Author’s name withheld.
“How would you feel if one of your children couldn’t forgive you for doing the best you could?” That troubling question began drifting through my mind early this year. This thought first led me to consider my relationships with my children: How do my children feel about me? Do they love me because I’m easy to love, or because they are compassionate people? As I pondered these questions, I began to wonder, for the first time, what impact my feelings toward my mother have had on her. To fully explain this journey, I need to start at the beginning.
On New Year’s Day 2020, I noticed an email from the Church. I was traveling home with my husband from visiting our son and his family and made a mental note to read the email after our trip. Then I promptly forgot about it.
Two weeks later, a friend asked me what I thought about President Nelson’s invitation to “hear Him,” an invitation extended in that email sent to members on January 1st. She shared with me that, among other things, she was praying for “more light.” I loved that simple request for guidance in whatever area was needed and decided to follow her lead.
During the next few weeks, as I included a plea for more light in my prayers, I had a few conversations with friends about their difficult relationships with their mothers. These were not just less-than-rosy anecdotes. They were deeply troubling stories about neglect, mental illness, manipulation, and abuse that began in their early childhood years. Behavioral issues with their mothers continue today, although these women have wisely protected themselves from continued abuse. And by the way, these friends are great women—loving and faithful mothers, and influential and respected leaders, despite the trauma they experienced because of these difficult relationships. I thought I was simply helping them by listening to their stories and sympathizing with their pain. I soon realized they were helping me.
These conversations made me think about my own mother. I was the youngest child in a large family, and I have few memories of feeling love from my mom. I’ll share both of them. Once, around age four, a rose thorn gashed my wrist. She cleaned and bandaged it, and sympathetically told the whole family about my injury at dinner that night. A few years later and after a recent move, I was feeling sad about making new friends. She helped me make a list of classmates who could be potential friends. That’s it—those are my only memories of a warm, loving mother. I always felt love from my dad and sisters, but when it comes to my relationship with my mom, the words irrelevant, cold, and unnoticed come to mind. The most prominent feeling I associate with my childhood years is sadness, and these feelings affected me in other areas of my life. My third-grade teacher described me as apathetic and under-achieving. As soon as I was old enough to realize that other people felt loved by their mothers, I developed hard feelings toward mine.
As I reflected on these memories, my prayerful request for more light continued into February. That’s when the troubling question came to me: “How would you feel if one of your children couldn’t forgive you for doing the best you could?” I felt pain just thinking about that question. I pondered how my friends’ mothers’ behavior could be explained by drug addiction and mental illness. My mother had neither of those issues; however, she raised her family amidst chronic and crushing financial insecurity and had suffered a difficult childhood of her own. She was “given away” by her newly widowed father during the Great Depression and lost her adoptive father a few years later. She was loved by her adoptive mother, but it was only expressed by providing food, shelter, and education. Praising a child was thought to cause conceit. Those were the only parenting tools her mother and grandmother knew.
One day as I served in the temple as an ordinance worker, I had some time to let my thoughts wander. They skipped around among the conversations with friends, my thoughts about my own mother, and the troubling question.
That’s when it happened.
Those seemingly unrelated thoughts and experiences of the previous weeks suddenly crystallized into perfect clarity. I needed to apologize to my mom. Revelatory messages quickly flowed to my mind: She was doing the best she could. How would I have held up under the chronic stress she endured? She didn’t neglect me because of selfish reasons—she neglected me because she was overwhelmed. If she hadn’t had that tough, unfeeling nature or if she had collapsed under the pressures she faced, our lives would have been far worse.
Along with these thoughts and questions, a feeling of compassion for her overcame me. My cold feelings toward my mother melted away. Why did it take me so long to understand this? For the first time in my adult life, I could see her side of the story.
As I reveled in the peace that forgiveness brings, I received one more surprising message: Apologize, but don’t expect her to change.
That day I booked a flight, and three weeks later I was in her living room. I prayed for direction to find the optimal time during my three-day visit to talk to her about this sensitive subject. Previous conversations on this topic had not ended well. The first day was clearly not the day. The next day was. Flanked by those same supportive sisters, I shared with her my experience in the temple, apologized for being harsh, and asked for forgiveness. She began to cry. So did I. We embraced. She apologized to me. And then she told me a story I had never heard.
“When I brought you home from the hospital, I was overwhelmed and told your dad, ‘I don’t think I can do this.’ Your dad said, ‘Don’t worry about her. I’ll raise her.’
“And so I never gave it another thought. Dad was raising you, and I didn’t have to worry about you.”
Hearing about this conversation for the first time, more than 50 years after it happened, was incredibly validating. I wasn’t making this up. No wonder I felt loved by my dad every day, while unnoticed by and irrelevant to my mom. My mother’s comments about me as a young child now made sense. “You always went straight to your dad” and “you never wanted anything to do with me” were symptoms of the fact that we never bonded. And she didn’t have the parenting tools, or understanding of postpartum depression, or sufficient self-esteem, or emotional bandwidth to repair the relationship with her young child. She’s not a bad mother, and I’m not an unlovable child. We simply faced hard circumstances.
Now my mom is in her final years of life. As I had been warned, her behavior has not changed much, and in her old age, some of her challenging qualities have only become more challenging. But I feel differently about her now. Where there were ashes, now there is beauty. It’s a messy beauty, but it’s there. What began as pain, and evolved through resentment, disappointment, and irritation, has now matured to gratitude and compassion for a woman who did the best she could under difficult circumstances. Forgiveness feels so good, and I’m only in the early chapters of the story of Mom and me. I have great hope that tenderness and love is ahead for us. President Nelson’s invitation to hear Him, and a friend’s invitation to seek more light have changed my life. I wonder what beautiful changes will happen next as I continue to seek to hear Him.