Disentangling from a difficult mother:  relief from crushing guilt

(a personal story)

“Are you going to pull that ‘I just had a baby’ sh*!”.

I had just settled into my bed with all of the pillows organized so my body could be supported in all the right ways while I held my sweet 1-day old infant.  My dear friend Liz, who had driven me home from the hospital and waited until I was settled in, had just left. So it was just me, my ex-husband, and our baby in the house.

Within minutes, the baby did what babies do, and needed a new diaper.  I made what I considered to be a reasonable request and asked her dad (my ex-husband) if he could change her diaper.  His response was literally:  “Are you going to pull that ‘I just had a baby’ sh*!”.

That was the moment I realized just how lucky I was that he had left me 8 ½ months earlier (for a younger woman). I could finally see what was there to be seen all along

Realizing I had been in an unhealthy relationship did not make the co-parenting journey easy.  However, seeing with more clarity empowered me to respond to the reality of the situation, laying the groundwork for my children and me to gradually navigate towards thriving forward.

Even though that was many years ago, the reason I shared that glimpse into my past is because I experienced a similarly profound clarity-moment in my relationship with my mother.  However, as I recount this next story, the ‘aha’ moment is so subtle, it may not have otherwise conveyed the magnitude of the impact it had on me. 

I’ll share what happened with the caveat that if you have a healthy relational dynamic with your mother, no matter how carefully I choose my words, this anecdote may not resonate.  However, if you are among those who understand what I am talking about, then this is for you.  Even though your story will be unique to you, it’s worth sharing mine so you know that you aren’t alone and that RELIEF is possible.

Here’s what happened…
I was enjoying a quiet morning at the farmer’s market when my phone received a cluster of texts.  I didn’t check who it was because my friends and I have a shared belief in the joys of asynchronous communication, and my young adult children have unique ringtones.  I didn’t even pull my phone out a few minutes later when it started to ring.  But, when it rang again within just 1-minute, I stepped away from the produce and shifted my attention to the phone.

It was my mother.

Even though my body experienced a push-pull and a compulsion to immediately answer the phone, I reminded myself that I could take a moment to find my center.

Rather than answering the call, I checked the text messages first.  Her text said that she’d received a pop-up notice on her computer, and was wondering if it was a virus.  My initial instinct upon reading her text was to shift into fixer-mode.  But instead I leaned in for a self-soothing remothering moment.  

I noticed the tension in my body, the survival-level urge to help my mother.  And, I was able to say to myself:  “Oh sweetie, I see you.  I’m here.  It makes so much sense that you prioritized her emotional well-being when you were little, it was adaptive then.  But, here’s a question:  if it was anyone else in the world, what would your response be right now?”.

I was able to slow down and ask myself what I’d do if it were any other adult.  As I imagined what my response would be if it were a friend, my answer was clear.  I would let them know the information they’d need to be able to handle it themselves.  Which is just what I did. I let my mother know that it sounded like a scam.  I let her know that I was out and not available, but that Staples and Best Buy both have virus and malware removal service.

Here’s the kicker for me. 
When I got home, I checked in with her.  Her answer:  she had social plans.

It dawned on me that it’s possible that her urgency earlier was 100% based on her own schedule, with zero consideration for mine.  I don’t know if that was the case or not, but it was a profound experience to allow myself to hold that thought without mental gymnastics and the blinders of indoctrinated guilt.

It was a profound experience to allow myself to hold that thought without mental gymnastics and the blinders of indoctrinated guilt

As I stayed present with that thought, a slide-show of hundreds of these small, easily deniable incidences flashed in my mind.  It felt like for the first time in my life my entire internal community was seeing the same thing.  It’s as if the spell of outdated programming was shattered, allowing me to see with greater clarity. A clarity that has since supported me to navigate the relationship with my mother with newfound insight and freedom.

Through the lens of the remothering work, what I’d say is that I had built up the internal scaffolding to the point that I felt safe enough to replace some of my outdated adaptations with updated ways of being that were more aligned.  But, what it felt like was RELIEF.

side note: These paper-cut sized, plausibly deniable, “minor” interactions with my mother have been challenging for me to metabolize, which is why this was such a profound experience. And, it’s also why I shared this particular experience; I’m hopeful that if you needed to hear it, this story offers companionship and hope. But if the “minor-ness” of this example is pinging you, how human of you. My invitation is to notice that, and reflect on what message that internal discomfort holds for you.

The Human Adventure Continues
In both situations, disentangling from the maladaptive relational dances doesn’t mean there’s not still work to be done to navigate the situations I created for myself when I was operating from within the fog of my blind spots.  But what it does offer is a profound shift from efforting to ease.   

And now, let’s bring it back to you. As you read my story, what’s feeling important for you here? What are you taking for yourself?

Journal Prompt:
What subtle moments in your relationships might be waiting to be seen? How could the lens of clarity bring relief to your journey?

3/5/24 Article addition:

Apparently this article struck a tender spot for some folks on the wider internet.

While the name-calling comments have been removed, it does offer an important lesson.  If a blog-reader has such a strong reaction to an adult daughter expressing emotional pain about a seemingly small situation, that’s a clue to why our nervous systems feel danger when we don’t, for example, stop what we are doing to answer the phone for our mothers.

If for example, our mother is/was emotionally immature, she may have acted out (like this blog-reader did) when she was disappointed.  That may be something subtle, like the silent treatment, or it may have been more overt like name-calling or physical punishment.  Responses like that can teach a growing brain that disappointing our mothers is not wise. 

Fast forward to adulthood, and although disappointing our adult mother may logically seem “minor”, we humans have parts of our brain that don’t live in linear time; and to those parts, it’s a much bigger deal.  Fortunately, when we “time travel” and experience a current situation through the lens of our history-colored glasses (which is something humans do), we can be there for ourselves.  The remothering moments.

When we learn to be there for ourselves (even if it wasn’t modeled for us), and we practice greeting ourselves with compassion and self-kindness no matter how seemingly small our hurt may be, we begin to disentangle from these outdated relational dances. 

For those of us that learned that expressing hurt at seemingly “minor” pains was not a wise path, we may have internalized that voice and now minimize or dismiss our own experiences.  If you are pinged by the “minor-ness” of my example, it’s an opportunity to notice what wisdom that internal discomfort holds for you. 

Posted by Simona Vivi H

Simona Vivi H, globally recognized remothering expert and transformational life coach, guides adult daughters to healthier boundaries, self-kindness, and the transformative remothering journey. Trade the 'don’t be selfish' conditioning for ease, clarity, and self-alignment. Connect at CenterForRemothering.com, reMothering.org, and on Instagram @the.remothering.coach.

Reader interactions

3 Replies to “Disentangling from a difficult mother:  relief from crushing guilt”

  1. Thank you for your words of support for those of us who also had a lifetime of “paper cuts” at the hands of distant, unconnected parents. We do feel dismissed when others tell of horrible abuse; like, who am I to complain?

    I look forward to continuing my reMothering journey with you. You always bring me words of comfort, acknowledgement and hope.


    1. Simona Vivi H March 4, 2024 at 4:46 pm

      I am so glad to know that it was helpful that I shared my experience.

      And thank you for engaging with this conversation. What your comment “who am I to complain” sparked for me is the thought that there’s so much underneath our reactions to these paper cuts that is hard to explain to someone that hasn’t experienced it.

      For example, and, I’m not saying this was your experience, I am speaking generally: if our mother is/was emotionally immature, she may have lashed out when she was disappointed. That may be something subtle, like a cold shoulder. Or obvious, like telling your father you need a spanking for not listening. And, to our very young selves, the cold shoulder may have felt like abandonment. And being physically punished for not complying may have conditioned a child mind that disappointing our mothers was not wise.

      Fast forward to adulthood, although disappointing another adult may logically seem “minor”, we humans have parts of our brain that don’t live in linear time; and to those parts, it’s a much bigger deal. Fortunately, when we “time travel” and experience a current situation through the lens of our history-colored glasses (which is something humans do), we can be there for ourselves. The remothering moments!

      Janet, thank you for your kind words. I am so honored to be on the journey with you.


  2. Simona Vivi H March 4, 2024 at 6:02 pm

    I agree Judith, I would be so lucky if those paper-cut sized interactions were merely “complaints” (to use your word). However, that’s not what they represent.

    What I appreciate about your comment is that it highlights for others why these more “minor” pains are harder to heal from.

    Since relational dynamics are a nuanced topic, let’s look at a more concrete example. If I told you the story of when I was held up at gunpoint would that feel more worthy of a post? Here’s the thing about the gun-point incident, or any of the other more “real”, more obvious pains from my life…people know to say “That’s so hard, I’m sorry you had to go through that”. There’s connection, there’s validation, there’s healing.

    However, these paper-cut sized pains are often dismissed or met with comments like “you should be so lucky”.

    If as children, we didn’t have many experiences of attunement with our caregiver, but there was nothing egregious, obvious, or easy to describe, then who do we go to for comfort? For me, the answer was that for many decades I walked around with an internalized voice that would have minimized or dismissed my own experience.

    I didn’t treat myself with care and self-compassion. And, I couldn’t access my inner-little one’s grief for what never was. The grief for not knowing what it feels like to be able to turn to a mother for comfort, connection, nurturance, acceptance, belonging, wise counsel.

    But, as we continue along our remothering journeys, and as we practice leaning in for the remothering moments, we get to be there for ourselves. We get to greet ourselves with compassion and self-kindness no matter how seemingly small our hurt may be. We get to experience accompaniment. It’s incredibly powerful and incredibly healing.


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