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The Mom Factor
Dealing with the Mother You Had, Didn't Have, or Still Contend With
By Henry Cloud, John Townsend
ZONDERVANCopyright © 1996 Henry Cloud and John Townsend
All rights reserved.
What About Mom, Anyhow?
Beth hung up the phone, frustrated, confused, and discouraged. She had just spent ninety minutes talking to her mother — ninety minutes of wasted time. As a working mother, Beth didn't have that kind of time to spare.
She had tried to explain to her mom that their vacation plans wouldn't include a visit to see her. "You know we'd love to see you," Beth said, trying to reason with her mom, "but this vacation we really wanted to see the Grand Canyon."
The silence that followed was too familiar to Beth. Hurt, distance, and coldness were the hallmarks of saying no to her mother. Beth tried to scramble and make some connection with her. "Mom, we'll make a real effort to see you on the next trip."
"That won't be necessary. I'm sure you'll be too busy for me then too." Her mother hung up, and the dial tone accented that ache in Beth's stomach that she knew too well. Again, she realized that her mother couldn't be pleased; Beth was always "not enough," or "too much" something. It was confusing: Was she really an ungrateful, selfish daughter, or did her mother have too many expectations?
Beth loved her mother deeply and desired more than anything to have a close, respectful relationship with her. She remembered the commandment to "honor thy father and mother," and thought, This is impossible. If I honor her, I dishonor my family, and if I honor my family, I dishonor her. She resigned herself to the way things always had been and went back to planning the vacation. However, emptiness now surrounded the entire project.
This scene repeats itself millions of times daily around the world. Every six seconds, another adult alternates between resentment, anger, guilt, fear, and confusion about ongoing interaction with a mother.
Most people want a comfortable, mutually satisfying friendship with that very significant person in our life — our mother. But the reality falls short of the ideal. You may experience "mother trouble" in several areas. You may feel:
unable to communicate with her
her lack of respect for your choices and values
her refusal to accept your own family and friends
a lack of freedom to have a separate life without losing her love
disconnected from and misunderstood by her
difficulty in saying no and confronting her
you have to hide your real self and be perfect
responsible to make her think that she is perfect
guilt when you don't take care of her as she wants you to
disillusionment and conflict over her interactions with your spouse
guilt over not living up to her expectations and wishes
sorrow that she can't seem to comprehend your pain s childlike in her presence
frustration over her seeming self-absorption
like cringing when she treats your children in familiar hurtful ways
discouraged that this list is so long
The list could go on, but it points to a fundamental truth: Our relationship with our mother either in the past or present hasn't left us where we want to be. You may wish you and your mom were closer. And you may wish she had better prepared you for other aspects of life.
For not only does the quality of your relationship with your mother dictate how things go between the two of you, it also drastically impacts all areas of your life. Not only do we learn our patterns of intimacy, relating, and separateness from mother, but we also learn about how to handle failure, troublesome emotions, expectations and ideals, grief and loss, and many of the other components that make up our "emotional IQ" — that part of us that guarantees whether or not we will be successful at love and work. In short, the following two realities largely determine our emotional development:
1. How we were mothered
2. How we have responded to that mothering
* * *
Dave got out of the car in the flower shop parking lot. It was another apology bouquet day. His wife, Cindy, had been in tears last night when she had staged a special evening alone with him without the kids. Dinner had gone well, and she had been looking forward to an evening of intimacy and vulnerability. Yet when she looked into his eyes and asked him how he was feeling about their marriage and life in general, Dave had shut down inside. As usual he was at a loss for words and could not bridge the emotional gap between himself and his wife.
"Maybe I just don't deserve her ... a husband is supposed to love his wife, so why don't I even desire this closeness that's so important to her? What's wrong with me?" he wondered, as he plunked down another bill for the flowers. "Are flowers the best I'll ever do?"
Dave's dilemma would seem at first glance to have little to do with mothering problems. He just knew he had a problem with his wife. But the reality is that Dave's pattern of relating was working exactly as God planned: we learn from our parents about relationship. In his relationship with his mother, Dave had learned that closeness could be dangerous. For example, when he was scared or hurt, his mother would become anxious and fuss over him to the point that he felt smothered. As a result, any time his wife moved toward him in an emotional way, his walls went up, and he braced himself against emotional overinvolvement. He found himself in a lose-lose situation. While he did not like being cut off from his wife, he did not like being close either. Either position left his wife feeling unfulfilled. Until Dave dealt with his fears of intimacy, this pattern would continue.
Dave's struggle illustrates the major point of this book: What we learned in our relationship with our mother deeply affects every area of our adult life.
DOES IT HAVE TO BE THIS WAY?
Just as God's plan for us to learn patterns of relating from our mothers can end up wreaking destruction in our adult lives, so can his plan of repair bring change and growth.
As a single man, Mark had noticed patterns in his relationships similar to Dave's pattern with his wife: He couldn't sustain long-term, intimate relationships. He'd get close to an eligible woman, even consider marriage, and then inexplicably back off from the relationship, complaining that she was "too demanding," or "too serious," or "not serious enough," or whatever. For years he simply told himself that he just couldn't find the "right one," until a friend suggested that the problem might be him. In response to his friend's suggestion, Mark joined a support group that dealt with issues of intimacy and trust. It was hard work at first as those were the very dynamics in which he felt the most deficient. Yet, as he opened himself to the consistent nurturing and confrontation of the group members, something began to change in him. As they held him accountable for his own fears and deficits, as well as gave him what he missed with his own mother, he began to notice that he avoided intimacy less. In fact, he even began to long for it. And his long list of requirements for a partner became much more realistic.
As Mark continued on his growth path, he found "the right one." But in reality, Mark had become "the right one" because he had allowed his friends to provide the mothering he needed and thus learned the patterns of relating he had missed the first time around. When we aren't mothered perfectly, God will provide others to fill in the gaps. He can redeem our early experience, either building on the good our mother did, or providing basic essentials our mother may have missed.
Many people suffer under the delusion that their mother is the real problem. Many modern pop psychology approaches promote the following:
blaming parents for all of the client's problems
focusing only on dredging up "pain from the past" and "getting the pain out," thinking that catharsis cures
identifying the client as a victim and commiserating with how bad "mom" or someone else was
excusing behavior, lack of performance, and failure in love or work because of what mother failed to provide
encouraging the client to live more in the past than in the present
arranging sessions with mom, thinking that reconciling with mom or having mom "own" how bad she was will finally fix the hole in the client's heart
This thinking focuses on the mother of the past, not on the process of mothering in the present. Thinking that resolution will come from blaming parents, trying to get them to change, or continuing to process the events of the past, they miss out on the necessary character change that leads to real healing.
While we believe that working out one's relationship with one's mother is very important in the growth process, it is not the whole picture. We must also look at the process of mothering in the present as well.
Therefore, the two considerations that we will be focusing on in this book are your relationship with your mother and the process of mothering itself. Let's look at each one of those issues for a moment.
When we talk about "dealing with the past," we aren't saying to "go back into the past." You cannot go back to 1950, 1960, 1970, or even yesterday to deal with mother. But, dealing with mother is possible because, whether you like it or not, she lives with you every day in the present.
Two very important issues are at work every day that result from unresolved aspects of our relationship with mother. The first issue has to do with the feelings we have for our mother, the injuries we felt from her, and the needs that she didn't meet. The second issue is the dynamics and patterns of relating that we learned in our relationship with mom. The first deals with how we feel today about the past; the second deals with how we repeat patterns from the past.
Let's look at the first issue — the feelings that we have toward our mother.
Jim and Debbie were preparing for a trip. She was packing, and he was getting the car ready when Debbie suddenly remembered that it was time to change the oil in her car. She walked out into the garage. "Jim, did you get the oil changed?" she asked. Maybe he had remembered and taken the car in earlier in the day.
"Will you get off my back?" Jim screamed. "What do you think I am, an idiot? Of course I got the oil changed. I told you I would take care of the car, and you don't ever believe anything I tell you." He stared at her with such contempt and hatred that an icy feeling moved down her spine. Debbie, not ever knowing what to do when Jim reacted in this way, withdrew to her room and cried.
Debbie had asked an innocent question. But Jim reacted as if she thought he was an "idiot," and he was prepared to fight and defend himself against her.
Why? Jim grew up with a mother very unlike Debbie. A domineering and controlling woman, Jim's mother did not trust Jim to do things on his own, nor did she believe him when he told her he had done his jobs. He grew up trying to please her and at the same time resenting her.
One reason Jim had fallen in love with Debbie in the first place was because she was so unlike his mother. Although not consciously thinking about his mother at all, he was drawn to Debbie's warmth and lack of domination. He felt close to her almost from the first time they met. She was his ultimate fantasy woman.
As time went on, the relationship naturally deepened — and then the problems emerged. Jim began to lose his warm, tender feelings toward Debbie, and instead began to feel a growing resentment resulting in angry outbursts like the one above.
The sad thing was that Debbie hadn't changed. She was still the same warm, noncontrolling person he had loved.
What had happened? As Jim's attachment to his wife increased, his unresolved feelings about his mother began to emerge and interfere with how he experienced Debbie. His anger toward his mother and his feelings of being controlled, mistrusted, and dominated by his mother got displaced onto Debbie. He experienced Debbie as an adversary, as he had his mother. In reality, he could no longer even see Debbie for the woman she was, because of his feelings about his mother. He actually began to experience Debbie as if she were his mother.
Psychologists call this phenomenon "transference." It is our tendency to direct feelings toward people in the present that should really be directed toward people in our past. It's the old "burned dog dreads the fire" routine. If someone hurts us, and we fail to work through our wounded feelings, we will distort future relationships that appear even close in character to the one in which we were hurt. If we have unresolved feelings toward our real mothers, we need to deal with that relationship.
The Bible calls this process forgiveness. Forgiveness involves looking honestly at problems in a relationship, facing them, letting them go, and grieving our losses. It frees us from our past. We name what went wrong, look at it, feel the feelings, and let them go. The goal is to get to the place where we are "finished with mother" and ready to see people as they are.
Patterns of Relating
The second issue related to our mother has to do with understanding the dynamics and patterns of relating that we learned in our relationship with mom. Let's go back to Dave for a moment. He had learned some patterns in his relationship to his mother that he was exhibiting now with his wife. These patterns of relating, called "dynamics," are like maps laid down in our brains; they determine how we will operate in different kinds of relationships. Dave's map of closeness worked this way: When he became intimate, he feared he would be smothered and overwhelmed, losing himself. In order to regain his own space that he feared his wife (like his mother before her) was about to take away from him, he withdrew.
Dave is living out the pattern of relating that is familiar to him, and until he changes it, he will continue to "walk in the ways of [his] elders." The Bible tells us that we repeat unhealthy patterns of relating until we take ownership of them and work through them (see Mark 7:8 – 9). Dave needs more insight into the patterns that he had learned in his relationship with his mother, so that he can turn from them and begin to create healthier ones with his wife.
We need to look at the patterns that we learned in our relationship with our mother. Patterns of avoidance, control, compliance, dominance, passivity, aggressiveness and overcontrol, mistrust, and a host of others can get hardwired into our brains. We were made to take in those patterns and to live by them. That is what parenting is about. We internalize the ways of our parents, and then live by them.
Thus, we are destined to repeat troublesome internalized patterns of relating or performing until we become aware of them and change. In this way, our relationship with mom needs more than forgiveness: We need to become aware of dynamics and patterns and change them into more helpful ones.
THE MOTHERING PROCESS
Jordan was a diligent mother of two, and she loved her children very much. But her children were disorganized, as children often are; they would leave their toys lying around and generally create chaos. When this happened, Jordan would grow more and more irritated, until finally through clenched teeth, she would yell, "Put your toys away." Fearing her blowups, her children were beginning to show signs of anxiety. Whenever she would yell at them, or respond harshly, she would feel like a "horrible mother" and be overcome with guilt.
Jordan began to talk to a trusted friend, Susan, about her problem; it was the first time she had ever openly shared a shortcoming with a friend. Susan responded with empathy and understanding, so Jordan began to admit other imperfections.
Over time, Jordan began to notice the difference between Susan and some of the other women she hung around with. The others talked about their wonderful lives, their successful children, and their incredible spiritual growth. There was nothing wrong with sharing successes, but these women never shared failures. Susan was open not only to the good things Jordan had going but also to her struggles.
Excerpted from The Mom Factor by Henry Cloud, John Townsend. Copyright © 1996 Henry Cloud and John Townsend. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
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