I've decided to forgive my mother
“That upset child who’s lived inside you all this time is soothed”
I’m not one for motivational quotes. But there’s one I read on a poster I found at a Diwali mela years ago that stuck. It said, “If you can’t forgive and forget, pick one.” When you think back to some of the most memorable moments of your life, the ones tinged with regret, bits of embarrassment and even trauma, I’ve come to realise that that the latter part of the quote is how most of us responded growing up. At least until we’re in therapy.
Forgiveness has a lot of weight, my therapist told me, and we feel it because we all need to be forgiven. “If you think you don’t need to be absolved of anything, then sign up for sainthood and guide others down your path,” she laughed.
It’s easy for us to let off friends who ditched us in a moment of need or the middle school bully who teased you about your weight, but the wounds we bear from our parents continue to sting decades later, like a cat’s scratch that burns you after putting sanitiser on it.
Forgiving your parents is easy when it’s about being sent to school as a 5-year-old with no underwear on because you were all running so late in the morning. I can laugh it off as a parenting fail — but some wounds never heal.
My mum was practically a single parent, bringing up two kids in a country she hadn’t lived in for decades. Running a house, dealing with in-laws, adopting my father’s siblings while he went abroad to earn — it was powerful to witness through a child’s eyes.
Through the joys, one-tight slaps and angsty teenage disagreements, I never questioned her actions. As a child who couldn’t handle confrontation, I’d tear up out of frustration at the first signs of disagreement and hated loud noises too much to ever raise my own voice at someone. Perhaps it was the anxiety building up that made the thought of confrontation or voicing my opinion too much to handle.
I was 14 when I first reached out to my mother for help with my mental health. A short talk later, the matter was shelved like a book bought in enthusiasm but never read.
I was closer to 18 when a greater shift took place. Genetics mixed with environmental factors became too much. My mood changes became more apparent. Panic attacks were mistaken for possible heart ailments and we went through rounds of doctors before ending up at a mental health specialist. Family members just thought I was “too stressed” and needed a good talking to. Or maybe they thought I was making it all up. It ended in a mental health diagnosis which was a long time in the making.
Getting a label on what I’d been experiencing for all those years gave me some clarity but also some shame. So my mother and I kept it to ourselves. I found in her a partner in my moment of crisis. The first time I reached out, it didn’t work out, but I was optimistic about the second. Until I found out that my request for privacy had been breached, my moments of weakness weaponised in an argument between spouses.
So we did what Indians do best — swept things under the rug.
My sister once told me that you value your parents more once you move away from home. Perhaps that’s what it takes to look at things from a different perspective. I felt it when I went back home at the age of 26 for a break in-between jobs.
There’s a moment in everyone’s life when we realise our parents have aged; an existential crisis. There’s only so much time you have left to make amends. When you sit down to finally talk things out, you have a list of complaints you’re read to shoot off — thinking your parents have forgotten the harm they’ve caused you. More often than not, they know exactly what they’ve done and regretted it as much as you have.
Forgiving your parents may seem trivial compared to everything else happening in life. But who we are, how we see the world, each other and ourselves is shaped by what our parents saw in us, each other and the world.
And parental wounds are probably the deepest set stones in the foundation of our own identities. Sometimes they’re solid bricks that have the strength to help you rise to the occasion. Other times, they’re jagged pebbles that prick your feet every time you try to take a step towards bigger, better things.
Parents have some essential responsibilities. To create a safe environment for their children, to nurture and equip them with the tools they need to best navigate the world. With unconditional love and support through the best and worst moments of their children’s lives. Psychotherapist Matthias J Barker explains it well, adding that most parents fail at one of these things, at least.
When someone doesn’t experience proper nurturing, they may have a tough time assessing their own needs and where they fit in with those of others. I see this in my mother.
My maternal grandmother is a typical Leo, vivacious, theatrical, and the queen of her domestic kingdom. We spent summers at hers, and while we faced tough times at home, my grandmother’s was a break from reality.
In all the loving and overfeeding, my sister and I were always aware of a distinction between us and our younger male cousins. We were the centre of attention until they walked through the door. We were given only two gulab jamuns each because our cousin brothers wanted four. But we never questioned our love for our grandmother. We came second, and that’s just how she was.
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As I grew up, I began to realise how problematic her actions were, especially towards her own daughter. Patriarchy, working in strange subtle ways. As much as modern women reject the restraints that held back our female ancestors, some ingrained beliefs manage to creep in.
Barker talks about parental debt – what we think we’re owed from our parents as compensation for their past faults. I came up to collect only to realise how small mine was in comparison to what was owed to my mother by her mum.
Seeing your parents as individuals, shaped by someone else’s parenting, gives you perspective. I finally saw the generations of patriarchal parenting trickling down from my great-grandmother to me.
I had an important decision to make. To be the catalyst that broke the pattern. Because I have the opportunity to do that. My mother may never have the chance to wipe out the debt she’s owed by her aged mother, and my grandmother probably never thought she had the right to even request it of hers.
“I’ve come to accept who my mother is and I can’t change any of that or our past,” said my mother when we were talking about mother-daughter relationships. She says she doesn’t care about it anymore, but the hurt in her voice tells a different story.
These wounds are complex and we can’t just take it to a mochi and have him glue over it. Continuing to hold on to this resentment towards our parents leads to more contention. When you’re around them, it’s as if you switch back to that inner child who’s been hurt. I would act out in angsty ways and expect her to parent me in ways she should have all those years ago. The realisation that only I could pacify this inner child helped me inch closer to forgiving her.
Something incredible happens after forgiving your parents. That upset child who’s lived inside you all this time is soothed. Maybe that’s what actually becoming an adult is. You manage to finally shimmy the kankad out of your chappal and can walk in someone else’s.
I’m not enlightened enough to sign up for sainthood just yet. There are plenty of people I still need to make amends with. I try not to but I still view my grandmother with a bit of resentment. Not because of my own experience but for what my mother will probably never say to her about her own childhood. But we’re all a work in progress, and for now, I choose to forgive, but not forget.