Mother Work

By Ken Wells - 06/26/2020


We come from fallible parents who were kids once, who decided to have kids and who had to learn how to be parents. Faults are made and damage is done, whether it’s conscious or not. Everyone’s got their own ‘stuff,’ their own issues, and their own anger at Mom and Dad. That is what family is. Family is almost naturally dysfunctional.”  – Chris Pine

Sunday is Mother’s Day. I miss my mom. This will be the third Mother’s Day without her. She said goodbye when she was 99. It was time. My mom was an enigma. She was on a traveling baseball team when she and my dad married. She was in the middle of a road trip and they did not spend their first night together until two weeks later when she got off the road. She accidentally burned her little sister to death when they both were playing with matches and she spent the rest of her days trying to make up for it. Early on it was excelling in baseball. Later she became a Christian zealot, trying to save the world and take care of the poor. Physically, she was the toughest person I ever knew. She raised 12 kids.  Two different times stoves blew up in her face and gave her third degree burns. One time she put her own dislocated finger back in place by herself.  She had osteoporosis and shrunk from 5’5” to 4’10” by the time she died. After she reached her 85th birthday until she died at 99, she broke her back in 7 places, her pelvis, screwed up her knee and broke her ribs— none of which kept her down for the count. She was an inspiration in many ways.

That being said, she shared many shortcomings and dysfunctional behaviors. I don’t ever remember my mother hugging me. She had been sexually abused as a kid and wasn’t much for touch. She was pretty judgmental. Often she would make comments like “you act like that and call yourself a Christian”. She and my dad raised all of us in a cult, denying abuses and defending offending pastors. The abuses of our church were off the charts. She turned her head and would say “you can’t take your eyes off God”- meaning to minimize the reality of abuse.

The temptation is to minimize the detrimental qualities and make a legend of her good qualities. The truth is she is both.

Everyone has the challenge to take their mother off the pedestal. For some that’s not a problem because their moms were distant, deplorable and disconnected.  Others are uncomfortable to recognize their mother’s shortcomings thinking that it is important to protect her from criticism.  So there is a lot of energy spent defending her memory or minimizing the negative impact of her behavior. 

The essence of addiction recovery is about emotionally growing up to be an empowered adult. Numbing out with addiction is a strategy to avoid present discomfort and long term pain that comes from not getting basic developmental needs met from both parents. When our parents meet our basic needs we can know that we are loved. Yet, the only way we know we matter is when our parents spend sufficient amounts of time with us on our terms, not theirs. When this does not happen, we look outside ourselves to find whatever it is that will get their attention. All too often we become human doings, abandoning our being. Developmentally, we become like a chunk of Swiss cheese with the holes in us. We reach outside ourselves with a cocktail of experiences throughout our lives, including addiction to fill in those holes in order to know that we matter. Yet, like a little kid who cannot get enough sugar, as an addict I can never get enough of what I really don’t want.  I want more and more. I live never satisfied. The filling I seek can only be filled from the inside, not from the outside in.

Many addicts have problematic relationships of unfulfilled expectations with their mothers.  While Mother’s Day is a day of celebration, subconsciously many addicts hope to work out their unmet needs from mother through a significant relationship with other authoritative figure in their life. It could be a spouse, friend or professional relationship. However, it has been my experience that an addict will remain intimacy disabled in adult relationships until they address their unmet needs in their primary relationship with mother.

Here are some suggestions to consider:

Be honest and willing to take mother off the pedestal.  Children idealize their parents.  When little, parents are giants in every sense of the word. It is normal to fixate on an ideal distorted concept about who mother is in childhood. Our parents are the source of our early concept of God. However, as we mature it is necessary to take mother off the ideal pedestal of perception and look at her as vulnerable human being she really is. Recognizing mother’s flaws does not mean you disrespect her or do not love her. It does mean that you see her for who she really is in all of her weaknesses and flaws as well as her strengths. This does not just naturally happen. It will required purposeful effort to separate yourself from the ideal to the real perception of who your mom really is to you. When desires to protect, excuse, minimize or dismiss mother’s hurtful behavior when you were a child well up, it may be a sign that you still have your mother on the pedestal.  This subtle fixation on an ideal mother can contribute to a subconscious desire to work out in your current relationships what was never addressed with your mother. When I am fixated on an idealized view of mother it will keep me stuck and intimacy disabled in current relationships in the present moment.

1. Grieve the loss of what could have been, never was and can no longer be. 

Grieving is an untrained skill set in our culture. Yet, without this healing act, we tend to remain stuck trying to recreate an unreal past.  No parent is without flaw or fault. Everyone was shortchanged in some way or another from our parents because they were shortchanged in their childhood. You do not get the change back by dismissing what was never addressed in your childhood. It is also nonproductive to become stuck in blaming your mother for what she did not provide. It is healing to grieve. When you don’t embrace the deep feeling of grief about your childhood loss with mother, subconsciously you will try to play that out in your significant adult relationships. The little kid in you will take the power in relationships and make unrealistic demands. Effectively, it is a little kid trying to negotiate an adult relationship. It never works.

2. Stop carrying mother’s shame and give it back to her.

Generational shame is passed from one generation to the next through the conduit of secrecy. Secrets are what is hidden and includes what everyone knows but no one talks about. Giving mother back her shame is critical mother work.  You begin to do this by recognizing what hurts and talking about it in safe quarters. At first, you will feel awkward, guilty and think you are making a big deal over nothing. Yet you will begin to release the shame that binds you when you identify the reality of mother’s behavior that hurt you and talk about it with someone who will validate you.

3. See the strength and weaknesses of mother and celebrate the humanity in her and in you. 

Mature adults have the capacity to look at relationships as they really are.  Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. No parent always does the best they can 24/7, 365 for 18 years straight! There are times your parents simply blew it. Maturity can recognize the humanity in it all. There is no need to glaze over or minimize mother’s glaring weaknesses and shortfalls. To do so, does not take away from her tremendous strengths and attributes. Each are stand alone realities. When you can separate from  your childhood  views of mother and see her for who she really was or is,  you become positioned to not only celebrate her true self but to take those realities in your adulthood and create a special connection with the one you love and are committed to in the present moment.  Happy mother’s day Mom. My guess is somewhere out there, you are probably getting ready to play a doubleheader!

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