During my childhood, my mother was incredibly overprotective. She was unable to have any other children so we were very close, but to the point where she would not like me having friends of my own. As I hit my teenage years, I started to rebel: choosing friends she did not approve of, having boyfriends, drinking, smoking, staying out late and not going to school.
Her reaction to this was incredibly intense. She would check my room every day from top to bottom for “evidence”. She would open letters from friends and turn up at school unannounced. I spent most of my teenage years grounded. It was similar when I went to university: all my bank statements were sent to her so she could see what I spent my money on (my parents did financially support me at uni, but my money was stopped if I didn’t answer the phone or she found something on the statement she didn’t like), and she would call me every day.
This caused a raft of arguments not just between me and her but also between her and my father. Eventually, he met someone else and left. I was blamed for the divorce and throughout that time I would receive constant angry phone calls from her to tell me how she hated me for ruining her life.
After leaving university, I distanced myself from her and since then have done OK. I have studied hard, have a good job, an amazing husband and lots of very close friends (many from my teenage years). However, I am now in my 40s and every time I see my mother she brings up the fact that I ruined her life (she is happily remarried to a lovely man) and that I “nearly killed her with my behaviour”. In my more rational moments I believe that my behaviour was just teenage rebellion and that, had she reacted differently, things would not have been blown out of proportion. However, she will never agree with that. She believes I was and am an evil person who set out to destroy her and she reminds me of this at every chance. I hate confrontation, so I always try to move the subject on rather than talk about it. Consequently, I come away full of self-doubt and embarrassed about my teenage self.
I feel the time has come (25 years later) for her to stop punishing me for my teenage misdemeanours and for us to try to build a happier relationship, but I don’t know what I can do to move the relationship forward and whether this will ever be possible if she won’t let go.
It’s impossible to move any relationship forward by yourself, unless you unhitch yourself from it and start to move forward alone. You are a regular reader so you know how much I value family. But not at all costs.
Part of growing up is to find your own identity, and many children/teenagers/young adults rebel if they’ve been constrained too tightly by parental rules. I don’t think you have anything to feel embarrassed about. Your teenage self sounds pretty normal. Your mother’s behaviour does not.
Being a mother is about unconditional love, about realising that your child is separate from you and letting them be themselves. You guide, help and support. Sometimes you shout and get angry and say the wrong things, because mothers are human and not perfect, and neither should they be. But no adult should ever blame a child for their (the adult’s) mistakes – that is wrong, wrong, wrong.
If you wanted to understand your mother better you could delve into how she was parented, but it sounds like you’ve had a lifetime of trying to figure out your mother. You’ve made a success of your life, despite some pretty heavy baggage you’ve had to carry. Isn’t this your time? I know you want a better relationship with her, I really understand that. I get a lot of letters from people who wish their relationships with their parents/family were better. But unless your mother does a lot of work on herself, this is unlikely to happen, and it’s unlikely to happen because she would have to take some responsibility. If there’s one thing your mother doesn’t sound very good at it’s taking responsibility.
I can’t tell you not to see your mum. But please, don’t define yourself through her. You didn’t do anything wrong other than be a pretty normal-sounding daughter. Your mother is/was in charge of sailing her own ship and all those rocks she crashed on are her doing, not yours.
If it feels better to lessen contact with your mum, then do that, even if it’s just for short periods. It’s OK to press pause. Think about what you want and do it. Spend time with your dad or other family and friends instead: people who make you feel good and see you for who you are, not as a foil upon which they can project their own failings.
This article first appeared in The Guardian Family on 28 August 2015.