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Navigating the complexity of Mother-Daughter relationships

By Amber Wilkinson


Crying in H Mart was one of the most popular books between 2021 and 2022. Popular not only for being penned by Japanese Breakfast’s front-woman Michelle Zauner, but for her depiction of difficult mother-daughter relationships, and finding the love language that will help you connect. When I finished it, I cried my eyes out. I felt seen. It made me realise that I’m not a bad daughter, and you can have a difficult relationship with your parents even when they’re ill. I understood what it means to communicate with our mothers in other ways, that love is not always an easy landscape to navigate.


a woman walking through rose bushes with her small daughter

A quote I like to return to is a scene from Twentieth Century Women when Dorothea says to Abbie “You get to see him out in the world, as a person. I never will”. What gripped me was that I immediately thought of it the other way round. I grew up with my mother’s words “I am your mother, not your friend”. For over two decades, we were both caught in the roles society had laid out for us, of ‘Mother’ and ‘Daughter’. With an alcoholic father, my mum was caught up in positioning as the pious role model; a nurturing caregiver who never drank and was always on her best behaviour. Because of my father, my mum restricted herself. I didn’t see her out on the weekends dancing. Later as a teenager, I’d hide my own drinking from my mum, complaining over her strict ways. Now, I feel simultaneous gratitude for my mum being a safe harbour, and sadness that she had to dampen herself because of an abusive and bitter old man.

I’d say it's only in the last few years we’ve started to come out of our ‘Mother’ and ‘Daughter’ roles. I can’t remember the day or the moment that brought on this shift. It was more like a slow dripping than a waterfall, a gentle awakening that she is not ‘Mother’, she is a person who has lived a whole life before me. I see now everything she has sacrificed, the trauma of abusive relationships, the context of who she is as a person. I understand now her emotionally volatility and irrationality. As a trauma survivor myself, I understand her.


“I am your mother, not your friend”

We’ve bonded over this, with my mum joking that I have as bad taste in men as her, seeing how that pains her. That despite wearing that ‘Mother’ costume, embodying the role model she always wanted to be, I still followed in her footsteps. Just like her, I’ve spent my twenties sliding pound coins into the jukebox at the pub and drinking way too much. Just like her, i’ve been attracted to abusive men.

Now, it sometimes feels like our roles are reversed. I've gone from only eating chips as a child, to checking menus to find things my mum will eat. Instead of clinging to my mum’s dress in social situations, it’s now her hanging back as I chat to strangers, or to friends of mine. Sometimes these roles shift back. Care is something to be shared. Some mothers get caught in believing that they have to be caregivers for the rest of their lives. What i've learnt is my mum needs care just as much as me. Sometimes she needs someone to hold her hand, and let her know it’s going to be ok. Just as much as I have.


An excerpt from 'Crying in M Hart' by Michelle Zauner

A quote from 'Crying in H Mart' by Michelle Zauner


My biggest champion coming out of an abusive relationship was my mum. I still have the text she sent me not long after when I was really struggling; “Ur a strong woman u’ll heal.” She said to me because that was her. A strong woman who had to heal. A woman whose endured so much. So I can forgive her harsh parenting, her emotional volatility, the periods of time she won’t speak to me. What I realised once I saw her as a person, not just my mum, is that she is human. That on some days I get that version of her, on others I belly laugh at the things she comes out with, laughing over people she works with, or something stupid my ex said to me. But I don’t get to choose.


One thing I’ve realised is, I’m allowed my anger. In therapy, I can work through the ways my mum has hurt me. When I’m out of that space, I choose not to let that take over our relationship now. We set boundaries with each other now. We go out to lunch and be vulnerable around each other. We cook for each other. My mum is always going to be my mum, but now she’s also my friend. I will make the most of that I can.





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