We all have this dream of what an adult mother-daughter relationship should look like. When we think of it, we picture an older woman and a younger woman talking openly, laughing, being friends, or maybe an adult woman and a teen child sharing openly about life and with no concerns of judgment. I heard so many times as a young woman, “We raise our daughters to one day be our best friend.” I don’t know about you, but I always felt uncomfortable with that phrase! What happens when we don’t have that relationship with our mother or our daughter? What if that relationship is toxic?
Every Relationship Is Different
Anytime we force a relationship that is not healthy, it just increases our own anxiety, negative feelings, and overall unhappiness. I recall a patient coming into my office around Mother’s Day tearful, almost panicky. She said that she invited her mother to do a spa day for Mother’s Day and her mother commented, “Can you please just give me the gift card for the spa, so we don’t have to torture each other and spend time together?” My patient, rightfully, was so hurt. We had done a lot of processing to get her to the point that she felt confident about spending time with her mother, and then it was as though her mom had mentally slapped her. I also recall a friend of mine begging her teen daughter to have a relationship with her. She tried so desperately to talk to her daughter, only to get shut down every chance. The girl was so aligned with her father since her parents’ divorce that the mother could not even text with her daughter without the father interjecting. She tried so hard to be loving and kind, only to be ghosted or worse yet, told she was worthless and only an egg donor. Ouch.
The first step when your relationship with your mother or daughter is toxic is to let go of that impossible dream. It is OK if your relationship with your mother is not like your friend’s relationship. Not every family looks the same and having a lofty dream of what yours should be is only torturing you. Remind yourself of all the good relationships you do have. Maybe you are close with your mother-in-law, your best friend’s mother, or another older woman. Or maybe you are close with your daughter-in-law, a younger colleague, or your granddaughter. Be grateful for the other relationships that lift you up and sustain you.
What Can We Control?
The next step is to realize the only person you can control is yourself. You have no control over your mother’s or daughter’s behaviors. So many people want to change an unhealthy relationship by trying to control the other person. Let me give you the spoiler to this novel idea: it does not work, never ever. Sorry. No matter how amazing, smart, loving, kind, or giving you are, you cannot change anyone other than yourself. The other person has to want to change, and if she does not want to change, guess what? She won’t.
You can give your mom a million and five reasons why her drinking around you and/or your kids is toxic. If she wants to have that glass of wine, she will. Maybe your daughter is in an abusive relationship. You reminding her during every phone call of how awful her husband is is not going to make her leave him. She knows how much he has hurt her—she feels it every day. Be kind, supportive of, and loving toward her, and pray that when she gets the courage, she will come to you for help with her exit plan because she will not feel judged and will feel safe with you.
Once you realize you can only control yourself, then you need to set boundaries with the toxicity. Just because she is your daughter does not mean that you have to ride the crazy roller coaster. If you feel like you are walking on eggshells, then you probably are. You need to decide what you are comfortable within the relationship. Are you OK with texting, but talking is too hard? Then text only. Explain how you feel and tell your daughter how you would like to interact. Maybe you can only handle seeing your mother at major holidays. Explain that because of the behaviors, at this time, you can only see each other for holidays. The important thing is to be kind—but direct and firm.
The Key That Can Make the Difference
The true key in all of this is maintaining those boundaries. You must not pick a boundary you cannot live with. If you need your mom to watch your children for a couple of hours every Wednesday afternoon and no one else can do it, then it is not realistic to set the boundary to see each other on holidays only. You will be breaking that boundary by next Wednesday, and mom has learned not to take you seriously. However, if your daughter only calls when she needs money, you need to decide if and when you are comfortable giving her money and stick to those rules. I had a mother come to me because she felt sorry for her daughter, who was a single mother of four children. She moved into a mobile home and gave her home to her daughter, so her “grandchildren had a roof over their head.” She paid the taxes and insurance on the house, all while living on her social security and worrying about having enough money for food for herself. When her daughter came to her, asking for more money, she came to me and asked if she should do a reverse mortgage on the home. We discussed the pros/cons of this, and she realized that between child support and alimony, her daughter had five times the monthly income she did. That was eye-opening for her to recognize the importance of setting and maintaining boundaries.
I also have many patients who lost their mother or daughter and lived with regrets over how that relationship was when the person passed away. One mother stands out to me. She worked so diligently over many years to get her daughter into treatment for her addiction to pain pills. She paid for and took her to many therapists, treatment programs, and the list goes on. One day she got “the call,” and, sadly, it was two days after her daughter called her and said she was worthless, judgmental, and the most selfish mother in the world for not sharing her Vicodin after her tooth extraction. She was so devastated and continually played the “what if” tape in her head—wondering if she had just shared the medication, would her daughter still be here? It took us a while to move through the grief and realize that she had no control over her daughter’s choices, and her choice was right because otherwise, she was just continuing the addiction and then would have had the more difficult “what if” tape of maybe being the one who caused her daughter’s overdose.
Where Your Focus Should Lie
Lastly and most importantly, focus on the good that is in that relationship with your mother and/or daughter. Is it helpful that your mom taught you how to be independent because she has never been reliable? Or that your daughter gave you an amazing grandchild, with whom you have a wonderful relationship? Even in the most difficult of relationships, there is a life lesson that we can glean and help us grow and better ourselves. It may not be easily apparent, but with time and thinking, you can find something good, albeit, at times, it feels small compared to the pain of the toxic relationship.
While it is difficult to come to the realization that the relationship you had hoped for with your daughter or mother is not possible, there are steps you can take to heal yourself and move forward with life. Give yourself grace as you work through letting go of that dream and use your grit to maintain the boundaries with that toxic relationship so that it can no longer control you and your happiness.
There are many resources out there to help you work through the heartache of a relationship that is not what you hoped for with your parent and/or child:
Toxic Parents: Overcoming their hurtful legacy and reclaiming your life by Dr. Susan Forward
Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents by Lindsay Gibson, Ph.D.
When You and Your Mother Can’t be Friends by Victoria Secunda
Will I Ever Be Good Enough? Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers by Dr. Karyl McBride
Done with Crying: Help and Healing for Mothers of Estranged Adult Children by Sheri McGregor, M.A.
- There are many great retreats for mothers and daughters to build their relationships. Check out this retreat near Atlanta.
- The Mother-Daughter Project is also a wonderful place to help build your relationship with your daughter.
- I also recommend that mothers and daughters of elementary through high school age start a journal together. There are a few rules: The journal stays only between the mother and daughter unless a safety issue comes up. It is a place to talk about things that are too hard to talk about face to face, and whatever is discussed in the journal is not talked about outside of the journal. Amazon has many examples of these journals, including one where you can draw art back and forth.
Last, sometimes, it is helpful to talk to a therapist to help you learn how to navigate your relationship with your mother or daughter. It does not mean you are weak to talk to an expert to help you figure out how you to manage this difficult relationship.
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