My blog, last year, about Mother’s Day raised questions about relationships with mothers which are problematic. I received a raft of emails from (mostly) women for whom this message had resonance: adult daughters, caring for mothers with dementia, who had had a difficult relationship with their mother before the dementia diagnosis, and were now struggling with feelings of resentment, anger, depression and guilt. And experiencing conflict and rivalry with siblings. 

For those who love their mothers unconditionally, giving gifts in celebration of Mother’s Day is straightforward. A cherished daughter or son who was nurtured and supported as a child, and feels valued and respected in adulthood, will willingly share in the joy of the occasion of ‘Mother’s Day’. But for others, Mother’s Day is bitter-sweet, and sometimes just bitter.

‘A letter to … Anyone who is shocked that I don’t like my mother’  was written anonymously and published in the Guardian in 2017. It is hard-hitting. There is no mention of dementia or any other health condition moderating this relationship, but one could imagine what impact dementia might have on the lives of the people involved. Would the daughter’s perspective on her mother soften with dementia? Would the mother’s character mellow? Could it be that the relationship might improve? Or would the situation worsen? Would the mother’s ‘true colours’ be less disguised as the damaging effects of dementia wreak their havoc, manifesting in outward signs of hostility and rage?

Sometimes, becoming the carer for a parent re-dresses relationship imbalances and creates the opportunity for the daughter or son to re-evaluate their feelings. A life-limiting diagnosis of any kind  unleashes the start of a process of grieving, which can, in turn, lead to new learning, fresh perspectives and a groundswell of empathy.

Adult daughter and son carers often speak about growing closer to their parent after the dementia diagnosis; getting to know their mother or father better as early memories become more prominent and life stories are uncovered and explored.

Having to think about one’s parents’ needs tends to  come in later life or if the parent has the onset of a problem that precipitates their need for support.

Writing for the Independent in 2017, Cynthia Miller-Idriss reflects that, whilst her mother’s Alzheimer’s causes her constant grief, she has gained a greater understanding of who her mother really is.

“I’ve learned that it is incredibly liberating to spend time with a mother who no longer cares what people think.

“But even more than that, my mother’s decline has helped me become a better daughter, as if her fading away is what let me see her for the woman she is. Don’t get me wrong. Watching my mother’s erasure has been vicious: a constant grief without real mourning, so painful I can probe only its tender margins for fear of not catching my breath. But I have also come to realise that despite all I’ve lost, I’ve gained something, too.”

‘My mother forgot who I was, and it made me a better daughter’

In common with other mothers, having my children was a hugely significant experience. Being a mother is the steepest learning curve. I am constantly reflecting on my own mistakes, as well as all the pleasures that motherhood has given me and the things that I think I got right. This Mother’s Day I shall be visiting one of my sons (I have two) and his wife and my beautiful 18-month old grandson. I shall see my own mother later in the day. It won’t be a big occasion, but Mother’s Day will be marked.

If you are looking forward to a pleasurable day on Sunday, take time to fully experience it and savour the moments. If you are grieving for your mother because she died, or you are losing  your mother to dementia, take some moments to reflect on the layers of the relationship, and the learning that your relationship with your mother has afforded you. All relationships, good and bad, offer insights, teach us lessons and help us to grow.

Do get in touch with me if you have any comments or reflections about the impact of dementia on relationships. Has the experience of caring for a parent challenged your assumptions and enabled you to get to know your parent better? askbarbara@unforgettable.org

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