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From Mommie Dearest to Dear Mom: My Journey to Forgiveness

I discovered my mother was no longer my mother with the expectations that come with it, but a wounded child like me. I reframed how I looked at her.

By Gayle Kirschenbaum

"No! Don't! Ouch! Stop!" I pleaded as my brothers grabbed me following orders from my mother. They were happy to do so.

"Please, not again," I started crying.

They lifted my small seven-year-old body onto the top of the refrigerator. It was dizzying and scary. My feet dangled as I looked for something to hold myself with so I wouldn't fall. There was no way I could get down by myself. I was trapped like an animal in a cage for others to look at and be amused.

A middle aged woman smiling with her older mother. Next Avenue, mother daughter relationships, forgiveness
Writer Gayle Kirschenbaum and her mother  |  Credit: Courtesy of Gayle Kirschenbaum

My brothers and parents continued eating their dinner ignoring my pleas and laughing at me. I wanted down and I wanted out. Anything but living under the roof with my mother and her obedient bouncers, my brothers. If she died, I would be free. She never died.

The abuse, criticisms and humiliation continued for decades.

The abuse, criticisms and humiliation continued for decades. I screamed, cowered and tried to hide as often as I could when around my mother and family.

By the time I hit middle age, it was like I had two lives. One week I was winning an Emmy, featured in the New York Times, on national television, and filled with a sense of accomplishment and confidence. The following week I was back visiting my family wearing my victim hat, dodging the relentless criticisms or punching back while seething with anger.

A Viral Apology

I knew I couldn't keep living like this. I had to figure out how to transform my life. And I did.

Twelve years later, an alert appeared on WhatsApp on my iPhone. It was from my Orthodox Jewish girlfriend. There was no text — only a video I had posted earlier of my mom. Knowing that she was not on any social media, I asked her, "Where did you get this video?"

She texted back, "It's gone viral in the religious community."

The video I had posted was one Mom had made for the Jewish High Holiday of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

Looking at the camera, my mother said, "Gayle, you came into this world as an artist with a strong personality and I guess I didn't know how to handle it. Somewhere along the line, I went off track and hurt you badly."

"Gayle, you're so talented. You are an extraordinary filmmaker and a wonderful artist. You know how proud I am of you. You will never know. But yes, I was very harsh in so many ways and for that, I ask your forgiveness. In my heart, I know you forgave me but now I am trying to forgive myself. I love you from the day you were born until the day I die and then I will watch you from afar."

"I was very harsh in so many ways and for that, I ask your forgiveness."

I was shocked. All the years I had spent begging her to acknowledge her cruelty toward me had always fallen on deaf ears. And now, at almost 100 years old, she finally confessed her wrongdoings.

Comments were flying in from our fans on social media telling me how lucky I was, explaining their moms never apologized and were long gone.

My mother's words of admission had no emotional impact on me. I didn't need to hear them. I had done the work to forgive her several years before.

I asked my mother why she finally admitted her wrongdoings. She said, "At this point in my life I'm cleansing my soul." It made sense.


The Burden of Anger

"When you forgive, you in no way change the past, but you sure do change the future," said Bernard Meltzer, the late radio personality and advice dispenser.

"Forgive others, not because they deserve forgiveness but because you deserve  peace," wrote Jonathan Lockwood Huie, author of self-awareness books including "Simply An Inspired Life."

Holding onto rage was affecting my relationships and even my health. I developed an autoimmune disease that required wearing vinyl gloves to protect the thick, cracked plaque and bleeding skin on my fingers.

Holding onto rage was affecting my relationships and even my health.

Dr. Karen Swarz, director of the Mood Disorders Adult Consultation Clinic at the John Hopkins Hospital said, "There is an enormous physical burden to being hurt and disappointed."

Chronic anger puts you into a fight-or-flight mode, which results in numerous changes in heart rate, blood pressure and immune response. And that leads to several illnesses including diabetes, depression, heart disease and cancer. 

In order to keep physically healthy, I had to improve my mindset and release my anger, put out the furious fire raging inside me. There was only one way. I would have to forgive my mother.

Even though as a child I longed for love, I never once felt there was something wrong with me. I always believed who we are today goes back to our early years. I wondered what happened to my mother when she was a little girl.

A History of Hardship

I set out on a journey to uncover her past. As I questioned her, it was clear she didn't want to go back to her youth, much of which she forgot or buried. Through genealogical research, discovering and interviewing her last surviving first cousins, I was able to expose the secrets and hardships of her childhood. The childhood she never really had. When I shared with her my findings, she slid open a crack in her emotional window as her eyes welled up recalling her father's two attempted suicides and the untimely death of her younger sister.          

Together, we are the poster mother/daughter for a happy, positive and mutually rewarding relationship.

Armed with this information, I started to feel compassion for my mother. A turning point came when I met a woman who had a challenging childhood and facilitated a psychological board game session. All I remember from that day was the moment she asked me to stand, close my eyes, and think of my mother as a little girl. I had done my research by then and saw a wounded little girl. Then she asked me to imagine myself as a little girl and I knew I was a wounded girl. Then, she said, you both come together.

It was a big a-ha moment. My mother was no longer my mother with the expectations that come with it, but a wounded child just like me. This allowed me to reframe how I looked at her. And by doing so, I changed my expectations. So when the insults came at me, they no longer had the impact they once did as I knew she was hurting and unleashing at me.

By my no longer cringing or snapping back to her rage and just ignoring her, she realized it was having no impact on me and she eventually stopped.

The Steps I Took

We have only control over ourselves. No one else. But as in my case with my mother, we can sometimes effect change in someone else's behavior by our actions.

Understand: I understood my mother's pain by uncovering the secrets of her childhood.

Reframe: I was able to reframe how I looked at her and changed my expectations.

Forgive: And by doing so and feeling compassion for her, I was able to forgive her.

Mom and I have become a formidable team of social media influencers, with thousands of followers and millions of plays.

She is the longevity expert and I'm the forgiveness coach. And together, we are the poster mother/daughter for a happy, positive and mutually rewarding relationship.

As Mom often says in our videos, "We are not only mother and daughter, we are best friends."

We have come a long way.

Gayle Kirschenbaum is an Emmy award-winning filmmaker, TV producer, writer, TED speaker, photographer and coach. Her award-winning film, Look at Us Now, Mother! was featured on Netflix. She has been featured in The New York Times, NBC's Today Show and The Washington Post. Read More
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