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Toxic Relationship with Mother

QUESTION: I am 33 years old and have experienced many years of verbal and physical abuse from my mother. I have received counseling and have asked her to also seek help for her anger and depression.

I am now happily married and expecting my first child. I recently made a decision to cut my mother out of my life, and my life has been so much better. I feel free for once, and close to happy. Even though I do feel at peace with my decision, I have a sense of numbness where my mother is concerned. I would really like some input from you, and some guidance.

ANSWER: You are not your mother's "keeper" or the family "scapegoat", yet both of your parents have allowed you to be sacrificed in this role since childhood. No wonder you have "had" it!

The psychological task of becoming a mother has no doubt caused you to want to protect yourself and your child from your mother's toxicity. In fact, it is possible that you needed to "cut her out" in order to lighten your load, and make space for pregnancy.

Your need to "cut her out of your life" at this time reflects the decision to choose to live your own life instead of hers. But sadly, it also reveals the poisonous nature of your relationship with her. She must have hurt you very deeply to cause you to cut off from her at a time when women often need and rely on their mothers. However "cutting off" from her is not a decision that needs to be set in stone.

Protect yourself by taking distance from your mother. Explain to all concerned that you need some space to sort through your own feelings. But do not label your actions as "cutting her out". This is not what you are doing, but what she would accuse you of doing to her. Do not fall into this trap! You have a right to "take some time and space to yourself" now. When you are ready, you may want to relate, if only at a distance with a different set of behaviors and expectations for this relationship. If you decide to do so, it will be in your time, and when you feel you would benefit -- coming from a place of strength and power to master this situation.

It is natural for pregnancy to bring up tremendous amounts of feelings, and it is possible that you need the "peace" you describe by simply not being responsible for her in any way. Your commitment to your child requires this shift in allegiance, and you are right to take it. But you may find that talking with a counselor now about these feelings will make it less likely that "cutting off" from your mother will set the stage for a postpartum depression.

The aim of this therapy should be focused on your needs, feelings and desires and how to achieve them in your current family. Develop your own vision of motherhood, and eventually you may desire to focus your attention on strategies for effectively changing your relationship with your mother and re-establishing contact.

Do not commit yourself to an endless moratorium on this relationship. Consider that you are "taking a break". Feel your own power through establishing your family. Though you are in no way responsible for "destroying" family relationships, your own reactivity may come back to haunt you later.

Take care of yourself. But do not back yourself into anyone's corner. Stay open to a change in your feelings as you establish a clear sense of your own power and boundaries around the "poisonous" elements of your maternal relationship. Seek and depend on the support and care of your friends and family who understand. Your job is to focus on your own family now. Upcoming motherhood requires your undivided attention, as there are many things you will have to sort out regarding the kind of family you and your husband want to have and the kind of mother and father you each want to be to this child.

Your "numbness" will eventually thaw, and you will grieve the lost childhood in the future as you may have done in the past. This grief does not need to envelop you or your joy and happiness at this time. But it will need expression. Some of this may come in acknowledgement of the way you mother your own child differently.

A relationship like the one you have experienced in your family with your mother is a life's work. But it does not have to be a constant focus. Use it as a reservoir for learning and growing. Some of the most abundant blossoms result from sowing the greatest amount of manure!

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Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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