Advice: Mending Ties With Mom

Healing the past with mother and paving the future with daughter.

By Hara Estroff Marano, published on February 14, 2008 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

I am having a difficult time interacting with my 81-year-old mother. I had a dysfunctional childhood and lack of care. Now I have a hard time providing the companionship and care for Mom's needs. I am in my late 50s. Now my daughter, 30, has issues with my lack of ability to be close to my mother. Because I am the only one who lives close to Mom I would like to find a way to be at peace. Do you have any suggestions on how to improve my relationship with my mother?

Your daughter is looking to you as her instruction book on how to treat one's elderly parents. If for no other reason than to assure your own best care as you age, you ought to make sure she learns well.

Repeat after me 10 times: we are not required to be jerks just because other people were (are) jerks to us. You are in your late 50s. Are you going to let other people, such as your mother, determine how you behave in this world, or are you going to decide for yourself what is the best way to act toward others? What way is congruent with your beliefs and values and goals?

Once you've got that down pat, repeat after me about 25 times: None of us ever gets everything we wanted or needed in childhood. You can either let the rest of your life be defined by that lack or you can use that experience as a guide to what you need to do for yourself in life. I highly recommend the latter.

The really good thing to know is that your childhood is over and you don't have to relive it. Unless your mother was a psychopath, a narcissist, or just plain evil, she probably did the best she could given what she was dealt, what she knew, and the circumstances she was in. It is entirely possible that 40 years later, knowing what she knows, she would parent differently. She may have learned some things in 40 years, or she may not.

Either way, you're an adult and it's time that you decided how you want to be and how you want to treat others. It may or may not be possible to be emotionally close to your mother. Some people resist closeness and your mother may be one of them. But even that is not a barrier to how you treat her and how much time and attention you decide to give her. You don't have to be emotionally intimate to have a satisfying relationship for you both, even for different reasons. You may choose to give her some companionship and support because that reflects the compassionate and generous person you are. She may welcome the companionship because it relieves loneliness or boredom.

Whatever time you decide to give to your mother, it should never be used as an opportunity to hit her over the head with what you didn't get from her. But that doesn't mean that the topic can't come up and that you can't gain tremendous insight and understanding of your mother and her limitations—or, possibly, her regrets. Your mother may have her own set of regrets about how she treated you, but she may also feel defensive about how she behaved and want to avoid the topic head-on.

Over the course of spending some time with your mother, look for opportunities to engage her in conversations about her own girlhood and upbringing. Perhaps old photographs could be a stimulus. You could ask her to show you photographs of herself as a child, and ask her to talk about herself as a child. She may reveal information that gives you more of an understanding of her life.

If possible, take your daughter with you on such visits, and let her ask her own questions and have her own conversations with her grandmother. Sometimes the grandchild relationship feels much less emotionally charged to the older person, and it may open doors of conversation that would otherwise be closed.