placed afterward. I don’t remember or know, but I do know that I have scars that confirm some of the stories. My brother and I eventually ended up in the care of our adopted grandparents, who I believe had good intentions, but ultimately were not emotionally capable of caring for us. This makes for two maternal figures in my life who have failed me at some point: J., my biological mother, and C., my adopted mother.

I sought out my biological mother and asked for her side of the story, in an attempt to forgive her. After months of her exaggerated tales, confirmed lies, what appeared to be delusions, and ultimately emotionally exhausting myself, I came to a conclusion: I no longer desired to expend energy into this subject, least of all negative energy. Yes, some terrible things happened to my brother and I as babies (there are claims of being thrown against walls and down stairs, tales of infant-me having hair so matted that it had to be shaved when we were taken away from J., and my unexplained partial hearing loss.)  Of course, J. denies these accounts. I realized, though, that all mothers are just a sample of humans, and humans can be flawed and terrible creatures. The healthiest path for me to take was forgiveness. And so I did. I never heard the full story, because it wouldn’t have changed anything for my current self. I maintain an extremely distant but cordial relationship with J. With C., however, I endured a lifetime of what I believe was mostly unintended emotional abuse due to her resentment of my existence, and our relationship continued to grow more and more strained, until the metaphorical strand couldn’t take anymore and ties were severed. I am working on forgiving her, but I choose not to engage with her.

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"I had to forgive in my own time and in my own way."

Danielle Schadler

I had to forgive in my own time and in my own way. It took years to come to the conclusion that that was what was right and necessary, and it took more years to actually process through the emotional exoneration. Forgiving is an abstract concept, an effort with intangible results. I knew, however, that several things would be nonnegotiable: I had to dictate the status of the relationships, I had to acknowledge all of the emotions that developed because of the maternal turbulence, and I had to recognize that those emotions and the resulting personal inadequacies were not my fault.

As an adult, I slowly realized how both of these flawed relationships affected my personal relationships with other women. It also affected how I perceived criticism and expectations from female mentors and colleagues. I resented anyone who took on a maternal tone or demeanor toward me, even though it was almost always meant in a positive way. It took me years to overcome this personal limitation, and I am thankful for the women who stuck with me through it.  Acknowledging this aspect of my personality felt like a huge relief. Once I identified it, I was able to begin correcting the behavior.

I also realized that even as a logical adult, I still found myself thinking irrational things like “Of course they don’t like you, your own mothers didn’t even want you.” There was a hole in my heart, and my perception was that it could only be filled with maternal love. I was wrong – that hole is healed scar tissue now, thanks to loving friends who have become family, a therapist who helped me reconcile, and me. I’ve found love in myself, and the emptiness that haunted me as a young adult is now, for the most part, a thing of the past. I realize that I was never to blame for the shortcomings of these women, even if I was the direct target. This was perhaps the most difficult concept for me, and I still struggle with it. My inner voice that speaks up when I fail, when I am unsure or insecure, and when I am sad, sounds an awful lot like my adopted mother. Her harsh criticisms, her doubt in my abilities, and her resentment toward me still ring in my ears sometimes. Years of positive self-talk have helped heal these wounds, but it is an ephemeral victory, waxing and waning circumstantially.

"Forgiving is an abstract concept, an effort with intangible results."

D. Schadler

I have found qualities in friends and loved ones to make up for not having a mother. My sister taught me about periods, a friend in my twenties taught me about skin care, my husband taught me to cook, and my best friend continues to teach me about etiquette. I have people in my life who believe in me and love me. As an adult, a loving mother would add to my life, but the absence of one does not take away from my life. I know that someday, I will be a better mother than I ever dreamed of having because I know exactly what not to do.