Letters from Esther #56: “I miss you and I’m happy you’re gone.”

By Esther Perel and Mary Alice Miller

Shall We Begin?

“I miss my mother . . . but I’m also happy she’s gone. I’ve had a life that I would not have had if she was still here. How do I reconcile these feelings?"

Standing and shaking, surrounded by thousands of people, the woman who asked this during a recent Q&A stared at me waiting for an answer. I didn’t have a simple one. The collective “Mmmm” in the room—that ineffable sound of recognition, empathy, and kindred pain—was evidence of how many people related to her dilemma. I did, too.


It doesn’t mean you wanted the person dead. I wanted to help her switch from an “all-or-nothing” mentality to a more nuanced place. “You loved her AND her absence made room for choices you would not have dared make if she was there.” I was talking about relational ambivalence: the experience of contradictory thoughts and feelings—of love and hate, attraction and disgust, excitement and fear—toward someone with whom you are in a relationship. It’s intrinsic to all relationships, including the very first: with your mother.

As I was answering her, I smiled in recognition, hearing my own mother’s voice: “Careful what you tell her, Esther. By the way, I don’t like your outfit and you look pale.”


She was brilliant in many ways, especially at verbally chopping people up. No one could ever insult my brain or body or clothes or home or choices more than my mother. I had to have double the confidence; once to resist her and once to motivate myself. I fought her off, but she crept under my skin. Over time, my skin got thicker, but it was a brutal process.

For years, I thought I would not become a mother until I was certain I wouldn’t be like her, which of course led to her blaming me for delaying her becoming a grandmother. You can’t know which parts of your parents will show up in your own parenting style until you catch yourself in the act. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I did end up saying things to my kids that I had promised myself never to say. (I, too, comment on their outfits and paleness before asking, “How are you?”)

But I also recognize the many qualities I appreciate about myself that come from her: my passion for dancing, music, fashion, and style; my sense of humor; and especially my love of hosting. Both of my parents hosted, but she did everything down to the dishes (though my father wiped those dishes dry). At the end of every party, my parents did their dishes dance, side by side, hips swaying in unison, her washing, him drying. It’s how I knew she was capable of affection—just not for me. Of course, if you asked my father about any of this, he would say, "She's this way because she loves you."


She died in 2000 but lives on as a voice in my head. Recently, I was asked what that voice actually says. I listened in and heard something different, not criticism but superstition.

  • Praise makes your head swell.
  • Your friends and neighbors will tell you good stuff about yourself. The mother tells you what they won't.
  • Don't ever believe that good things last. You won't be prepared when things inevitably go bad.

These myths from my mother were part of a long-standing cultural tradition. While I appreciate what her fatalistic stance did for her, I did not appreciate it as a mothering philosophy. So I set out to look for a different one. I wanted to get my mother and me out of our stalemate as well as give my own kids a strategy to use whenever I started to resemble her less-than-lovely qualities. I stopped fighting her and instead began to tell her, always with a laugh, “Thank you for not giving up on me and for always trying to make me a better person. But you should know that you’ve done a good job.” In effect, I was telling her that she was okay instead of constantly having to prove that I was okay.


I have used this strategy for decades to help people disentangle. Another strategy, depending on the severity of the situation, is realizing that you don’t have to reject a parent whole in order to not repeat their behaviors or simply make room for your own autonomy. You can take some pieces and leave others. To the woman who asked the question in the Q&A, and to all of you who say “Mmmm,” authenticity to yourself co-exists with loyalty to others. Maturity is our ability to hold these contradictions. This is foundational to all relationships.

This month on my podcast Where Should We Begin?, I speak to another woman about how to hold these contradictions in regards to her mother. We’ve also created a special episode for subscribers with more behind-the-scenes stories about my mother as well as ideas for conversations you can have with your own—with her or with yourself in a journal. I hope you’ll join me there.

Let's Turn the Lens on You

  • Do you, or did you, experience relational ambivalence with your mother?
  • How did it show up for you?
  • What are the positive qualities you see in yourself that come from your mother?
  • The less-than-lovely qualities?
  • What myths did she pass on to you? Did they help? If not, how are you unlearning them?
  • What are you grateful to her for?
  • Do you wish you knew more about your mother? What questions would you ask?
  • Do you wish you knew less? Why?
  • What is a conversation with your mother you’ve only had in your head?
  • What is a conversation you had with your mother that stays with you?

More from Esther

In this Apple bonus, Esther shares a letter she wrote about mothers, including the complicated relationship she had with her own mother. As we approach Mother's Day, Esther invites you to reflect on your own relationships with motherly figures and encourages you to reach out to them. She even has a few ideas of things you can ask to get a new conversation started.

In this episode of Where Should We Begin?, Esther speaks to a woman who is experiencing a kind of a double story. She resents her mother for the choices she made and the example she set, while also wondering if she keeps choosing the safe person as a way to combat those childhood feelings of abandonment. Esther helps her untangle these complicated feelings.

Conversation Starters

A compendium of highly recommended sources of inspiration and information

I'm Reading:

  • In Closer Together: Knowing Ourselves, Loving Each Other, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau weaves together personal stories and struggles; interviews with top psychologists and thought leaders; journaling prompts; and questions that inspire deeper connection to one’s self and to others.
  • More than a book about romantic relationships, Matthew Hussey’s new book Love Life provides a practical roadmap for letting go of past relationships, overcoming the fear of getting left behind, and finding the love we want—starting with ourselves.
  • Einstein's Dreams, a novel by Alan Lightman
  • “When Philosophers Become Therapists,” an article by Nick Romeo (The New Yorker)
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