Last month I wrote about a woman who was abused by her parents as a child and, despite many years of emotional distance, still carried many of the resulting burdens. I suggested that forgiveness not only releases the burdens but can help reclaim lost power in a relationship. Although the strength of forgiveness rests with the victim, we all must learn how to ask for forgiveness. The following letter from a reader in Collegeville illustrates:
Dear Dr. Dan: What about the child who won’t forgive the parent? The child who cannot see her part in a bad relationship? I have had a lifetime of soul-searching, wishing that I could go back and do it over. I was married at 19, and my first child had three siblings before she was 6. Not enough money, not enough time, I was back to work full-time when she was 21/2. Home life not always happy. Her father was a functioning alcoholic and I was a “martyr,” doing everything myself because that was my job. I needed my daughter to be a “mother’s helper,” which she was for many years. As she got older, she would call me at work to say she was home from school and ask what she could start for supper. I always said “nothing, go out and play.” Now she sees herself as a “Cinderella,” a neglected stepsister, and has distorted recollections of her childhood.
My daughter has always been difficult but is now a self-made person, strong, independent and competent. She is 43, unmarried, and does not want children. I feel guilty – thinking she had such a miserable childhood that she wouldn’t want it repeated.
In her teens, when I had more time, I tried to spend more with her but she rejected me and has rejected me her entire life. When she was about 15 or so, we talked individually with a therapist. He said I would never have the relationship with my daughter that I wanted.
I have ended up with the same relationship with my daughter that I have with my mother. How did this happen? I wanted so much to be different.
– A mother
Dear mother: What a powerful story. Here’s what I heard:
I heard a story of a mother who was probably born to emotional poverty and grew up feeling insecure. A woman who, because of her insecurity, gave her body away prematurely in a desperate (and, of course, misguided) effort to find love. I am sure you needed your daughter to be a mother’s helper. But you also may have needed her to be a friend or partner – someone to help fill what must have felt like a gaping hole inside. In many respects, you both were children trying to do the best you could without guidelines.
In the process, you hurt this child badly. I must be candid: Do not ask her for forgiveness, as you already may have asked her for too much. Given her history, and yours, you should give rather than ask. Hopefully it is not too late to give her what she always wanted – your understanding and compassion. None of this can happen, however, until you can tolerate both her emotions and yours sufficiently so that you can sit with her and truly hear her story.
Of course, this is easier said than done. You will have to go through several steps (preferably with the help of a therapist):
First, you must get out of the way of your guilt. You touch on your regret, and then you criticize your daughter. You allude to your guilt and then seem to back away. What comes across is your anger and your judgment. What doesn’t come across (yet) is your sadness, grief or genuine regret. These are the emotions behind your guilt. Let yourself feel them so that you can move on to the next phase.
Second, try to put all of your feelings aside and imagine what it was like to live inside your daughter’s skin as a child. Try to see the world through her eyes – small, confused, insecure. Look through the eyes of a little girl who must be lonely and pretends she knows more than she really does. A girl who might be desperate to please her mother and, somehow, always fails. Allow yourself to actually feel her emotions, and then allow yourself to feel your own. I would not be surprised if you felt very deep pain at this point because there is very deep tragedy in both your lives. Most important, don’t try to fix anything – just feel. This is called compassion for both of you.
Third, once you believe you understand her pain, you are ready to sit with her and ask her to open her heart and tell you her story. Listen in silence and only ask questions that will help you understand. Nothing else. Don’t challenge her memory or perception, as this is her story, not yours. Your job is much more difficult – listening and understanding.
Fourth, once she has told her story and you truly understand it and feel it in your bones, then and only then is it time for you to apologize. Don’t use the word unless it comes from your heart and you feel genuine regret. Remember, an apology does not mean that you are a bad person or that your daughter did nothing to contribute to the problem. The apology simply means you understand that you have hurt her.
If you are fortunate, there is a fifth step. That is one in which she hears your story without judgment. And because of the work you will have done, you can tell your story without being defensive. Perhaps she will even hear your heart and apologize for leaving you many years ago.
Your willingness to go through this pain to truly hear her heart may make you into the kind of mother you and your daughter have always deserved.