Newsflash: You don’t have to like your mother to love her.

This, for some of us is a relief. We feel like bad sons or bad daughters if every thing’s not warm and fuzzy, but caregiving isn’t about your emotional barometer reading for the day.

It’s no coincidence that we start out tethered to our mothers. The umbilical cord is the first of many. It sustains us, feeds us, is a highway of blood. It’s tough too. I remember my husband cut our daughter’s umbilical cords and he said he really had to work at it.

And after all our mother-daughter ups and downs, we eventually find ourselves back together. Our moms need us–and we need them, even though we don’t know it or admit it. Caregiving comes along and gives us another chance to work at this ancient relationship.

I have a friend I’ll call Jess, and she’s in her mid-thirties, and like most women that age, she’s already racked up a couple of decades of mother-daughter angst. It starts early for us girls.

Jess shared with me that her mother recently asked, “Why were you always so angry with me?”

Now, that’s an age-old question…why are we?

Is it because of hormones? I’m sure.

Is it years of not being able to speak our minds? Absolutely.

Is it that our moms control our lives and even at a young age we want to yank the reigns and drive our own demons? Sure, but it’s even more than that. It’s biological, and it’s necessary–at least for some of us. I do know a few people who have always been sweetsy and close to their moms–and I mean always. I think they’re from another planet…

I finally got to a place of acceptance, but it took awhile.

But with Jess, I’ve noticed how things have begun to change. Jess is engaged. Jess is truly grown now, on her own financially and emotionally–and I think she, and her mom now recognize this fact.

Jess talks about her mom differently now. There’s no animosity. It’s simply gone as if somone had unhandcuffed her. Jess’s mother is flying in for her wedding shower and they’re going shopping all day at the outlet mall while she’s in town. She calls her mom several times a week as she’s driving home from work–just to chat. This wouldn’t have happened even three years ago. Her mom hasn’t changed. She still says certain annoying things any daughter would cringe at, but Jess no longer lets it get to her.

Why the change?

The mother-daughter bond is resilient.

It’s not a warm, cuddly blanket, but a sinuous cord that connects us and keeps our relationship alive through the turbulent years. At times, our anger is the jet fuel we need to grow up and move on with our lives. We “use” our mothers.

We hate them in order to love ourselves. We swear we will never be anything like them. We despise them when we don’t want to admit we despise ourselves. We lash out in words and actions knowing it cuts like a serrated knife. We think it will always be like this–us, way over here–them, way over there.

The resiliency of the mother-daughter relationship that grows stronger over time isn’t a surprise. Pennsylvania State University conducted a study of midlife daughters and their elderly mothers. Researcher Karen Fingerman, Ph.D., found that “despite conflicts and complicated emotions, the mother-daughter bond is so strong that 80 percent to 90 percent of women at midlife report good relationships with their mothers—though they wish it were better.”

After all those years of bickering, name calling, not calling at all, we find out that underneath all that bravado, there’s love. And…we actually want a better relationship with our mother! I never throught that day would come for me, but it did.

Suddenly, through birthing a daughter, a woman finds herself face to face not only with an infant, a little girl, a woman-to-be, but also with her own unresolved conflicts from the past and her hopes and dreams for the future…. As though experiencing an earthquake, mothers of daughters may find their lives shifted, their deep feelings unearthed, the balance struck in all relationships once again off kilter.

~Elizabeth Debold and Idelisse Malave

We are defined by our mothers and find our identities, in part, in them and their life-lessons.

We push off of our mothers like they’re a springboard–the laws of physics at work in relationships. Our “you weren’t there for me’s,” and “why are you always so controlling” finally leave our systems and we get sick of our own whining. The longer we live, we see our mother’s strengths unfold. We view past events in a new light. We turn to them for guidance, even if it’s a “don’t do what I did.”

I love the mother-daughter relationship portrayed in the movie, Spanglish. Tea Leoni and Cloris Leachman are the daughter and mother, and both are a mess–but they’re together–through it all. There’s a scene in the movie when Tea is about to leave to go see her lover (she’s married) and her mother knows what she’s doing–and she tries to stop her. She’s standing by her car pleading with her–and I don’t remember the words–I don’t want to, but what I do remember is her actions. She finishes her sentence and with both hands on the window ledge, she slaps the ledge. Like, I’m done, I’ve said my peace. I know that gesture. I know that feeling of my mother speaking into my own life–having her say.

Our mothers can tell us things no one else can.

Were they bad mothers? Perhaps. At times. But that doesn’t diminish their power or our need to have them in our lives. Even if for a few, our mothers are object lessons, they are still in our lives for a purpose.

Eventually, most of us learn to make at least a measure of peace with mothers–and mothers with their daughters. It’s not a conscience thing. It just is. It’s biological.

Mothers and daughters can fight, argue, cry, blame, and complain–and their bond gets stronger. You don’t even know it’s happening–you think you’re a million miles away. We can even ignore our mothers and go on with our busy adult lives, and that bond is still there. Genetics is one powerful pull.

I’ve seen it countless times–family members who have been hurt find a way to forgive. Daughters who are disgusted with their mother’s choices begin to understand why, and through their own poor choices, they offer a morsel of mercy.

Mothers who seemed hard, controlling, and fussy finally become real people to their daughters. Their daughters begin to realize the that their mothers have lives, dreams, and quiet heartbreaks no one knows about. Mothers loosen up over time and become somone their daughter confides in.

Again, why?

You can’t make peace with yourself, with who you are, with all that you’ve done that had made you ‘you,” until you can begin to accept your mother, your past. She is your key.

What the daughter does, the mother did. ~Jewish Proverb

Our mothers, our daughters define us. We are who we are because of them–good or bad. We look into their faces and we see ourselves–past and future.

Caregiving comes at just the right time. We don’t think it is. We’re busy. We’re moms, and just got our act together. We don’t want to deal with death and dying, with power struggles and forgiveness. But oh, we do and we just don’t know it. Begrudgingly (sometimes) we lay down our grievances and come toether–again.

Caregiving gives us a reason to make up, to let go, to “get over it.”

Whether our relationship is strained or easy, hostile or amiable, we need our mother if only in memory …
to conjugate our history, validate our femaleness and guide our way.

~Victoria Secunda

Something happens when our mothers lives begin to grow smaller either physically, emotionally, or financially–a power shift occurs.

We (the daughters) gain strength and power–and this time to “be on top,” allows us to feel less threatened–and when we’re not threatened–we can be generous with our love.

Eventually, the scales balance.

After years of our mother’s having dominance over our lives (the childhood years), we’ve built up resentment, and finally, as time rolls along, we come into our own, we tower above our mothers for a short time, and that isn’t as fun as it sounds. If we’re lucky, and our mothers live a little longer, we become equal bookends, each of us strong in the broken places and worthy of respect.

And then, just when we make peace, our mothers die. It surprises us. It shocks us. This is too soon, we cry. We just got here, to this place of acceptance, to the point to where we can sit in the same room and breathe the same oxygen. We realize how ironically close we really were–all along–even when we thought we weren’t. We love our mothers in a deep-bone way.

We lose ourselves in grief. We just found ourselves in and through and mothers, and then they leave us. We feel abandoned, lost, maybe even angry. But don’t worry, all that we’ve gained grows inside us.

Looking back, I realize I’ve lost two mothers four times.

My birth mother had schizophrenia and I was taken from her as an infant when the voices told her to hurt herself and her children. I lost her again when I was adopted at the age of four. I didn’t know it would be forever. I lost her again when I was 23, and found my birth family only for them to tell me that my mother was dead–she had died one year before I found them. I cried that day, that week, that year–I cried for the mother I would never know.

I lost my adoptive mother to Alzheimer’s before death took her. To look into the face of someone you know so well–someone who you’ve screamed at, cried and fought with, only to have a disease eat away at her brain like battery acid–and to know that she doesn’t know you, remember you, you hold no emotion, no connection. You might as well we a cardboard box. It ravages your soul and all you believe.

And then death came. In a way, a welcome relief to the heartbreak of Alzheimer’s. I knew it would never give me my mother back.

Why now? Why do we lose our mothers just at the point when we can sit beside them and feel at ease, a give and take? Just when we can be ourselves in the presence of our most formidable foes, our most dependable ally, we lose them.

The woman who bore me is no longer alive, but I seem to be her daughter in increasingly profound ways. ~Johnnetta Betsch Cole

I have no answer for this. The only solace I can give you is that my mother’s life is now my example, her stories, her “ways” ripple through my own life. I don’t idolize her or think she was perfect. That would be an insult to such a great woman. I see her as complex and confounding as ever–but that’s what I like about her, about me.

In a bigger sense, I haven’t lost her, or lost me. We sit side-by-side. Equals. I hear her so much more clearly these days. I feel her respect. I listen.

And now, I have three grown daughters. The torch has been passed. They rail against me at times. I let them. I know the journey they must take to get to their own place of acceptance and strength. I’ll be here. Waiting.

I’m Carol D. O’Dell, the author of Mothering Mother: A Daughter’s Humorous and Heartbreaking Memoir, available on Amazon.

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Carol O'Dell

Carol D. O'Dell's gripping memoir MOTHERING MOTHER, (April 1, 2007 by Kunati Publishing) is for the "sandwich" generation and overflows with humor, grace and much needed honesty. Written with wit and sensitivity, Mothering Mother offers insight on how to not only survive but thrive the challenges of caring for others while keeping your life, heart, and dreams intact. Carol is an inspirational speaker and instructor focusing on caregiving, spirituality and adoption issues. She has been featured on numerous television, radio and magazine and podcast programs including WEDU/PBS, Artist First Radio, "Coping with Caregiving" national radio, Women's Digest and Mature Matters Publications. Her fiction and nonfiction work has appeared in numerous publications including Atlanta Magazine, Southern Revival, MARGIN, and AIM, America's Intercultural Magazine Carol appeared on the radio show "Healing the Grieving Heart" with Dr. Gloria & Dr. Heidi Horsley to discuss "Mothering Mother: A Daughter's Humorous and Heartbreaking Memoir." To hear Carol being interviewed on this show, click on the following link:

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