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Ours was not a mother-daughter relationship made of sugar and spice and everything nice, so when my mom came to stay with me for three weeks, I expected us to clash on more than one occasion. As it turns out, we didn’t.
Part of the reason may have been that she was emotionally wiped upon arrival, having spent the previous couple of months preparing to move from a house to an apartment. The other part of it may have been that I’d already decided we were going to get along because, well…I wanted to.
That’s not to say we didn’t have our moments. We did. She’s most definitely not of the “let’s talk about our feelings” generation.
So what’s a daughter to do?
The following are my top five tips for improving your mother/daughter relationship, along with some insights from psychologist Tara Cousineau of Milton, Massachusetts, author of The Kindness Cure: How the Science of Compassion Can Heal Your Heart and Your World.
1. Accept that mothers aren’t perfect. Time is fleeting, and June Cleaver wasn’t real. “We create an idealized image of how we want our moms to be,” said Cousineau, “and that carries with us throughout our life span.” The truth is, as your mom ages, she’ll become even more rooted in her way of thinking. If we don’t let go of that idealized image, it can feel really disappointing. “When you accept the fact that she will not change, you can embrace the fact that you can change,” she says.
2. Spend a chunk of time together, even if it’s just a long weekend. It’s worth the inevitable "Oh no, what have I done?" thoughts that creep in when you’re alone together that first day. And make time for fun. My mom and I played Scrabble and watched movies. While you’re together, keep the concept “If you fear it, predict it” front and center, said Cousineau. Past behavior predicts future behavior, so if you sense "Oh here we go again," tell yourself, "I can change the direction of this conversation, before it becomes hurtful."
3. If there’s something that needs to be discussed, bring it up as an important step towards the future, and away from the difficulties of the past. Then let it go, and express your appreciation for her being open to the conversation. Cousineau says “a conscious expression of gratitude goes a really long way.” Especially "I love you," which she says people often take for granted and don’t say out loud.
4. Shift the focus — sometimes it’s not about you. Ask your mom what her childhood was like. You may gain greater understanding and, through that, greater compassion. I discovered that my mother never felt she had the chance to be a kid. It explained a lot about her parenting. This ended up being a “micro-moment” for me, and took me by surprise. Cousineau says micro-moments are worth savoring.
5. Change the script — don’t respond to a comment or criticism the same way you always have. What follows is predictable, and you’re trying to start a new dialogue. The truth, says Cousineau, is that “the only thing we have control over is our response.” So when you start to get into a war of words, try what she calls “the graceful exit” by saying something like, “That’s really interesting…I’m not sure I totally agree, but I hear where you’re coming from.”
After I said goodbye to my mother at the airport, she was in the security line and turned to wave one last time. I wanted to sweep her up and bring her back home with me.
To keep up the momentum after a good visit, Cousineau suggests you tell your mom how much the time together meant to you, and that you’ll always remember it.
I will. And for the record, I love you, Mom.