If you’re lucky enough still to have her around, there’s no one on earth you go back further with than your mother. The bond between a mother and her adult child can be frenzied and fraught, loaded and exasperating, undermining and energy-sapping. As with all family relationships, so much of what’s going on is unsaid or coded. An outsider can only sense the ripples, while you are only too aware of the tsunami. But whatever it’s like, two things are true. First, this is a relationship that always matters; and second, it can always be improved. Here’s how.
1. Accept that you can’t change her. “You can’t change anyone else,” says Philippa Perry, psychotherapist and author of The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read. “But sometimes, if you change yourself, the other person will change as well. If you decide to be kind towards your mother, and accepting of her, that may shift your relationship. It’s not guaranteed, but it’s a possibility.”
2. Ask her about her childhood. Because you know all those times when she’s being ridiculous, or uptight, or controlling, or seeming to pass judgement? They almost certainly relate to something that happened to her. “Grayson [Perry’s husband, the artist] once gave me a pair of orange plastic clogs and my mother said, ‘You can’t go out in them,’” says Perry. “And I said: ‘Do you think it’s like when you were young and women went around in hats and with outfits pinched in at the waist, and when wearing clogs brought shame on the house?’ And she said: ‘Yes – exactly!’ I’d understood that she was coming from a different time and place, and it helped me to see that often, when a mother seems to be nagging, it’s coming from a place of concern and love rather than a need to control.”
3. Recognise that what most bugs you about her is yourself. “What most angers us about our mothers is the traits we share with them,” says psychotherapist Julia Samuel, author of This Too Shall Pass: Stories of Change, Crisis and Hopeful Beginnings. “So it annoys you that she’s stingy, or impatient? That’s because you know deep down that you are, too. Be more compassionate – to your mother, but also to yourself.”
4. Be sensitive to generational differences – but don’t put up with prejudice. “Our parents lived in a world with many different constructs,” says Professor Kevin Browne, director of the Centre for Forensic and Family Psychology at Nottingham University. The media reflected behaviour that would quite rightly not be tolerated today – so it’s not surprising, he says, if your mum isn’t as politically correct as you’d like her to be. What’s important is keeping the conversation going – and if you see where she’s coming from, she can hopefully see your point of view as well.
5. Ask her about her life now. “Don’t assume that all she’s interested in is planting bulbs and watching telly,” says Perry. “And even if she is, hear her out. She might have some very interesting things to say about them.”
6. Find time to be together. “My daughter has a new partner, and it’s ages since we saw one another on our own,” says a friend. “The other day she called me and said, ‘Mum, we need some hunkering-down time, just us two.’ We had a night in with a takeaway and a movie, and it was heaven.” “You have a different kind of conversation one-on-one,” says Samuel. “It reignites the bond.”
7. Accept the limitations ageing puts on her. It’s about accepting that you’re ageing, too. “But don’t let your fear for yourself stop you from empathising with how your mum feels as she tackles the issues of being a few decades ahead of you,” says Samuel.
8. Walk and talk. “It’s the most therapeutic way to have a conversation,” says Samuel. “That way you are not eyeballing one another, you are side by side and your bodies are in rhythm, you can have silences, you can be upset. Afterwards have a treat: tea and cake, or a pub lunch.” If your mum isn’t up to walking, a chat in the car works, too.
. Don’t put it off. “People go years and years intending to have a better relationship with their mum,” says Browne. “Then suddenly she’s dead, and coping with bereavement is much harder if you have guilt and regret.”
10. Don’t moan to her about your siblings. “My sister and I used to have a row, and then we’d each reach for the phone to call our mother,” says a friend. That’s not fair: you’re out of the playpen now. “You’re putting her in an impossible situation,” says Browne. “It creates conflict and conflict creates anxiety, and it’s not fair to make your mother feel anxious.”
11. Don’t blame her. “I spent years blaming my mother for more or less everything,” says forensic psychologist Judith Wenban-Smith. “Eventually I realised she was as much a victim of her circumstances as I felt she’d made me of mine.” Working that out early goes a long way.
12. Choose activities with her, not you, in mind. “Think about things she might not feel up to on her own,” says Wenban-Smith. “My own mother loved trips to National Trust properties, and I’d make sure I got her to them.” Taking your mum on holiday (and not because you want her to do the childcare!) can be a great treat in a lovely setting, and underlines how much you value her.
13. Forgive her. We all make mistakes, and your mother’s mistakes have had huge repercussions across your life. But unless she had truly serious issues, your mother wanted to do her best by you. “Finding it in your heart to forgive her will transform your life, as well as your relationship with her,” says Samuel.
14. Don’t put her on a pedestal. “For years I did that,” says Rakhi Chand, psychotherapist and counsellor. “Then I realised she was a person just like me, with faults and failings and issues she struggled with. I had to acknowledge the loss, but it allowed me to deal with the reality of my mother, rather than the fantasy version.”
15. Press pause. “We often react in a knee-jerk way,” says Chand. Instead, when your mother says that maddening thing, step away. Take yourself off somewhere and take time to think about why it makes you feel as you do.
16. Aspire to an authentic relationship with her. “With mothers it’s a relationship fraught with obligation and expectation, and there’s the need for approval that we carry from childhood,” says Chand. So it’s a tough one, but the first step is being aware of what matters to you. And what helps you work that out is to…
17. Call her when you want to, rather than out of obligation. “I was stuck in a cycle of guilt and frustration, and feeling obliged to call her and meet up with her,” says Chand. “But then I talked it through with her, and now I call her when I want to talk. It’s got us out of a rut.”
18. Talk to someone about her – a friend, or a therapist. “Don’t bottle up your feelings about your mother – share them with a person you trust,” says Browne. It will help you work out what you feel, and why.
19. Be grateful for the small things. She looked after your kids when you were sick; she paid for your new cooker when your bank account was empty. “Often at the time you’re not properly grateful because you’ve got so much else on your plate,” says Wenban-Smith. “But later – maybe years later – it’s good to acknowledge what a difference it made, and to thank her.”
20. And the big ones. “She brought you into the world, made sacrifices for you. She’s had her own crosses to bear and you’ll never fully know what they were,” says Samuel. “No one has the perfect mother, but she’s the only one you’ll ever have – and life is better if you can love her.”