Written by Dr. Joannie DeBrito, Family Support Specialist
In Part 1 of this blog, Dr. Joannie shared the abusive causes of her strained relationship with her mother. Now she picks up with how she avoided passing on the same experiences to her own daughters and found healing instead.
Fast forward to about ten years after college, and I was feeling better about myself, now married with two sweet young daughters. I remember the moment when I realized that I needed to work to make sure that I did not respond to my developing daughters the way my mother did to me.
You see, emotional reactions are hard-wired into us. We all tend to respond based on what we observed in our parents. This is what keeps the cycle of abuse, addiction, or any dysfunctional pattern going.
On this day, I was teaching my oldest daughter to play the piano and it had been a stressful day. The third time she made a mistake in the same place on the same piece of music, I saw my hand go up in the air. I suspended it in midair as the thought occurred to me: “Oh no, I am not going to slap my daughter’s hand and start the cycle of abuse.” Instead of slapping her hand, I lowered my hand, sat with her, and kindly and gently encouraged her to slowly repeat that section of music with each hand until she finally got it right.
Now, it would be dishonest to give the impression that all I needed to do was stop my hand in midair on that day. I knew that I had been successful once, but the temptation to react in less loving ways would return on countless occasions when I was under stress, so I sought help.
I went to parenting classes and talked with counselors. I prayed for wisdom and began to wonder why my mother was the way she was. I learned that my beloved grandfather- who had been nothing but kind and affirming to me- regularly struck my mother and her siblings with wooden spoons and boards or a stinging leather belt.
Now, this was common in parenting in the 1920s-40s, often justified by the “spare the rod, spoil the child” scripture in the Bible. But this was an obvious misinterpretation of those words. In the 23rd Psalm, the words “thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me” are found. This refers to the fact that the rod and staff were tools used by shepherds to gather wandering sheep back to the flock to protect them from being hurt by predators. These tools were used to guide and redirect, not to punish the animals. Unfortunately, a whole generation of children were harmed, some little and some in significant ways, by this kind of corporal punishment as well as some much more severe methods.
I began to replace some of the anger I had toward my mother with empathy and felt sad about the abuse she had to endure.
Sometime later in life, I decided that I did not want my mother to leave this world with me feeling bitterness toward her. It is interesting to note that several family members told me she had expressed regret for being verbally abusive to me, yet I never heard that admission or received an apology. So, knowing that I couldn’t control her, I decided to forgive her. This was not a decision that I made easily.
Honestly, I had all kinds of unkind thoughts about what I hoped would happen to her to make her just go away. I decided to forgive after confessing my sinful thoughts and after praying for guidance. I believe that God softened my heart toward my mother and reminded me of all of the times that He had to forgive me. So, it was really a leap of faith that I took, to pursue forgiveness. I could make all kinds of good arguments for why my mother did not deserve to be forgiven, but then I would have to admit that I didn’t really deserve God’s forgiveness either.
This was a time in my life when I had to allow the Holy Spirit to guide me, and experience healing for my woundedness. That is never found by embracing bitterness or seeking revenge. It is only found when we decide to forgive. It was a long, arduous process but one I encourage you to consider if you find yourself in a similar place as I did and don’t want to repeat problematic behaviors with your children and grandchildren.
Not Too Late to Change
Even if you have already repeated patterns for many years, it is never too late to change. I had to grieve the numerous things I lost as a child because of my mother’s abuse and accept that I would never have the kind of relationship with her that some of my friends had with their mothers. She didn’t really stop criticizing me until I was well into my thirties, and we couldn’t get those years back when she could have been developing a loving mother-daughter relationship with me.
There was also a time when she admitted to me that she had been picking on my daughters all day while I had been out Christmas shopping. I came close to never allowing her to see my children again, given how much I had been hurt by her verbal attacks. I certainly was going to protect my kids from that! But then we talked, and my mother expressed remorse and recognized that she had been in the wrong. Finally, an admission of responsibility, but only for that day, not for the years of abuse I had endured.
Be Willing to Take the First Step
Honestly, as a mother and a grandmother, I think it is the parent’s responsibility to address problems with a child or grandchild, not the child’s. However, for some of us, we are left having to be the responsible party in the parent-child relationship.
When my mother died at the ripe old age of ninety-two, I had no resentment toward her. Having forgiven her, during the last twenty years of her life, I was able to appreciate her for who she was and enjoy the time I had left with her. I have no regrets and more importantly, I have not repeated the patterns of abuse that I experienced.
But guess what? I have made plenty of mistakes as a mother, and my children and I have talked openly about those mistakes. I have apologized when necessary, and we have reconciled because my children have learned how important it is for us to be open and honest with one another.
It takes time to heal, but the effort is well worth it. There are great rewards for exercising some humility, being willing to recognize when you have been out of line, and apologizing.
I have great relationships with my daughters, their spouses, and my grandchildren, and I think those relationships have been strengthened as we have occasionally talked through some areas of misunderstandings on both of our parts.
Do you identify with my story? Were these blog posts helpful for you?
If so, I’ll talk more in the next blog coming out in February about how to heal from your childhood wounds and have better relationships with your children and grandchildren.