Dear Therapist: Can I Ever Mend My Relationship With My Mom?

All I want is to be able to have a relationship with her, especially now that I will be going through a major life milestone, and ideally other milestones after that such as having kids. My father (who has been divorced from her for 24 years), my fiancé, and I are paying for the wedding, so I don’t have to include her in the planning. I just want to, because that’s what other mothers and daughters do.

I fear that during the stress of wedding planning she will be unable to keep from spiraling out of control if there is any type of snapping, losing one’s cool, or disagreement on my end. She has expressed that she felt left out when my brother and sister-in-law were planning their wedding, so I am trying to include her. However, I don’t want her to ruin the entire experience for me the way she emotionally destroyed me the day I bought my dress.

What do I do—should I leave her out or keep extending the olive branch?

Baltimore, Md.

Dear Anonymous,

While your question is about whether to include your mother in your wedding planning, embedded in it is a much larger question: What does it mean to have an adult relationship with my mother? To answer the first question, you’ll need to answer the second.

I suspect that this broader question has been percolating deep down for a while, but sometimes it takes a major milestone, like turning 30 or getting married, for it to surface. So let’s consider your question in this context.

Part of having an adult relationship with your mother will involve doing some grieving—mourning the relationship you didn’t have growing up, and also letting go of the kind of relationship you’re hoping for now. You say that you “don’t ask her for anything other than a relationship,” but your request isn’t so simple, because you likely have a specific kind of relationship in mind. Perhaps in this imagined relationship, your mother would understand your pain, validate your perspective, take full responsibility for the difficulties between you, delight in your company even when you’re prickly, and feel nothing but compassion for you when you cite her shortcomings or perceived mistakes in raising you.

In short, she would be a different person from the mother you have. If you want a relationship with the mother you have, you’re going to have to let go of the fantasy mother you wish she were. Holding on to the fantasy leaves you feeling like the injured child you used to be. But mourning that loss might allow you to move forward, enabling you to find some value in a relationship with the mother she actually is. Why? Because you’ll also be able to see the mother you have more clearly, and maybe even more generously.

So back to your question about the wedding. You say that you want to include her in the pre-wedding activities, because she might feel left out and also because “that’s what other mothers and daughters do.” Certainly some mothers and daughters do wedding activities like dress shopping together, but it’s equally true that others—even mothers and daughters with strong relationships—don’t. Some women prefer to do these activities with their partners, siblings, close friends, or some combination thereof. And many daughters who get along swimmingly with their mothers experience conflict and disagreements during this time. If you hold on to the fantasy, your mom isn’t the only one who will feel left out; you will, too.