My mother’s birthday was today. She passed away 12 years ago (also in the month of November), and we were not speaking at the time of her death.

I’ve been doing a workshop series as part of my new project, Understanding the People You Love, and I’ve been opening my November sessions with this sad piece of information. I wish my relationship with my mother hadn’t been so hurtful. I wish we had been close and loving and gentle. Certainly I wish she hadn’t died alone and likely believing I did not love her.

I did love my mom. Very much. I just couldn’t ever figure out the way to make our relationship work. Twelve years later, I believe I’ve finally got some information and perspective, far too late to help my mom and me, but in time to make my present relationships better, and in time to perhaps help other families and couples find more joy and suffer less pain. This, I tell my attendees, is the mission behind my project. Understanding the People You Love is, in great part, a tribute to my mom.

I use an example from our troubled relationship as part of a workshop exercise. It’s my report of a problem between my mom and me:

My mother was constantly criticizing my child-rearing methods and the way I spend money. “You home school your kids when there’s a good school up the street. Matt doesn’t even know his times tables yet! And you waste money on vacations. You’re not normal. You are sick.”

And then we practice applying these steps for beginning to turn the relationship around:

  1. Take the fictive attitude towards the details. This means to temporarily set aside the “facts.” Discussions about whether or not my mom is too critical (No, I’m not! Yes, you are!), whether the school is actually good or not (Yes it is! No it’s not!), whether Matt really knows his times tables, whether I waste money, etc, etc…they go nowhere and waste energy and cause injury to escalate.
  2. Tune in to the underlying feelings. My mom was really trying to express her feelings. What might those have been? We guessed she might have felt excluded, disrespected (I did most things differently than she would have and I secretly enjoyed being “the parent” now and showing her up with my “superior” parenting skills), perhaps envious of the good relationship I had with my own kids. Lonely. Ignored. Angry. Hurt.
  3. Join in those feelings. “Homeschooling seems risky to you.” “Travel isn’t what you would ever do with your money.” “You worry about me.”
  4. Identify options / grant some control. “What can we do to be closer and get along better?” “What role do you wish you played in your grand kids’ lives?”

My audience “got” this example right away, and they thanked me for using it. It was meaningful because it was a real and personal situation, they said.

If nothing else, it helped me. I see so clearly now what I should have done, back when my mom was still alive. Of course hindsight is so much easier, but still, I hope I’ve learned some skills that I can use now, with the people I love who are here with me today.