It's Momplicated: Hope and Healing for Imperfect Daughters of Imperfect Mothers

It's Momplicated: Hope and Healing for Imperfect Daughters of Imperfect Mothers

by Debbie Alsdorf, Joan Edwards Kay


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Let’s face it: when it comes to mothers and their daughters, things can get a little . . . complicated. Momplicated, you might say.

Whether your relationship with your mom has been wonderful or stressful, redeemed or broken, close or nonexistent, it’s one of your life’s most important and defining connections. Its effects have probably followed you into adulthood.

If you have conflicting feelings toward mom—or if you wish you could get past some of the baggage that holds you back—this is your book. Combining spiritual disciplines and the best of current therapeutic practice, It’s Momplicated will help you discover
  • How your early connection with your mother may have impacted your sense of self and your other important relationships—and what you can do to break the cycle
  • Why you and your mother have the relationship you have—the underlying reasons that may be contributing to strain and unease
  • Tools and exercises to help you cope with some of the most common effects of a broken relationship, including anxiety, depression, lack of confidence, and trust issues
  • How to be the daughter and mother God wants you to be even if your mom wasn’t who you needed her to be.
It’s never too late to love, never too late to heal, and never too late to trust God to turn the pain in your story into a redemption song. As you read It’s Momplicated, you’ll realize that while God doesn’t promise to fix all your circumstances, He does promise to uphold you and lead you to a healing place of knowing you are truly precious and loved, no matter how your past has affected you.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781496426574
Publisher: Tyndale House Publishers
Publication date: 09/04/2018
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 563,098
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Debbie Alsdorf has spent the past 25 years as a speaker and writer whose mission is to help women live a better story. She is a lay counselor, a Christian life coach, and the founder of Design4Living Ministries. Joan Edwards Kay is a licensed marriage and family therapist in the East Bay of San Francisco. She received her bachelor's degree from Vassar College and her master's degree from Western Seminary, where she has also served as adjunct professor.

Read an Excerpt


every woman has a story

Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing that we will ever do.


"Debra, stop whining or I'll give you something to whine about. You aren't sick; you're just hungry."

"No, Mama, I'm not hungry. My tummy feels like it's stabbing me."

The arguments over my stomach pain went on for months. Even though I made frequent trips to the school nurse, my mom wasn't convinced that something could actually be physically wrong with me. She brushed it off as my need for attention.

Finally, she relented and took me to the doctor. Tests confirmed that I wasn't suffering from mere hunger pangs or trying to get my mom to notice me. It wasn't something I imagined in my head. In fourth grade, I was diagnosed with ulcers.

For my mother, this wasn't acceptable.

"You are sick all the time just like your daddy! If you weren't so nervous, your tummy would be fine. Why are you so afraid? What's wrong with you? You are dramatic and making yourself sick!"

What does a ten-year-old say to that?

I didn't know why I was sick. I didn't want to be cooped up in the office with the school nurse instead of playing outside at recess with my friends. Mom accused me of being weak because I had stomach issues. She didn't do weak, and she prided herself on being healthy and strong. She ruled our roost. As the saying goes, if Mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy.

* * *

When I think of growing up with my mother, there are three words that come to mind — distant, cold, and angry. And a fourth: longing. I longed for her love. Although she was well liked by her coworkers and friends, her daily criticisms of me — from the way I looked to how I acted — became the way I learned to view myself. She worked the night shift and slept during school hours, but in the short daily moments we were together, she seemed irritated, distant, and uninterested. I grew up thinking I was a nuisance.

As soon as my mother heard the doctor's diagnosis, she seemed to start picking me apart about everything. It began with the ulcers, then landed on a recent portrait of me that a family friend had taken.

"What's wrong with you in this picture?"

I hesitated, frozen by her disapproving tone.

Finally I said, "I guess I'm ugly?"

My dad usually didn't get involved when my mom was mean to me, but this time he jumped in. "You are always criticizing her. Can you lay off? Just give the kid a break! She looks fine in that picture."

As much as I appreciated my dad's attempt to be my advocate, it was like adding gasoline to a fire. Mom's ranting escalated until I couldn't take it any longer. I ran out of the room, holding my hands over my ears to muffle her yells.

"Go ahead and get out of here. Your father always makes excuses for you. Why don't you just go play on the freeway!"

It wasn't the first time I had heard that last flippant remark. We lived in a tiny two-bedroom house in a beach town close to Los Angeles. There were freeways nearby, so in my little-girl mind I translated my mom's directive as "Just get lost or get hit by a car."

I had no idea what I had done to enrage my mom. I just knew I must be bad, wrong, weak, ugly, and a bother. As my parents continued to argue, I tried to make myself as small as possible on my bed in my room, hugging my knees to my chest.

When things quieted down, I snuck out without them noticing, crossed the busy four-lane street we lived on, and sat on the bench at the bus stop located across from our house. The sound of the passing cars gave me relief. I watched as people drove by and found myself thinking, What would it be like to have a mom who liked me and didn't yell at me so much? A mom who held me when I was sick and told me I was pretty?

I didn't have money to take the bus anywhere, but I wished that someone could take me away to a place where I would feel wanted. My stomach was churning and the tears fell freely as I kept thinking, What is so wrong with me that even my mom and dad fight about me?

I wish this weren't my story. These kinds of life-shaping wounds go deep. My mother left her imprint on me, and it shaped me. And though it wasn't all bad, I have spent years understanding the impact and unraveling the pain. But despite the pain, the mother-daughter relationship is deep in loyalty, even in the midst of confusing signals. My mom, the only mother I will ever have, the woman whose aloofness and criticisms hurt me, was still the woman I loved and longed for. She wasn't perfect, but she was mine.


Every daughter's story with her mother is unique. As I (Joan) read Debbie's story, I find myself comparing — noticing all the ways my mother was different from hers. I don't remember my mom criticizing or yelling at me. I wasn't afraid of her. She never told me to go play on the freeway.

No, my story with my mother is not the same as Debbie's. When I think of my mother, my stomach clenches and my throat closes. I'm aware of sadness, anger, longing, regret — a whole jumble of emotions. And there is guilt. How can I have these feelings about my mom? She did so much for me. How can I be so ungrateful?

I quickly search for positive memories to prove that I do love and appreciate my mother, and they are easy to find. My mother was a 1950s housewife. She loved to cook and prepared a delicious, balanced dinner every night. Every week she did my laundry and placed neatly folded clothes on the stairs that led to my room. We lived modestly in our 1,500-square-foot suburban home in the Midwest, but it felt abundant. I freely roamed the neighborhood to visit friends and rode my bicycle to the park. If I fell and scraped my knee or was frightened by a dog, I could run home and my mother would comfort me.

When my mother wasn't busy with a project — creating a new watercolor, planting flowers along our garage, or refinishing an old chest of drawers — she would gravitate to her favorite chair, where she sat reading for hours. During the summer, my mother took my sister, my brother, and me to the library every week so we could each get a fresh stack of books to read.

The neighborhood kids often gathered at our house because my mother allowed us to spread out and make a mess. We could turn the large room at the back of our house into a school for our dolls. We could pile the patio furniture on the lawn to build a fort. Lake Michigan was a mile away, and my mother regularly took us to the beach. In the early days, my mother seemed happy, and I felt the same way — until the year I turned nine.

* * *

It was March 22, 1961. It seemed like any other school day as I came downstairs to make myself a bowl of cereal. My grandmother was standing at the kitchen sink. She had been with us a lot recently so our mother could visit our dad in the hospital. He was there, our mother had told us, because he had an "ulcer."

My grandmother inhaled sharply when she saw me. Her usually kind face looked strained and exhausted. "Your mommy wants to see you."

I walked down the short hall to my parents' bedroom. On the bed, my mother looked disheveled in a crumpled, sleeveless nightgown, her short brown hair sticking up from the back of her head. My six-year-old sister, Annie, and four-year-old brother, Johnny, were on the bed with her, but I focused on my mother's red eyes.

"Joanie," she said, "come here. There's something I have to tell you." I warily approached and sat down.

"Last night Daddy died."

She blurted out the words, hid her face in a wad of Kleenex, and sobbed.

I went numb. Daddy died. I mentally repeated the words, trying to make sense of them. My dad — his warm hugs, his prickly whiskers, his twinkling eyes and half smile when he teased me — what did that mean, he had died?

I looked at my mother, hoping for understanding or comfort, but she offered nothing. She looked at me with wide, pleading eyes as if I could somehow help her. I had never seen her like this, and it was terrifying. Johnny was crying now too, and Annie's face was frozen, expressionless. I felt completely alone.

During the days that followed, I wandered, dazed, through the rubble that remained of my life. Everything was different. Our grandmother became our mom, cooking and doing laundry and making sure we got on the school bus. People continually came to our front door, where my grandmother or aunt would graciously thank them for the card or the food they had brought and tell them my mother was "sleeping." My friends were kind, but they wanted to play, not realizing that I couldn't turn away from the never-ending, screaming pain inside me. On the school playground, groups of kids huddled, whispering and looking at me. I felt achingly alone. It seemed that no one could enter my world — no one could understand. My sister and brother were too little, my aunt and grandmother were busy, my father was gone, and my mother was a stranger sitting in a green armchair, staring out the window, smoking cigarettes.

Every family and every culture has unspoken rules. My relatives approached hardship with a "stiff upper lip." The rules were "Don't talk about your pain. Don't talk about your feelings. Don't touch. Be strong and go on with life." No one held me or sat and talked with me. No one invited me to pour out my pain. It was as if I were supposed to pretend I didn't remember or care that my dad ever existed.

* * *

As spring became summer and then fall, life took on a new normal routine. My aunt went back to New York, and my grandmother returned to her house in a nearby town. However, part of our new normal was a growing awareness that Johnny was sick. I have flashes of memories — his chubby cheeks from the cortisone treatment, his wheelchair, the nosebleed that wouldn't stop — but no one said the words cancer or leukemia. I was oblivious. Annie and I were immersed in school, piano lessons, ballet classes, and friends.

By December, my mother was at the hospital with Johnny most of the time, and my grandmother came to stay with Annie and me. She made sure my sister had a birthday party when she turned seven, but Annie grieved that our mother wasn't there.

On January 29, ten months after my father's death, I got off the school bus and immediately knew something terrible had happened. There were cars in the driveway, and through the front windows I could see people in the living room. My mother met me at the door.

"Joanie, Johnny died today." The way she blurted it out reminded me of when she had told me about my father. A cold, icy rage gripped me. Anger at her, anger at the situation, anger at all those people in the living room.

As an adult, I am horrified by all my mother had to bear — losing a husband while having a terminally ill son — and I have compassion for her. But as a ten-year-old, I didn't understand. Why couldn't she make things better? I held her responsible for allowing this chaos and pain to enter my life.

I felt abandoned by her. I hadn't understood why she focused so much time and attention on Johnny in the months after our father died, but not on me and my sister. Johnny was sick, but weren't we hurting too? It makes sense to me now; what mother wouldn't spend every possible moment at the hospital with her dying son? But at the time I believed she didn't care about me, and it hurt. And over the top of that hurt, there was anger.

I punished her by pushing her away, even when she tried to be more present to me after Johnny died. The more I rejected her, the more ingratiating she became to try to win back my love, like a puppy begging to be petted. When she groveled, I rebuffed her more. I became the "alpha" in the relationship, and I hated it. I wanted her to be stronger than I was and to stop me from hurting her.

Writing about my mother is hard, yet I know there is value in honestly looking at how she continues to influence me today. She left me with countless gifts. My early years gave me a strong foundation. I was given core beliefs that I am lovable, valuable, and capable. Through her I learned the love of art and books and gardening. But she also left me with wounds.

Her emotional abandonment imprinted me with a way of approaching life and relationships that says, "You are on your own. You have only yourself to rely on. Let people get close, but not too close. Don't ever give anyone the power to hurt you by abandoning you." These messages are getting fainter and God's voice is getting louder as I walk the path of healing, but the imprint is deep in my being.


All of us have a story, a path, and a process that have led us to this point. Some women are very aware that their early relationships shaped them, while others are in denial about the way the messages of their past impact them today. You may not have experienced anything as traumatic with your mother as we did with ours. But if you are honest with yourself, we think you might admit there may be momplicated issues. And though we are not to live blaming our "stuff" on our mothers or on our pasts, it does serve us well to be open enough to look to the past, identifying patterns of behavior and attitude that may have been formed there.

The goal is to be able to move beyond our pasts into the future that God has designed for us. He is writing our stories. His signature is on your life and ours. Ask him to give you wisdom about why you get reactive or get stuck in ruts that are hard to get out of.

For the two of us, the path to healing has been fragmented and has come in seasons. There was never one explosive aha moment to healing and change. This healing journey with the Lord is a beautiful path to freedom that happens as he unravels it layer by layer. We are sure we will still be growing until the day that we take our last breath on earth.

As we look at our lives now, we realize that God has been shaping us since day one. He was with us in our less-than-ideal moments and in our pain. Once we could grasp that truth, it became much easier to give the pain to Jesus for healing.

He knows our hot buttons and the things that trigger our insecurity, shame, and fear. While we came from different families, we both learned dysfunctional patterns when we were young. These unhealthy patterns led to people-pleasing, compulsive overachieving, and running to food and other distractions to numb our pain. When we could look honestly at those behaviors and realize that Jesus understands every bit of dysfunction and desires to make us whole, we were able to begin our journeys to freedom from negative imprints. There has been much healing since, and there will be much more to come.


We've told you part of our stories; what about you? Take a moment to think about your mother. What comes to mind as you think about your relationship with her? What memories surface? What desires, concerns, or regrets? How do you think your relationship with your mother shaped you? It never ceases to amaze us how helpful it can be for women to address their mother relationships.

Staci wanted to meet to talk about life, spiritual growth, and mentoring, but the conversation turned to the subject of her mom. Though they had a loving relationship, Staci admitted it was strained. She had no idea how deep her daughter pain actually went until she was asked to do a presentation for her mother's sixtieth birthday. She tried to write something that would be honoring and tell the story of an amazing mom. After all, wasn't she amazing? Everyone else seemed to think so.

But Staci couldn't pen sincere words no matter how hard she tried. As she sat with her open journal in our counseling session, tears rolled down her cheeks. She went home, and when she began writing, she filled the blank pages with words that revealed all the hurt in their relationship.

The truth was that her mother had been a constant source of pain, confusion, and hurt — for years. Her mother was cold and unaffectionate. The critical spirit in which she approached everything about Staci had deeply wounded Staci's self-confidence. Naturally these cathartic realizations were not spoken at her mother's birthday party, but they were used by God as Staci began to journal, for the first time, about the effects of their relationship.

Rather than making her angry and bitter at her mom, the more Staci wrote, the more pain was released, and the healing between the two of them began. Staci became clear on what she needed to ask God for — healing from the effects of her mother's criticisms.


Excerpted from "It's Momplicated"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Debbie Alsdorf and Joan Edwards Kay.
Excerpted by permission of Tyndale House Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

introduction: my mother — my heart, xi,
how to use this book, xvii,
1. every woman has a story, 3,
2. every woman has an imperfect mother, 17,
3. every woman carries her mother's mark, 41,
4. every woman can live a better story, 59,
5. mom, where are you?, 79,
6. mom, will you keep me safe?, 99,
7. mom, will you teach and guide me?, 117,
8. mom, will you celebrate me as a unique individual?, 131,
9. healing starts with facing reality, 153,
10. healing continues by living in the truth, 175,
11. healing can happen in your current relationship, 195,
12. changing the legacy you leave, 223,
q&a with Debbie and Joan ..., 241,
acknowledgments, 251,
notes, 257,
about the authors, 261,

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