My friend, mother to a fifteen year old boy in the throes of adolescent turmoil, did not have a close relationship with her mother when her children were young. Her mother preferred "not to meddle," despite her daughter's clear requests for her involvement. My friend struggled with this for years, seeking help and support from others, particularly her husband and close friends. Still she very much longed to connect with her mother. So she continued into her forties to put a lot of effort into this relationship. The other day, she told me, the effort seemed to have paid off.
She was having a particularly bad moment with her son, who chose an afternoon when she was feeling tired and stressed by her own work, to regale her with all of her faults and accuse her of being the cause of all his misery. The more she tried to talk to him, the more the conversation degenerated, to the point where she couldn't stand it anymore and got in her car and drove off. Much to her surprise, she found herself driving to her parents house, something she never spontaneously did, despite the fact that they lived close by.
Both her mother and father were overjoyed at her unexpected appearance. They made her tea and listened while she unloaded her distress. Then her mother, in a most uncharacteristic way said to her, "I know I might not have done all the right things when you were a kid, but I do remember that sometimes the only option was to keep a sense of humor."
My friend, who had been so caught up in her conflict with her son, suddenly saw that she had been fighting with him like she herself was a teenager. In the heat of the moment she forgot, though at saner moments certainly knew well, that teenagers are at times incapable of rational discussion. But until her mother heard her and reflected back what was happening, she had been unable to see it herself.
Dan Stern, in his book The Motherhood Constellation that outlines the basic principles of parent-infant psychotherapy, refers to the “good grandmother transference” to describe the kind of relationship a parent develops with the therapist who is working with a parent and child together. Transference is a psychoanalytic term that refers to the way people tend to transfer feelings from one relationship, often from childhood, to another current relationship. He writes:
The transference that evolves in this situation involves a desire to be valued, supported, aided,taught, and appreciated by a maternal figure.This desire for such a maternal figure is evidenced in many situations outside of the therapeutic one. Beginning in the hospital with the birth of the baby, mothers frequently find someone to fill this role or part of it. It is often a nurse, a nurses aide, the cleaning lady, or someone else who takes a moment to share personal experience and give heartfelt encouragement. It is amazing how important these short encounters can be. They are overwhelmingly with other mothers more experienced in motherhood...Later other mothers met in the park may fill this role, to say nothing of the mother's actual mother, grandmother, older sisters, and experienced friends.Berry Brazelton, in his book Touchpoints: Birth to Three, in the section devoted to grandparents writes:
The best thing that has happened to me as a grandparent has been the chance for my children and me to have a whole new relationship...Each grandchild is a miracle, but a new relationship with your own children is an even greater one.My forthcoming book, now in the final editing stages, speaks to the importance of supporting parents' efforts to be fully emotionally available for their children. Many of the mothers I describe in the book, mothers who have come to see me in my pediatric practice because of struggles with their children, have strained relationships with their own mothers. In effect they develop a kind of "good grandmother transference" with me. This is often very helpful to them in the task of raising their children. Though perhaps not within the scope of my role as pediatrician, I certainly wish for these mothers, and support them in any way I can, that they find peace, as my friend seems to have achieved, with their own mothers.