Empathy Between Mothers and Daughters: The missing link

Every woman on the planet is another woman’s daughter. Our experiences are unique and varied. Not all daughters are able to show empathy, for if empathy has not been taught to us by our caregivers, we may not have any model to refer to - although it is a skill which can be learned.

Empathy is the ability to step into another person’s shoes in order to understand their actions, feelings and perspectives so we can respond accordingly. Empathy is different to sympathy, kindness or pity. Developmental Psychologist Carolyn Zahn-Waxler reveals we are primed for empathy in the first two years of our lives if we have strong attachment in our relationships. Empathy can also be developed throughout our life, long after early childhood experiences. Listening and having empathy with what is being shared, gives us the ability to transform our relationships with others and with ourselves.

Empathy skills can be learned by a number of means, including reading books, looking at photographs or watching films. Perhaps a start would be to watch various television programmes and imaginatively step into the shoes of the characters for a portion of time, identify with them and begin to think like them. Acting ‘as if’ and imagining what it is like to be a certain character, reacting, responding and behaving in the way they do, flexes the empathy muscle. The more we are able to show empathy and imagine what it’s like to enter another’s world, the easier it is to re-frame our personal experiences.

You may face new challenges with your mother as you both age and change. The case studies shared throughout may or may not relate to your own personal circumstances, though by having an empathetic slant on what other mothers and daughters have been through enables women to heal collectively.

As adults we have far greater expectations of how our mothers ‘should be’ than we do when we are children. Rather than empathising with our mother as she ages and taking into account that she may no longer be able to look after herself so well, many daughters resent the new level of neediness and the reversal parenting roles. Several daughters have shared with me how they have not wanted to care for or even spend time with their mothers as they didn’t feel their mothers had cared properly for them. Resentment lingers and it can be hard to forgive past actions which complicate the relationship if left unresolved. It becomes a battle of ‘‘why should I look after her if she didn’t look after me’’ as Liz explains in her words of wisdom coming up next.

When roles reverse and we become the parent of our mothers, where there has been past conflict, a residue of anger and unfairness colours the relationship in the present, making the situation worse than it needs to be. Empathy is an all important skill to learn, in order to navigate the terrain of your relationship which will change as your mother ages. You can read more about understanding your mother and your relationship to her in Mothers and Daughters my second book in a series of relationship support reads.

Liz’s Words of Wisdom - Case Study

‘‘I personally found this phase of my relationship with my mother difficult. As she aged and her health deteriorated, her depression worsened as did her angry outbursts and callous comments. Her tantrums reminded me of my childhood where she would fly into rages, throw things, slam doors, kick things, smack me and shout at the top of her voice. Even as an adult I was sensitive to her mood, I felt vulnerable around her and at the same time responsible for her well-being and happiness.

My mother was not able to find anything to be grateful for and seemed to blame everyone and everything for her plight. Choosing to be housebound with no desire to mix with the outside world or to allow the outside world to come to her, I became my mother’s crutch, she expected me and only me to do for her what she could not do for herself. It was difficult for me to escape from what felt like the darkness of her self-imposed confinement, feeling like she would swallow me into the pit of her own despair. To be with her was exhausting. I felt drained and empty while with her - as well as long after any visit.

My mother wanted me to live with her and care for her when her health declined, her fear of hospitals far outweighing listening to medical professionals and what kind of care she needed. This was an impossible ask and one I did not want or was able to fulfil. She was not open to any form of holistic intervention or counselling support stating ‘’they didn’t have it in the war and you just had to get on with it.’’ I did consider how I could care for her but her controlling opinions of what was right for me as an adult would have meant I could not live my life in the way I wanted to while living with her.

It feels like I have given up much of my life for her already and as I became closer to self-actualising and finding the things in my life which made me happy, her demands on me increased as did the put-downs. I found it hard to speak up as the fully grown woman I was, any time I tried to voice my thoughts I would be cut back down with harsh words and reprimands. The guilt experienced from saying ‘no’ to her has been huge, as in the past I had always made her needs a priority and as far as possible gave everything to her within the realms of my capability. Saying no to her meant saying yes to me, I was on un-familiar territory, I felt selfish for not doing as she wished and have suffered huge guilt in the process.

I can admit to not fully empathising with my mother and her various medical conditions including COPD. Instead of empathising and trying to understand why she felt the need to chain-smoke (she said she used it as a form of stress relief and to ease boredom) I was angry she wouldn’t stop smoking. It seemed she had little respect for her health, her body or even taking responsibility to get well. Her smoking habits and related complications contributed to her eventual death. I realise now I could have been more supportive in listening to her complaints even if I couldn’t change them for her. I could have acknowledged her reasons and why she believed her habits were helping her. No one knows when their mother’s life will come to an end or how you will feel when it does. I hate to say it, but in many ways I believe it was a relief for both of us.’’

Empathy can never be underestimated; it’s a powerful catalyst for change when it comes to your relationship with your mother. Listening to what your mother has to share (whether or not you agree with it) will take you a long way towards understanding her and transforming your relationship.

I love this poem by Jessie Swick. I came across it many years ago while searching for something on the internet. The poem is frequently shared across social media and in blog posts because I think it resonates for so many women. I am just grateful to have discovered it by chance, its essence goes way beyond the written word.


When I ask you to listen to me

And you start to give advice,

You have not done what I asked.

When I ask you to listen to me

And you begin to tell me ‘why’ I shouldn’t feel that way,

You are trampling on my feelings.

When I ask you to listen to me

And you feel you have to do something to

Solve my problems,

You have failed me, strange as that may seem.

Listen! All I ask is that you listen,

Not talk, nor do - just hear me.

And I can do for myself - I’m not helpless

I may be discouraged and faltering, but not helpless.

When you do something for me, that I can

And need to do for myself,

You contribute to my fear and weakness,

But when you accept as a simple fact that I do feel what I feel,

No matter how rational

Then I quit trying to convince you

And can get into the business of understanding

What’s behind this rational feeling?

When that’s clear,

The answers are obvious and I don’t need advice.

Irrational feelings makes sense when we

Understand what’s behind them.

So please listen, and just hear me, and if you

Want to talk,

Wait a minute for your turn,

And I’ll listen to you

In previous blog posts and those that will continue will dig deeper into the series of posts 'Getting Naked with Your Feelings' in relation to your mother. Although this blog and others are written in the female, mother-daughter perspective which relates to female identity, you lovely guys reading I'm sure will take something too from what I share in relations to your own mother.

I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person - Walt Whitman

#RelationshipConflicts #MothersandDaughters #Understanding #Empathy #Compassion #ACEs

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Wendy Fry Author of Mothers and Daughters & Find YOU, Find LOVE

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