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“Patience is to wait for the ice to melt instead of breaking it” Munia Khan

Just days before Mothering Sunday, snow is falling lightly outside my window. It is certainly unseasonal, but the fall of snowflakes, gentle and unhurried, makes me think about the advantages of holding how we mother and how we see ourselves as mothers more lightly.

For mothers apart from children, lighter touch mothering usually comes to us when we are done with trying so hard it’s almost broken us. When pleading, begging, yearning and bargaining hasn’t given us the relationship with our children that we long for. Before this stage, the idea of letting go of the holding space seems abhorrent and impossible. From a place of deep pain and fear, we tend to either hold on tightly trying to influence others to make the relationship work or, we give up and walk away, perhaps in anger or feeling that we haven’t succeeded as mothers.

Lighter touch mothering when we have contact with our children

When we have contact with our children, noticing when we feel desperate for a particular response can set us free, particularly on days considered significant, like Mother’s Day. We set ourselves up for disappointment when we have expectation or even the hope that our children will give us recognition or a treat in a way that we would consider special. Lighter touch mothering means not being attached to a particular way or frequency of contact. We love our children, but we don’t try to persuade or encourage them to give us what we want when we want it. We also gently remove ourselves from mindset of being defined by our children and their lives. When we stop watching from and waiting in the wings, we find we are free to express ourselves on our own stage instead of living life as a bit part.

Lighter touch mothering when we don’t have contact

If we are able to find a lighter touch approach to mothering when our children are not in contact with us, Mother’s Day can feel less painful or like a personal slight. Consider the circumstances of your estrangement and if you know you have done all you can to make your intension for contact and a loving relationship clear, then it could be wiser to ease off awhile. Frequent contact when there is a lack of understanding, hurt and anger can result in entrenched views and prolonged deadlock. After a break, unless your child has told you not to contact them, a lighter touch can provide a little time and space for both of you to reflect. How light a touch will vary, perhaps just on significant days like birthdays or religious or cultural events. Lighter touch mothering allows us to love our child, remain open to rebuilding the relationship when both of you are ready. It also allows us to live our lives. It brings freedom and relief.

Five suggestions for holding Mother’s Day more lightly

  • Don’t go to the ram’s house for milk. It’s not worth hoping to get support or understanding from people unable or unwilling to give it to you. Choose your company wisely on Mother’s Day.
  • Give yourself at least one loving, compassionate act of self care on Sunday. Ask yourself what you need. Whether it is time to relax or a shopping treat, give it to yourself knowing you deserve it.
  • Show an act of kindness towards someone else. This could be another mother, your neighbour or a simply a caring word to a stranger. Giving to others enhances their lives and ours.
  • Get outdoors for a while. Spring is out there somewhere. A walk can ground us and lift our mood.
  • The morning is wiser than the evening. Remember this Russian proverb if the day is difficult. Don’t react rashly in the evening. Hunker down, it will all be over by Monday morning.

Take very good care of yourself.

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Although we know it happens every year, seeing Mother’s Day cards and gifts for sale in the shops can kick start what is called a frequency illusion, also known as the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. This phenomenon happens when you notice something and then start seeing it everywhere. When we have strong feelings about something, the frequency illusion is bound to be heightened. For example, mothers living apart from their children might notice the date on which Mother’s Day falls, which can then lead to observing local florists and restaurants advertising the event with painful regularity.

Frequency illusion is a passive experience, in other words, our brain seeks out information that resonates with us, making us believe that there is an actual increase in the frequency of these occurrences. This being so, perhaps a more conscious, rational approach to Mothers Day will be helpful.

Are other people doing something?

So who is doing what on Mother’s Day? I’ve just searched the internet with the following ‘Mothers Day 2015’ and found there are over 35,100,000 results. If we’re not consciously aware of our own wellbeing, we could be blindsided by a bad case of FOMO at this time of year. In case you’ve not heard of FOMO before, new technology, particularly social media has coined this phrase. ‘FOMO’ stands for ‘Fear Of Missing Out’. If you let them, happy family photos and messages on social media could leave you feeling hurt – you don’t even have to physically walk past Mother’s Day cards, flowers, chocolates, pink bubbly in the supermarket to feel excluded or envious. We can’t control whether or not our children will acknowledge us on Mother’s Day but we can take care of ourselves. Could the day be an opportunity for you to relax, create, take some exercise, book a trip, find a class, read a book? Whatever it is, do what feels right for you, never mind what others are doing or what they think.

Are you doing something?

Whether you’ve planned something pleasurable or spend the day doing something you’ve been meaning to crack on with, just do it – no matter how you feel. Instead of taking your lead from blue feelings and then giving up, practice watching your emotions come and go without trying to change them or push them away. This is what Buddhists call non-attachment. It doesn’t mean being like a stone. Watching rather than buying into our feelings becomes possible when we understanding them as passing and temporary. Upset comes upon us and it leaves and it can help if we don’t judge ourselves. In other words, we don’t regard our feelings or ourselves as either negative or positive. Try allowing feelings to rise, soften and fall away, rather than feeding and fuelling the drama of what we tell ourselves about our circumstances. So, even if you’re feeling unmotivated or resistance towards Mothering Sunday, allow the feeling and at the same time, start doing whatever it is you have decided to do on the day. Even though it’s not the aim, you might surprise yourself and find that you have a good time.

What thing are you not going to do?

Hot on the heels of doing something just for you on Mother’s Day, how about reconsidering what you currently do routinely? Maybe there are things in your life that you no longer have the time or energy for, such as a club or a class and you just don’t want to let others down by moving on. Perhaps it’s a belief or a behaviour that has had its day and you fear you’d risk losing part of your identity if you gave up on it. This might be the expectation of meaningful contact with your child at this point in time. It might also be the notion of taking off the hair shirt that we can inadvertently pull on when we live apart from children – ‘I should have done more or less, earlier or later, held my tongue or have spoken my mind or fill in the blank……’ –  leg traps all! If this resonates with you, there is no need to do this to yourself. It serves no one, least of all you. Make it top of your ‘no longer going to do’ list.

Whether you have contact or not with your children, whether they appreciate your love at this time or not, do whatever you need to do to take care of yourself this Mother’s Day. Do the thing you think you cannot do, especially if this thing is treating yourself with gentleness and compassion.

As a mother living apart from your child, how do you approach Mother’s Day? Some of us set out to ignore it as much as is possible and why not – it could be argued that viewing Mother’s day negatively will save you from feeling at best disappointed and worst, rejected. Others choose to make a day of it even if they are not acknowledged by their children. To adopt a positive attitude and enter into the spirit of Mother’s Day by pampering yourself or buying flowers could protect you from feeling pain or punished on the day. If either of these approaches work for you, stick with it! But if not, why not consider giving up trying to focus on either the negative or positive and give up the hope of Mother’s Day being either this way or that?

Giving up hope might not be as hopeless as it sounds. When you have done all that you can to maintain contact with your children to no avail, or you have tried to encourage your child to live with you or meet up with you more often – being willing to be with what is, the reality of life this very moment – can be a huge relief.

Being with what is means to stop trying to reach a place where we are immune to the pain of estrangement or being hurt by our ex. To look for permanent security and happiness in our relationships can’t help us either, as just when we reach a point of comfort, someone or something shakes life up again. It’s true too of blame. It might be that someone in our lives is behaving badly but while we keep the fire stoked under the pot of blame, we keep ourselves invested in it. Every time we try to push our pain away by blaming others who won’t accept responsibility or the part they have to play, we keep ourselves stuck.

Trying to hold on to lasting pleasure or happiness can be a useful teacher – we learn it cannot be done. Sooner or later someone says or does something to upset us – maybe we won’t get the Mother’s day card we hope for, or one might arrive without loving words, or a card with the right words might come but without flowers, or flowers and chocolates arrive but our children don’t want to spend the day with us. Can we accept that at that moment, we feel pain and disappointment and if we allow it, those feelings will pass – just as feelings of happiness, joy and pleasure will come and go?

How would it be for us to make peace with knowing that nothing in life is completely safe and sound? We will probably feel frightened and a little panicky. But if we can relax into the present moment, be with ourselves whatever we feel, warts and all – yes, our warts and wobbly bits are allowed, they are part of being human – we can gain comfort from not abandoning ourselves. To be with what is, releases us – it is a loving act towards ourselves. We can gain stability from accepting that nothing is totally secure. The paradox is that if we can relax with the free fall of life, we can restore a little firm ground under our feet. As Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron says, ‘If we are willing to give up hope that insecurity and pain can be exterminated, then we can have the courage to relax with the groundlessness of our situation.’

I hope that this Mother’s day you will join with me in being with yourself just as you are, no matter what is happening in your life. If we give up the hope of Mother’s Day being as we would like it – we will have a chance of being joyfully with ourselves, present in our lives on the day. I believe you are worth this, I hope you agree with me.

Living your own life can feel like a difficult prospect for mothers apart from children. I suspect it reminds many of us of well meaning  family and friends advising us to ‘move on’, ‘forget the past’ or ‘get over’ the fact that we don’t live or have contact with our children. We know that people who care about us just want us to be happy, but ‘getting over’ isn’t easy. For those of us who chose to live apart from children, ‘moving on’ can be more difficult than we imagined. Feeling guilty, having divided loyalties and experiencing delayed grief is common.

Living our own lives, having dreams and aspirations may not seem possible after all that we have been through. Perhaps we have been so focused on what our child is or isn’t feeling or what our ex partner or parents say about us that we have forgotten how to live and enjoy life. Maybe we have experienced so much emotional distress we think that we don’t have a life, don’t deserve a life and that all we are capable of, is feeling pain. This isn’t true. We are more than our problems, thoughts and feelings. Just because life has been this painful so far, it doesn’t mean it has to keep on hurting. If life is a bowl of cherries it doesn’t mean we have to settle with the pits! (thanks to Erma Bombeck).

So how do we live our own lives to the full?

Self care is the starting point. In part this is about nurturing ourselves – eating healthily, taking exercise, having warm baths and so on. But self care is also an attitude towards our lives in which we are responsible for ourselves. An empowering attitude that says: I am mistress of my own ship. I am responsible for my choices in life. I am responsible for identifying and meeting my needs. I am responsible for solving or finding help to solve my own problems and for learning to live with those I cannot solve. I am responsible for how much I enjoy life. I am important. I count for something and even if the most important person to me in the world rejects me I am still real, loving and lovable.

We are living our own lives when we…

  • Endeavour to work out what we can change and what we cannot change, then stop trying to change the things we can’t. If we don’t have control of a problem or if we have done what we can to try to solve it, we learn to live with or in spite of, our problem or circumstances.
  • Try to live happily, focusing courageously on what is good in our lives today – and feel gratitude for these things. In time, we can come to experience that appreciating the little things, making the most of what we do have, makes what we have increase in value.
  • Practice letting go with love. Letting go doesn’t mean we don’t care. It means that we learn to love, sometimes from afar, without driving ourselves crazy. This involves living in the present moment. We allow life to happen without forcing or trying to control it and we let go of regrets and fears about the future.

The biggest risk of not living our life is that life passes us by. As a counsellor, I have worked with mothers who have lived apart from children for so many years they can no longer say they ‘live apart’, as their children are now adults with children of their own. As we work together, they grieve over having lived apart but also over the loss of not setting themselves free to live their lives and make themselves happy. As I tell them they have suffered enough, given enough, they have ‘done their time’, I encourage each one of these wonderful women to live well and to the full, one day at a time. And this is my dearest wish for you too.

Sarah’s new self-help book: A Mother Apart

Support for women

Sarah specialises in counselling and training women. She helps non-resident mothers find inner peace by dealing with guilt, distress and other difficult feelings which can be experienced when living apart from their child. Her self-help book, 'A Mother Apart', published by Crown House, is available now. She also supports business women grow in confidence whilst growing their businesses. To find out more, please visit Sarah Hart's website

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