Our culture says that mothers are nurturing and caring. They love you no matter what. They are always there for you. You can tell your mom anything, and she will still love and support you.
That was not my experience. My mother was narcissistic, manipulative, and physically abusive. She was not a safe person. The trauma she caused during my childhood has followed me through adulthood.
I’ve fought hard to learn how to be a patient mother and learn how to have grace with my kids. How to give them boundaries without being controlling.
Basically, I learned how to be nothing like my own mother.
I’ve been in therapy for over a year to sift through painful memories and reprocess them so I can heal. I’ve come a long way. But it still felt like there was a burden I was carrying.
One day, sitting on the fuzzy blue couch in my therapist’s office, she told me, “I want you to consider the possibility of forgiving your mother.” Just the idea of forgiving her made my chest pound. I felt guilty that I needed to be told to forgive my mother. I felt overwhelmed. It seemed like an impossible ask. How could I possibly forgive her?
First, I needed to define my terms. Webster defines “forgive” as: “to cease to feel resentment against (an offender)” and “to give up resentment of or claim to requital.”
At the basic level, forgiveness is to let go of the resentment and bitterness I was feeling. To give up the idea that my mom would ever change. To give up the fantasy that she would somehow understand her actions and apologize.
Yes, but how?
Before I got into that, I had to decide what forgiveness is not.
It is not saying that what happened to me is OK. It’s not OK.
It is not saying that I should treat my abusive parent as a safe person. They’re not a safe person.
It is not saying that I owe them a relationship. I don’t owe them anything.
I looked at some Biblical examples of forgiveness. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus addresses forgiveness when he says, “For if you forgive others their offenses, your heavenly Father will forgive you as well. But if you don’t forgive others, our Father will not forgive your offenses.” (Matthew 6:14-16)
Jesus makes it clear that just as we were forgiven so much, we should also forgive others for what they have done to us. When I read this, I was humbled because I know that I have done many, many wrong things (even if abusing a child isn’t one of them).
Later in Matthew, Peter asks Jesus, “How many times should I forgive my brother when he has sinned against me?” (Matthew 18:21)
Jesus answers, “I tell you, not as many as seven, but seventy times seven.” He then tells the Parable of The Unforgiving Servant. It’s the story of a servant that owed more than he could ever pay back, and his master forgave his debt. Later, when someone owed the servant money, he demanded payment, clearly forgetting the mercy that was just shown to him. The master then threw the servant into jail to be tortured until he could repay his original debt. Jesus says, “So also my heavenly Father will do to you unless every one of you forgives his brother or sister from your heart.” (Matthew 18:35)
Ouch. That one hit me.
I had to wrestle with the fact that if I didn’t forgive my mother, I would be no better than the unforgiving servant. I was holding my mother responsible for her sins against me when a) it’s not my job to sit in the place as her judge and b) as a believer in Christ, I have been forgiven of so much myself, and I am no longer being held responsible for my wrongdoings.
Turns out the real reason why it was so hard to forgive my mom was that, deep down, I liked holding onto the feeling that I was better than her. To forgive her would be to admit that I also wasn’t perfect. I may not have abused a child, but I had my share of wrongs.
I believe God wants us to live as whole people, full of love. We can’t do that if we are living in bitterness. I had to decide that it was time to let go—let go of my anger, my expectations, and my hope that anything would ever be different. I started releasing all of it.
To be clear, my forgiveness didn’t mean saying what happened to me was okay. It didn’t even involve reconciling with my mom. If a parent is emotionally immature and unable to have a mature conversation about emotions, reconciliation may never be on the table. But forgiveness on my part didn’t involve my mom at all.
Forgiveness is for me.
It is a decision on my part to let go of resentment and negative feelings toward my abusive parent. It wasn’t a switch that made all the bad feelings go away. It’s a process. It takes consistently reminding myself that even if I think my mom doesn’t deserve my forgiveness, I deserve to release this burden.
I still see my mom weekly to drop off groceries or help with a quick task. We have mostly positive interactions. But I still have my boundaries. She is still not a safe person for me and likely never will be. And with each interaction, it gets easier to remind myself of the great debt that has been paid for both of us. I can have a bit more compassion for the great burden that my mom is likely still living under.
But as for my burden? I’m leaving it behind little by little.