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Forgiving Our Mothers

Welcome to My Green Vermont - A Blog by Eulalia Benejam Cobb.
By Eulalia Benejam Cobb

Went to a meeting of women of a certain age yesterday to talk about mothers and daughters.  The room was crowded, and  I couldn\’t help wondering what an equivalent meeting for men would have been like.  Would guys have showed up in such numbers on a Sunday afternoon?  Would they have told intimate stories about their fathers?

In this meeting, the stories came pouring out. There was the woman who, the night before her mother died, dreamed that she was carrying her mother down a path towards a bridge whose other side was obscured by clouds;  the woman whose mother could not attend her daughter\’s college graduation because she was giving birth to her fourteenth child;  the woman (several women) who felt abandoned by her mother.  Finally, there was the woman who, try as she might, could not bring herself to forgive her mother. The room had lots of advice for her, basically having to do with letting go of her feelings so she could get on with her life.  Then, as the meeting was about to end, one woman spoke up \”You can\’t just think about forgiveness.\”  She clasped her hands to her bosom, \”Forgiveness has to come from the heart.\”


Talk about a perpetual guilt machine.  I can imagine the unforgiving woman beating herself up for the rest of her life, saying \”But I don\’t feel forgiveness towards my mother.\”  Paradoxically, my often guilt-inducing Catholic education could have come to the rescue, had I had a chance to speak.  \”Feelings don\’t have anything to do with it,\” I would have told her.  \”All you need is the intention to forgive.  Make an act of the will.  Act as though you have forgiven, and things will take care of themselves.\”

There\’s nothing we can do about our feelings.  Resentment, hatred, gluttony, envy, lust keep endlessly erupting out of that hidden volcano we all carry inside.  They appear uninvited, sometimes a trickle,  sometimes a torrent.  And sometimes they vanish for good.

The only thing we can control is our actions. The practice of acting as though one has forgiven reminds me of the loving-kindness practice in Buddhism.  You keep repeating \”may all beings be safe, may all beings be happy…\” and eventually you may end up feeling kindly towards your worst enemy.  But it\’s o.k. if the feeling doesn\’t come, as long as the intention is there.

This approach to morality has helped in my own dealings with my mother.  I can recall things my mother did or said that still arouse less-than-loving feelings in me.  But in my mind and with my will I have forgiven her, and thus am spared the burden of guilt.

The process of forgiving my mother has been assisted by my being the mother of adult children–daughters at that.  How can anybody who has bumbled and improvised her way through motherhood, armed with nothing but luck and good intentions, see herself through the eyes of her grown daughters and not cast a newly indulgent eye on her own mother?  In other words, let her who is without guilt cast the first stone…

Despite my refusal to cast stones, I\’m sorry to say, the resentment volcano still erupts.  \”Why  did she…?   How on earth could she…?  Didn\’t she see that I…?\”  On and on, ad infinite nauseam.  Isn\’t it time I got over this, I wonder?  Will it ever go away? 

I am beginning to suspect that this particular volcano will never go completely dormant.  But after yesterday\’s meeting, hearing all those stories, at least I know that mine is not the only volcano that\’s still sputtering away.

13 Responses

  1. Act of will. It is exactly what one must do. I took that step about 10 years ago when I was going through post-partum depression with my oldest (daughter) and recognized exactly what I didn't want to be (my mother is bipolar). A lot of tangled emotions in my relationship with her, things I could never say on my blog because she reads it, but it was a simple, strong act of will to forgive her. It was such a relief, and our interactions since then have been more between two chatty casual friends than anything resembling a mother-daughter relationship. For the best.

  2. Nice piece Lali. I enjoyed tagging along with you yesterday. The day certainly brought up lots of thoughts after the meeting. I found it interesting how we managed to work with such a large group chat; it actually worked quite well.A book I wanted to mention yesterday was Hanna's Daughters, A novel of three generations, by Marianne Fredriksson. I read it at a time when \”I\” was not the entire focus of my life…. and helped me see beyond the immediate. xojudy

  3. Act of will, yes. Lali, how I wish I could send this post to my sister. She has never forgiven my mother, not since my mother came home from the hospital with me as a new baby. And at 55, she won't forgive my mother now, for whatever slights/grievances she felt.So although being a mother may have made you more forgiving, I suspect you're the kind of person who would have been forgiving anyway. Motherhood made my sister less forgiving. Ironically, of the three sisters, I am the one who is most forgiving, the one who has never had children.

  4. depends on what the mother did, i think. i forgave (if that's the right word–maybe it's more \”came to peace with\”) my mother's actions after i grew up and understood better who my mother is. not just a mother, but a flawed human being, with many problems that had nothing to do with us kids. and therefore a lot of the reasons for her behavior had nothing to do with us kids, either, even if we were the ones who felt her actions most keenly.

  5. I am so very blessed to have a good relationship with my daughter- we travel together, go to Opera and Broadway shows together and this weekend she wants me to come see a new coop she is considering buying in NY.We said recently that our relationship started when she moved to a new area (L.A.) and I got divorced, so we both were feeling our way along in a new world with similar concerns. Since I didn't have my own mother around long enough to have disagreements and a bad feelings, I try to keep this mother/daughter relationship prospering.

  6. Lali, the sad thing is that my sister might have plenty of more time but my mother doesn't. Anyway, this was a great post that got us all thinking!

  7. Thanks for this, Lali. My mother was relatively young when I was born, and nowhere ready to have the responsibility of a child. When I was a teen she mostly wanted to be a friend instead of a mother but I wanted a mother. I could copy and paste what Laurie said above. I too \”came to peace\” with some of the things my mother did when I realized she was just a human. Sometimes, often, I worry that my daughter will be having this conversation with someone about me someday, if she has not already. (although she has told me that of all her friends' parents she believes she has the best of the bunch and thanks us for rasing her as we did [whew!]).

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