Behind that Anger is Grief: A mother-daughter relationship

I remember last year on Mother’s Day, I was researching articles about complicated mother-daughter relationships and did not seem to find any that described my experience. What sparked this Google search? All the beautiful messages I saw on social media from daughters to their mothers. These messages described a relationship I did not know of. I wondered why instead of honoring my mom I was very angry at her, this time a type of anger that I could not hide, ruminate in silence as I had done for years. Do all daughters get along with their mothers?

My mom moved in with me, my partner and two daughters in Toronto, Canada one year ago after a misadventure in Cameroon, our home country. After spending many years in Europe, I moved with my family to Toronto and she moved back to Cameroon but things did not go as planned. She had been betrayed, lied to by her brother she loved so much. She had invested all her energy, money and focus into her dream of moving back to Cameroon and the Cameroon she had imagined was not the one she met. She was disoriented and very depressed when she moved in with us.

I was excited to have her around, my partner and I were both working full time while parenting our young daughters and I had the confirmation I was pregnant the day my mom landed in Toronto, so having her there to help us was a huge relief. Things did not unfold as we expected regarding our mother-daughter relationship. When I still lived in Switzerland, my mom and I talked daily. She often cooked for me, my partner and daughter but we could not discuss the real stuff. She showed us love by cooking for us, buying us gifts, doing groceries but emotionally she was distant.

How it began…

We did not live with our mom for many years when we were young. Mom was a young girl who had been forcibly married to an older man, she went on to have two daughters (my sister and me). She ran away from her marriage and left us with her family, visiting us once or twice a year. This lasted many years. In Cameroon, it is not an uncommon practice to leave kids with other family members. Maybe people have had good experiences growing up like that but for me it was a disaster – I am an advocate of people raising their kids if they can. Without the protection of my parents, the door was opened to all types of abuse. At one point Mom migrated to Europe and brought us over to live with her.

There are many types of abandonment but I personally went through physical and emotional abandonment. Physical abandonment occurs when the physical conditions for the proper development of the child are not met (proper supervision, nutrition, shelter, etc) and this can occur through physical separation from a parent/caregiver leaving the young child internalising that it must be their fault if they were abandoned. Emotional abandonment happens when the child is not provided the emotional environment necessary for them to thrive leading to them hiding parts of themselves to be accepted, not feeling worthy, etc.Being abandoned sends a message to the developing child that they are not of value and they are not worthy, they internalise toxic shame. The child is so dependent on the parent/caregiver in those early years that being abandoned makes them feel the world is not safe, people cannot be trusted and they are not worthy.

When we started living together again I was a teenager and I was very angry. We were still in survival mode, mom had to figure out how to be a mother of teenage girls and many other stuff she was struggling with. She was emotionally distant but very kind, she could not bear a touch on the shoulder let alone give us a hug. She was struggling with her own emotions even though she was trying to hide them from us. After a while I did not let my anger show anymore but I was secretly angry. She was so kind to me that I felt ashamed to be angry with her – I put pressure on myself to “honor my mother no matter what” as everyone around me seemed to tell me and after all she was the only parent I knew.

We enjoyed spells where we got along really well but more as friends than as mother-daughter I would say. She supported me and strongly believed in me when I was not believing in myself. For years, mom did not understand my pain of being abandoned all those years. Several attempts to get her to understand where met with “the same things happened to me, but I got over it and I am moving on with my life” or “I am really very sorry, I did all I could”. I just felt so lonely. She was in denial. I remember when I started therapy and my first therapist wanted me to ask my mom about the circumstances surrounding my birth, I became really angry. We entered a screaming match: “I cannot ask her that”. My therapist: “you have to ask her”. Me: “No, I can’t” and we kept on. The deep-seated belief in me that my mother never wanted me was what I was afraid of. I was scared her answers would just confirm what I felt that she never wanted me. I did ask and her explaining of the circumstances surrounding my birth freed me a little, I was already well into my 20s.

Back to the present…

When mom came to live with us in Toronto, many things were happening: we were sharing a small living space meaning we were in each others’ face, my daughters physically looked and acted like my sister and me when we were small, mom was in deep emotional pain after returning from Cameroon and I was pregnant….and working full time. It was an incredibly stressful year, my deep anger against my mother was back. I wanted to continue hiding it and ruminate in silence but I was easily triggered by her presence and what she said. She helped me so much during the year spent together and created a beautiful bond with her granddaughters.

We were both triggered seeing my daughters. They were 5 and 3 and thinking that at that age she had long abandoned us made me angry. In my memory, I was a very grown 4-5 year-old but seeing my 5-year old daughter and her innocent world of LOL dolls and poopsie surprises made me realise I was not grown after all.

This year was transformational in many ways.

After having many very heated arguments where I was screaming my anger to her for leaving us and bad things happening to us, we had other discussions where I just told her of my sadness of waiting all those years for her to come and save us. I was really sad that the relationship I hoped to have with her would never be. I loved her so much and patiently waited for her but she waited too long. A few friends I confided in helped me think things through and also helped me see different perspectives.

Before I gave birth to my third daughter, our relationship had become more peaceful and we talked like we’ve never talked before. I told her everything that had happened to us during those years she was not there. She was sad but I could not protect her and continue betraying myself anymore – it had to come out and I needed her to hear it. I had spent my life protecting my mom but I understood that for the healing of my abandonment wound to start, I had to step out of that role. She asked for forgiveness many times. We talked about her own childhood, her life. I wanted to know her as a person. She told me how lost and disoriented she felt when she lost the person who had raised her- her grandmother. We watched lots of videos from trauma specialists, Oprah, Iyanla Fix My Life, Ekhart Tolle and many others and discussed a lot. I shared the adverse childhood experiences study and test with her.

First, she started realising how her own unresolved trauma has impacted her life. She was raised in a village in the West and North West Region of Cameroon, in a very different context than Switzerland, she thought showing sadness, anger or any “negative” emotion was bad, etc. She was immensely grateful for discovering she was living with unresolved trauma and wants to heal so that she can live life true to herself, be a better grandmother and a better mother. She also felt she had followed along all her life and did what her family and other people expected of her.

Second, she started to understand the person I really was. She always saw me as this successful go-getter but I told her that it was not exactly like that, yes I have shown resilience time and again but I was anxious, lacked self-esteem and struggled in relationships. One day she came up to me and told me “it is a miracle you managed to study because you were seating on a time bomb with all the hurt you carried inside”. Sometimes she would break down crying and ask me why she did not take care of us, she could have, she had the means – I did not have an answer. From time to time she would cry to me that when she imagines what she did to her little girls she could never forgive herself. During our talks, I talked about the fact maybe if our caregivers were nice, we would not have been through so much trauma. She corrected me, she said “No, Mimi, I should have taken care of you and your sister.” Just hearing those words from my mother was extremely validating and healing.

Something shifted in me when on December 31, 2019 she came up to me in the kitchen and told me that she saw me clipping my daughters’ nails the day before and she went to the room and cried because she reflected to herself: “Who used to clip my daughters’ nails when they were this young?” We both started to cry and hugged each other. I knew in that instant she understood, it was not only about the abuse we went through but also about the love and nurture we did not receive which has left me feeling like I am navigating the world without a map.

From there on we had many conversations and she still broke down crying from time asking what she had done to her children. She even said that now that she understood things, if she was me, she would be angrier than I was and she hoped I could find a way to forgive her because she did not know better, she messed up, she was lost herself and felt very lonely. My mother was not one to share her emotions but from there she started sharing her memories, thoughts and regrets with regards to my childhood, which continued to reassure me she cared. Before she left, she told me: “we are finally beginning a mother-daughter relationship” and I agreed. The dynamic has changed in our relationship.

After I gave birth, Mom started bringing daughter number 2 to the parenting center near us and built strong relationships with the other parents, caregivers and the teacher. When she moved back to Switzerland, I started bringing my daughters to the same parenting center and everyone there told me she is loving person, a kind soul, an exceptional being, very easy to love, etc. This is true, everywhere she goes she is deeply loved. She is extremely kind and generous.

Hearing all of this I realised that behind that anger I held towards my mother was grief, I always knew how exceptional she was and what I wanted, what I really, really wanted was to have her to myself when I was growing up. I wanted that exceptional woman to see me, love me and validate me.

I know that that time is gone, but today she is here and we can build a different relationship. I love her, her granddaughters love her and we will continue our healing to break the cycle. Grieving what wasn’t will allow me to accept what is.

I have learnt and am still learning a lot about parenting because studies have shown that abandonment creates an attachment wound but when mothers learn how to be attuned to their baby’s needs they create a more secure attachment. The parenting center near me is a wonderful place for this.

To conclude, my mother was also abandoned at a young age by her own mother and her mother was also abandoned at a young age and severely maltreated. Things don’t have to keep happening that way though, it didn’t start with me but it can end with me.

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