05/10/2012 09:29 am ET Updated Jul 10, 2012

A Day To Say Goodbye To Old Grudges: Untangling Mother-Daughter Ties

Like many women in midlife, I find Mother's Day as much a reminder of a fraught relationship as a celebration of motherhood.

Even if we are not caring for our mothers, and even if we rarely spend time with them -- even, as in my case, they are no longer alive -- the emotional status of our relationship with them is a major factor in our ongoing reinvention. The intimacy between a woman and the woman who gave birth to her has its own unique mix of physical, psychological and gender forces within each of them. No matter how independent and grounded we have become in everyone else's eyes, in our own we are barely out of our teens in relation to her. Any attempt at resolution is a replay of the adolescent struggle to establish a strong and independent identity without stretching the bonds of love too far.

Making those adjustments is especially discomfiting for a generation that never resolved the tensions between the rewards and sacrifices of love and motherhood.

When we were young and outraged, our efforts to rectify historic injustices obscured the fact that those efforts put us in direct conflict with the very women whose abuse we thought we were avenging.

As social psychologist Terri Apter observes about us, "Their mothers had, as they saw it then, bequeathed them a defective feminine nature. They had colluded with a society that restricted and even punished their efforts as self-correction."

Just think back to the wardrobe rebellions we undertook against the feminine establishment. My mother was a fashion plate; I was a drab dresser. She was the one who wore short skirts, girdles and stockings. I wore jeans and boots. She looked pretty good; I not so much. But that was the point.

Over the years women of my generation have mellowed and a less judgmental worldview is now possible, even in relation to our mothers. We have a second chance to listen to her story with empathy, this time, not rancor.

Until my mother began to fail, I had convinced myself that I had "outgrown" her years ago. I felt so uncomfortable with the "femininity" she practiced that even in the years when we had marriage and children in common, I doubted we spoke the same language. As she got weaker, though, she seemed more innocent, less defiant, and I began to wonder about what she wasn't telling me when I wasn't telling her more than the bare minimum about myself.

For example, why did she send me a copy of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique soon after it came out? Was she trying to tell me what her life was like? Was it a call for help? Or was "Women's Lib" simply the latest of her protest causes?

Why didn't I ask?

As I reviewed other such incidents, a solitary and brave woman began to emerge. My heart goes out to her. I admire her. I accept her. At the same time I have come to see something more meaningful to me than my (albeit justified) gripes: she did the very best she could, which is all any of us can do.

According to Apter, if we can replace "the impulse to complain about our inheritance with the need to understand it, "we can accept our own femininity -- which we can do when we feel strong enough to mould it to our own values and needs."

Especially with our mothers and especially now, establishing mutual freedom without neglect, acceptance without pity, devotion without guilt, is the way forward.