Forgiving a Perfect Mother

Changing My Mind About My Mom & Me

Posted May 10, 2014

Mother and Young Daughter

Mom & Me 1950s

It is well nigh impossible to be a perfect mother, although many women try valiantly. It is perhaps even more challenging to have a perfect mother. I should know—I had one.

Or at least that was the story we told ourselves. Until I became a teenager and the improbability of such a fiction emerged, she was the perfect mother and I was the perfect daughter.

She was a stay-at-home mom until I was ten and then she went to work with the local school district so we could have the same holidays. We were mother and daughter, but we were also best friends and playmates.

During my formative years my mother made my clothes, taught me to bake and sew, gave me music and dance lessons, made sure I had the best teachers, taught me table manners at the elegant Denver Dry Goods Tea Room, and began conveying the fine art of shopping therapy as soon as I could appreciate its importance.

By all accounts, it was an idyllic childhood. Our family never had much money, but my parents were frugal and my mother was determined to give me everything she had ever wanted and could not have growing up poor in the Depression.

But human perfection is a difficult pretense. Eventually cracks will appear. As I grew older, I would cringe when another of her acquaintances greeted me saying, “I’ve heard so much about you.” Oh boy, did I know that to be true—I was always my mother’s favorite topic of conversation.

My growing attempts at individuation often did not meet with my mother’s approval. And when I came back from college as a hippie determined to pursue a theatrical career, our fragile façade shattered. Like my mother’s precious china-head doll that one of her five brothers had broken on a long-ago Christmas morning, our perfection could not survive in real life.

Our idealism turned into a sense of betrayal: How could I not want to be a piano teacher and a preacher’s wife? How could she not understand the immensity of my dreams and the profound calling I felt for things psychological and universally spiritual?

I credit my less volatile father for helping us maintain a tenuous truce. And in 1990, when I married a man it was nearly impossible not to regard as perfect, all was forgiven and I once more became my mother’s topic célèbre.

Of course, I had married a human being, not an archetype, which he sadly proved 18 years later by dying of colon cancer—a fact my mother found difficult to reconcile with her vision of the promise our lives had held. She got stuck in “Stephen shouldn’t have died!”—which made my “But he did die and I have to live with it!” all the more painful.

By that time advancing age and chronic health problems were severely challenging her own self-image. Into her nineties she remained cute and vivacious, and we could still enjoy shopping and going out to lunch. But eventually those outings went the way of other diversions, and we were left with the deeper work of finding unconditional acceptance of each other as imperfect human beings.

It was a hard journey. I’m not sure that she got there until the very end of her life. I made it by trying to understand her story. In the year before and then immediately following her exit from this world, I dug into her memoires that had been too painful to read because she had so openly expressed her anger and disappointment in me.

I found photos of her and my father that I had never seen. I learned more about her early life and told that story over and over to myself and others until my mother’s behavior that had seemed narcissistic and emotionally intrusive made sense to me.

As I put myself in her shoes, I discovered the logic of what had appeared selfish and illogical. I discovered her as a bright young woman whose dreams of career and accomplishment had been aborted by poverty, the Depression, and the great interference of World War II.

Like most women of her generation, her life’s trajectory was dependent on my father’s career path. When, unlike other women, she could not get pregnant, another disappointment threatened to weigh down her otherwise resilient and hopeful personality.

After nine long years of apparent infertility, my mother gave birth to the child she had wanted and all of her unfulfilled dreams swooped into to seek fulfillment through the person of a perky, but sickly baby girl (me).

Mother and Grown Daughter

Mom & Me 2000s

Now it all made sense—why she loved me “too much.” Why she was terrified that life would break this little doll, too. Why she made me the bearer of so many of her projections.

And in that moment of realization, I forgave her for wanting perfection. I also forgave myself for not being able to achieve it.

My mother died last November at the age of 94. Her death was a painful one—not at all the quiet passing we had both wished for her. But sometimes that’s the way it is with humans, and somehow there is great beauty in that frailty.

Today I sense that beauty in my mother and myself. And with it has come compassion, peace, and gratitude for all of the lessons—the ones that brought tears as well as the ones that brought joy—that I learned from my flawed and fabulous mother.

Copyright © 2014 Cheryl Eckl Communications, Inc. All rights reserved. Read more about Cheryl Eckl and her latest book, The LIGHT Process, in "The Author Speaks" by the Psychology Today Book Brigade

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