“Dear God, give me eyes to see, a mind that is open and a heart filled with compassion.”
Mother’s Day extols the love and appreciation children have for their mothers. But what of those struggling to recover from abusive or neglectful childhoods who see Mother’s Day as a reminder of a love they missed?
I have a degree in social work and worked in the field for several years including with children. During bedtime at a sheltered home for young children, I would think: “This is not where they belong. They need a mommy and daddy to tuck them in.” Years later, my husband and I were houseparents at a group home for delinquent boys. Teenagers lose their innocence, but broken childhoods live on.
Childhood has no do-overs, so how does one recover from a mother that forced you to live in fear, or cut you down at every turn? Marge Fenelon has done just that. In her new book Forgiving Mother, she shows others how.
Judging by Marge’s graceful demeanor, no one would suspect that the wife and mother of four had suffered extreme childhood abuse. The shocking events, she shares, however, are told from a perspective of recovery and love. Marge developed compassion for her mother, herself a victim of abuse. She acknowledges that although healing is the goal, some people have been hurt to the point of developing mental illness.
Healing, was not initially Marge’s goal. “I was afraid of what it would take to make me well,” she wrote, “so I preferred to stay just as I was, ignoring my pain and hiding my past. I wanted to be vindicated, excused, hidden, and even at time patronized for my wounds I had suffered from my mother’s mental illness.”
It was through prayer, her Catholic faith, spiritual directors, and a close relationship with the Blessed Mother that Marge came to love her mother and break free of her painful past.
“Mary is the answer to our need for healing,” Marge said. “But our relationship with our own mother can get in the way.” She explained that healing is a process that we must want; one that requires searching and purification, silence and waiting. She said that it’s okay to remember our painful memories but then to turn them over to God and invoke the Holy Spirit to guide us.
The book includes a daily novena of healing. Marge also shared a perspective she addressed at her mother’s memorial Mass: “My mother is a soul, not a body.” That thought brought deeper understanding that abuse is done to the body and the mind is part of the body. Dysfunctional thinking stemming from childhood mistreatment involves the body and only God knows the extent a person is culpable.
Beginning, Not the End
Ruth Knutson, a wife and mother of five in Bismarck, North Dakota, also suffered extreme abuse. But the story we are born into is only the beginning, according to her. “It’s what we do with the rest of it that is our story,” she said.
Her mother was a bad-tempered alcoholic not married to the father she never knew. Ruth’s childhood was filled with extreme chaos, abuse and neglect. One of her earliest memories was at 5 years old, pleading with her mother not to leave her with the abusive stepfather. Her mother wouldn’t protect her.
Ruth’s relationship with Jesus began at Mass with her Catholic grandmother although years later, she joined her husband Ron in the Lutheran church. “Going to church is where I fell in love with Jesus,” Ruth said. “I thought: Jesus suffered and made it through, so I can make it through too.” She also credits the love and support of her husband with helping her to heal from the past.
When Ruth learned her mother had lung cancer, she chose to make the one-and-a-half-hour drive to see her again for the first time in over a decade. “God’s grace filled me with peace,” Ruth said. “I felt so sorry for her. She never experienced how much love children give you and you give them.”
Ruth thought her mother would apologize but she seemed to lack the capacity to understand the pain she caused. “She was never able to be my mother, but I realized I had a small window to be her daughter.”
During the six months they had left, Ruth visited and often told her mother: “I love you.” It was something Ruth had only heard once from her mother from behind a door. Soon, her mother started saying it back. When her mother died in October 1995, it seemed both mother and daughter were at peace.
“I’ve come to understand that there is something to learn in every circumstance,” Ruth said. “My prayer has always been, ‘Dear God, give me eyes to see, a mind that is open and a heart filled with compassion.’”
Forgiveness Helps Other Relationships
Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons, a psychiatrist and director of MaritalHealing.com who is working on a new book with Ignatius Press on healing marriages, pointed out that a lack of forgiveness of a parent often hurts marriages..
“The forgiveness of the mother coupled with working on a relationship with Our Lady as the other, loving, comforting mother who was with them every day of their lives(and in day care programs) has brought much healing to deep mother wounds,” he said. According to him, forgiving a parent has three levels and a person can go back and forth as they work on them: One’s mind, cognitively; emotionally, with one’s heart; and spiritually with God and through confession.
He noted that the lack of a secure attachment to one’s mother, weakens the ability to feel safe and to trust in relationships, and can create an excessive dependence upon other women in an unconscious attempt to fill the inner void for comforting mother love.
“Forgiveness will decrease sadness, anxiety, mistrust, anger and insecurity from hurts in the mother relationship,” Fitzgibbons explained. “What a gift it is to protect our hearts and relationships.”