Getting Real With Your Mother

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Moms are on everybody's minds as we approach Mother's Day this Sunday, May 14. But the mother-child relationship is often complicated and not always a joyous one.

Psychotherapist Alyce Faye Cleese says her book of good advice, How To Manage Your Mother, includes the mother/son relationship of her husband, celebrated comedic actor John Cleese.

How To Manage Your Mother contains anecdotes on mothers and their children. You will recognize a few well-known names, such as writer William Goldman, Mike Nichols, Lauren Hutton and others.

Through their stories, she illustrates psychological principles and offers steps one can take, whatever your childhood experience with your mother, to make your adult experience a positive one.

Don't be put off by the title; no disrespect is meant, says Alyce Faye Cleese.

"The title is ironic," explains the author. "It's about understanding yourself in relationship to your mother. The book's based on adult children. So it's about how you evolve and how your mother evolves."

Here are a few of Cleese's "Ten Steps Toward a Better Relationship with Your Mother:"


Cleese says this is an important. Just as we age, so do our mothers. She believes that we must all acknowledge that our mothers are older and may not be able to do what they once did.


    Finding out about your mother's life can be helpful in understanding her as a person. Who was she before you were born? What does that tell you about whom she became and is today and your relationship with her? You can find out about your mother's history by asking her directly or by talking with other family members. Knowing who she was can provide valuable information that can help you with your relationship.


    Cleese is very much a proponent of direct communication. If you ask your mother what you can do to make her life better, you need to be prepared to be willing to do some of those things. Sometimes, just asking the question tells our mothers that we care about their well-being.


    Cleese cautions, "Don't have a sense of humor failure." Her husband adds, "Humor is perspective. The moment that you get drawn into some narrow, tight, anxious little view of something, you've lost perspective. You stop laughing. I sometimes think the purpose of laughter is to relax us and let us come back to a wide perspective again"

    Adds his wife, "Laughter is the closest thing to tears, and if you can laugh at yourself and at your mother, then yo can't be bitter or be moaning about things."


    That is the irony of the book. It's really about changing and managing yourself. How can I change my reactions to my mother's behavior? Whatever her behavior, our distress comes from our feelings about her behavior. You probably won't change your mother. You can work on yourself.


    Alyce Faye Eichelberger Cleese is a well-known psychotherapist with degrees and training from Oklahoma State, Baylor, and London universities. She has treated adolescents at the Tavistock Clinic and works with a wide range of adult patients at her private practice in London. She is married to the actor John Cleese and they live in London and Santa Barbara, California.

    Brian Bates teaches humanistic psychology at the University of Sussex. He has published several books in England and the United States and leads seminars in both countries at universities and institutions such as the Open Center in New York and the Esalen Institute in California. He lives near Brighton, England.

    Read an excerpt from How To Manage Your Mother:

    Chapter One

    She Loves Me

    Because the summers were so hot in Oklahoma, where I lived as a small child, my parents would get up in the cool of the dawn to work in their garden. When the rays of the early morning sun began to slant across the fields, my mother would come indoors to wake me. I remember clearly, as she leaned over my bed, the sweet smell on her of roses, and the earth, and the dew. She smelled so good. Happy memories like this are like the best days of summer: warm and bright.

    Our earliest recollections of our mother, whether good or bad, tend to be made up of such sensual fragments; these images of how she looked, what she felt like, the sound of her voice, and her aroma, are wrapped together in our memory with a "feeling tone," a sense of the original emotion that we felt at the time. As we grow up, these memories and feelings gradually build up, in our heart and mind, into the attitude toward our mother that we have as an adult. This attitude is like a guiding image, and it is absolutely crucial in determining how we get along with her today. For this reason rediscovering our memories of her and understanding our feelings about them is the key to unlocking the door to a better relationship with our mother.

    Understanding Early Memories

    Of course, our relationship with our mother is about today. But it is a relationship that's different from any other in our life. She ws the very first person we formed a relationship with, and that relationship continued all the way through our childhood to the emotional roller coaster of adolescence and beyond. Therefore, everything to do with us and our mother now is infused with this shared past, a history that colors the present with everything from the warm hues of love to the dark shadows of trouble.

    All of us have both happy and sad memories of times spent with our mother, although since happiness presents us with no issues to wrestle with and no problems to solve, happy recollections do not stay with us as persistently as negative memories. Even those of us who get along well with our mother
    usually suffer some painful legacies: misunderstandings, wrong things said, right things unsaid, heated arguments, and, for some of us, frustrations, regrets, and bitter feelings toward her.

    No matter where we fall on this scale of emotional response, there are ways we can improve our relationship with our mother. But how do we go about accomplishing this?

    Many self-help books present their maxims as if we could read them one day and start living differently the next. But we are not machines that are simply in need of missing nuts and bolts. We are complex, organic beings, and for the lessons of a book to really make a difference to our life they must connect
    with us deeply. The stories and ideas of a book need to resonate with us, like a piece of music, for the medium of the psyche is akin to music; and in trying to improve our relationship with our mother we are trying to recompose the lyrics and retune that relationship.

    We need, therefore, to begin not by calling to our minds all the problems, the blocks or the frustrations, but by establishing first a positive resonance with our mother. We can do this by recalling some happy experiences with her.

    Starting with Happiness

    I asked my interviewees for their earliest pleasant memories of their mother. Their responses, often no more than sound bites, give a feeling, a taste, a sniff, the barest glimpse of the origins of the positive aspects of their present view of her:

    "Looking up into her face. A feeling of love that came from her."

    "I remember her wonderful teeth and a huge smile."

    "A woman bustling around the kitchen, singing."

    "A woman with lots of curly hair."

    "My mother was a jumper. I remember her always jumping into action."

    "On a beach, in the sand, mother in the sixties, in a bikini."

    "With my mother, a sudden gust of wind, it was raining leaves, and I was very happy."

    "She had very pale skin, red lips, and very dark long hair. She always reminded me of Snow White."

    "Climbing into her bed; I remember the smell of her skin."

    "In a baby chair, being fed by my mother, and me refusing to eat my vegetables. I would only eat flying vegetables; they had to have wings."

    Some early pleasant memories are fuller, like Carla Santos Shamberg's dscription of being with her mother at the beach. "We lived in New York City," she said. "But my mother loved the ocean, and she would take me there. My fondest memory is that she would carry me in her arms into the water, and we would jump the waves together for what would seem like hours. It was wonderful. I don't know if you have ever jumped waves, but you feel them all night long in your sleep."

    Jane Bedford's warm memories of her mother were poignant: "When my dad had his stroke, we were living with my mom in public housing; the house had wooden floors. On Saturday mornings, she would let us kids polish the floor by tying dust rags on our feet, skating on the floor with the polish, and then again with dry dust rags to shine it up. Scooting along the floor, we loved that." Although this pleasant memory is colored by knowledge of her parents' later problems, children often instinctively understand much about the adult world even when they do not understand all the details. Even at her young
    age, Jane knew that her mother was having a difficult time, yet she still allowed Jane to have fun...

    Excerpted from How To Manage Your Mother by Alyce Faye Cleese and Brian Bates. Excerpted by permission of Harper Trade. All rights reserved.
    No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

    Go to a look at John Cleese's career