Q. Even though I am in my 40’s, I don’t get along with my mother. Every year around Mother’s Day, I spend time with her, but I don’t want to. She has always been difficult, and I come away exhausted. Why do we continue to have such a bad relationship and how do I avoid the emotional turmoil?
A. According to Dr. Seth Meyers writing for “Psychology Today,” the adult mother and daughter relationship is defined by a mutual respect and acceptance of each other’s faults and foibles. Unfortunately, many people never get to that point.
Meyers theorizes that there are several reasons that the mother and daughter relationship can be difficult. Some mothers refuse to allow their children to be adults, and some children do not want to become adults. One of my middle-aged patients changed her religious beliefs and was almost disowned by her mother. An older patient remarried and was almost disowned by her middle-aged daughter.
The relationship may also be competitive. When the daughter outshines the mother in terms of talent, beauty or success, jealousy can arise. Conversely, the daughter may never have been as successful as her mother, and she may be jealous of her mother’s good fortune.
Other times, the emotional attachment between mother and daughter was never there. They attempt to share details of their emotional lives, but there is little warmth. Meyers refers to this as a “personality mismatch” and concludes that the two would probably not even be friends if not biologically related.
You may never have the ideal relationship with your mother, but there are ways to improve it. Try calling once or twice a week. If you live far away, make more frequent but shorter visits. If you live close, drop by occasionally with dinner or dessert. Schedule a “date with mom” in which you spend time doing an activity that you both enjoy. Share family pictures and talk about her early years.
Going forward, find the traits that you like about your mother and praise those. Surprisingly, you may find that those traits begin to appear more often.
Q. I was the primary caregiver for my mother who died over three years ago, but I’m still mourning her loss all of the time. I think about her constantly, cry often and dream about her. What is wrong with me that I can’t let this go?
A. In a blog for The New York Times, Barry Jacobs, a clinical psychologist and author of the book “The Emotional Guide for Caregivers,” acknowledges that one can mourn and have intrusive thoughts for years after a loved one has died. Dr. Jacobs states that many people continue to dwell on the suffering that their loved one experienced during the last years or months of life. According to Jacobs, these memories seem to be “seared into the brain and cannot be pushed away.”
Symptoms such as flashbacks of your mother’s suffering, anxiety, guilt, dread, irritability and lack of concentration are all symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
According to Dr. Delores Gallagher-Thompson, a professor of psychiatry at the Stanford University School of Medicine, being a caregiver does not automatically bring about PTSD; however, if one has a genetic pre-disposition for the disorder, the trauma of watching a family member suffer can certainly trigger it.
Now it is time for you can make constructive moves for yourself. Schedule an appointment with a mental health professional for a PTSD evaluation and discuss the possibility of medication with your physician. Once you are feeling stronger, begin volunteering your time working with the elderly. There are many people with few family ties who would welcome your visits. By doing this not only will you help yourself, but you will be honoring your mother’s memory.
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Nancy Ryburn holds a doctorate degree in psychology from Yeshiva University in New York City. She currently teaches psychology at Southeast Arkansas College. If you have questions, email them to firstname.lastname@example.org. They will not be answered personally, but could appear in a future column. There will be no identifying information and all emails remain confidential.