Dear Margo: Conflicted About Long-Lost Mother

Margo Howard’s advice

Conflicted About Long-Lost Mother

Dear Margo: Right after my 7th birthday, my mother left my dad and me with no explanation. It wasn’t until 13 years later that I saw her again. In between those years, she called and we exchanged letters.

My first stepmom did not allow me to have a relationship with my mother. In fact, I was not allowed to talk about her, and any mention of her in my journal was scratched out. My dad got married again when I was 15 to a wonderful woman, and after so many years with no mother figure, it was great to have her in my life.

When I did reconnect with my mother after those 13 years, I felt guilty because I didn’t feel anything. She could have been a stranger on the street. I have tried to have a relationship with her, but I think time has doused that flame. I consider my stepmom to be my mom, and I can only see myself having one mom and one dad, like I only have one boyfriend. I drown myself in tears and guilt nearly every day because she works multiple jobs and struggles. I feel guilty for my success and cannot enjoy things without thinking about whether or not she was able to put food on the table that day. I send her money sometimes on holidays, but I don’t know if she feels insulted.

I never got to know her or any of my relatives on her side. I’ll be 30 soon and hate knowing that so much time has come and gone. I have no idea what to do anymore or whether my feelings are even valid. I’m so used to her not being in the picture that everything feels forced — like wearing my shoes on the wrong feet. Is it too late? — Struggling

Dear Strug: I think of the line from the song “Nothing” in “A Chorus Line”: “But I felt nothing.” It is OK to feel nothing. It is kind of you to worry about her finances, and it’s clear that she’s made some disastrous choices. If there is no inclination to get to know her, I would encourage you to disconnect entirely, especially if she has made no effort to pick up the thread. Trust your instinct — the one about the shoes. Life happens, and this is what happened to you. — Margo, understandably

Marriage Changes Mother

Dear Margo: Now that I am married, my mother has become quite clingy. When I was single, we had a good relationship, but my being out of her house has brought about a change in her relating to me. She wants us to do everything together — go grocery shopping, to the movies, anything! My dad and she have a good relationship, so it’s not like I left her “alone.” I don’t know how to say that I am making a life with my husband, other couples and my married girlfriends, and it’s not high on my list to hang with my mother. What do you think is going on, and what can I do about it? — Louisa

Dear Lou: Your situation is a little unusual in that Velcro moms frequently exhibit those tendencies long before the bird has flown the coop. I have no idea what’s going on with her, but it is possible she’s having a delayed empty nester reaction. I suggest making some time for her every couple of weeks, and when she issues other invitations, say you have a date with one of your besties. With luck, she will catch on. And perhaps you could kiddingly remind her that you are all grown up now and a married woman. — Margo, independently

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Dear Margo is written by Margo Howard, Ann Landers’ daughter. All letters must be sent via the online form at Due to a high volume of e-mail, not all letters will be answered.


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35 Responses so far.

  1. avatar David Bolton says:

    LW1: I don’t know what to think about this letter because it comes off as melodramatic and inconsistent and manufactured. LW goes from feeling nothing to drowning in daily guilt and tears and wearing the wrong shoes to considering stepmom to be mom and then being full of worry that bio-mom has nothing to eat and is struggling, struggling. There’s too much metaphor and too little explanation as to what the nature is of the past and present relationship between LW1 and the mom. What did the letters say? Why did she leave? Why is she struggling? You never met any relatives on her side before she left?

    LW2: “…it’s not high on my list to hang with my mother.”

    It should be.

    • avatar bamabob says:

      LW1 didn’t sound manufactured or inconsistent to me at all. I thought it was very straightforward and easy to understand.
      LW2 is trying to make her own life with her husband but apparently this guy thinks that should be secondary to hanging with her mother . . .
      I think both letter writers should be glad they wrote to Margo and not someone else who tends to be judgmental. FWIW I agree with Margo’s advice to both letter writers. I sense LW1 wants to feel more than she does, but it can’t be forced so there’s no need to beat yourself up. LW2, scheduled–but limited–time with Mom may help her to adjust to the empty nest. If not, you may have to be a little blunt, even so, the 2x a month outings with Mom ought to fulfill any mother-daughter obligations and still leave you and your husband time to forge your own life.

      • avatar David Bolton says:

        This is why it seems inconsistent to me.

        Mom left when I was 7. (no explanation why)

        I got letters and calls during a 13 year separation.

        Stepmom 1 didn’t allow a relationship with Mom. (what about calls and letters?)

        Stepmom 2 shows up. Finally, a mother-figure. (ok)

        At 20, I reconnect with real mom. I don’t feel anything—she’s like a stranger. I feel guilty. (huh?)

        I have tried to have a relationship, but time has doused the flame. (on whose part? why continue?)

        My stepmom is my mom. I only can have one mom in my mind. (okay, then what’s the problem?)

        I drown in tears and guilt all the time because real mom works multiple jobs, struggles and I feel guilty for my success and can’t enjoy things because she might be going hungry. (wait, what? where do these feelings even come from? isn’t this behavior a little extreme for someone who is a stranger and you don’t regard as being your mom?)

        Time has come and gone and I feel like I’ve never gotten to know her and it feels forced (then why are you forcing it? I thought stepmom was like your mom?)

        • avatar etiennewestwind says:

          By “I don’t feel anything” I think the LW means I don’t feel love for her. And she feels guilty because society says we’re horrible people if we don’t love our “real” parents. But no, that’s not literally feeling nothing.

        • avatar Dani Smith says:

          I’m with you. That was one of the most confusing letters I’ve ever read in Dear Margo. None of what she said added up or made sense in relation to everything else. Either it’s made up, or she’s not very good at explaining things, or, the letter was edited in some way for succinctness, but in doing so something got lost in translation.

          • avatar David Bolton says:

            Exactly. I had to reread the letter several times to make sure it wasn’t the stepmom who was struggling, and that LW1 felt guilty for trying to have some sort of relationship with the birth mom when the other was working multiple jobs and perhaps going hungry. She (or he) transitions from one parent to the other without a clear switch.

        • avatar Hellster says:

          Re. LW #1, I’m with you, David. The tipoff for me was the metaphor about the shoes. Too precious and thought-out. I had to go back and figure out what she was writing to an Agony Aunt for…her question… “is it too late?” is tres lame. “Too late” for what?

          Interesting that both LWs are basically asking the same thing: “Am I a bad person for feeling the way I feel about my mother?” That is the 64,000 question for so many of us women.

    • avatar Chicago48 says:

      Hello everyone, glad to be on board. Here’s my suggestion to the Strug: Do a geneaological research of your mom and her family. Your mom could have mental issues you don’t know about. Start out by researching her background, her birth, her mom, where she was born, etc. etc. I didn’t know anything about my mom even though she was a single mom who raised us and struggled all the while. She never talked to us about family, her feelings. What I know about her is from observation. I didn’t understand her motivations until I started researching the family geneaology. I think you’ll find your quest engrossing and engaging.

    • avatar JCF4612 says:

      LW1 : I agree with David Bolton. The letter swings back and forth like a metronome. You can’t worry about whether mom will have a bowl of gruel that night and at the same time “feel nothing.” Get in her life at least enough to provide some support …  or get out, while sending a monthly check for groceries.

      LW2: Understandably, you don’t want to be constantly hangin’ with mom as if she were a pal. But do make time for her. Set up some long-range plans, so she’ll have something to look forward to doing with you. Seeing a certain movie that’s opening next month. Or trying out an elaborate recipe that you need help with.

    • avatar dcarpend says:

      Really? It should be high on the list of a newly married woman to hang with her mother? Why?

  2. avatar Toni Jean says:

    Lw2: please ask your mom how she’s doing. This behavior is different for her. You absolutely do need your space but something could be wrong and that’s why she’s leaning on you more than her habit.

  3. avatar Belinda Joy says:

    Letter #2 – This may be a crazy suggestion but… about sitting down and talking to your mother?

    Letter #1 – I agree with Margo, this letter writer should sever ties.

    First of all she is not being honest about her emotions. That is always a bad sign. She can’t say on one hand that her mother has been gone a majority of her life and when she appeared again she felt nothing for her. Yet on the other hand as the years have passed and she as seen her mom struggle financially that she feels bad for her. That does not make sense. That tells me she isn’t as detached as she is telling herself.

    Especially because she is turning 30, it is time to learn to honest with people in her life. Sit down and tell her mother that she does not want a relationship with her. She’ll understand, she was able to do it to her husband and 7 year old child, that screams that she understands walking away from people. Now this letter writer needs to turn her back on her mother and focus her love and attention on her father and step mom.

  4. avatar Katharine Gray says:

    Re Letter #1 and the controversy:  I am not sure it is inconsistent to feel no connection or love for the biological mother and at the same time feel guilty about it..particularly if the biological mother is struggling.  Although drowning oneself in tears every day about the situation does seem a little melodramatic and if this is in fact, the case, then perhaps seeing a professional to sort out all of this inner conflict may be useful for LW#1, because anyone who is, in fact,  drowning themselves in tears everyday with guilt over anything is somewhat dysfunctional and needs to get it all figured out. 

    Re Letter #2:    I acknowledge that the LW comes across as rather cold toward her mother.   I was very close to my mother, we lived in the same town, and seeing her more than 2x a month didn’t seem excessive to me.  However, seeing her once a week or so (going to movies. and grocery shopping with her) and talking to her briefly 2 or 3 times a week did not intefere with my professional, spousal, or friendship opportunities.  Perhaps it was because I often initiated the contact and my mother was not demanding my time.  If, in fact, the two were close before her marriage, I don’t see why the LW cannot have a gentle conversation with her mother explaining the problem from her perspective instead of abruptly rationing her time with her mother with little or no explanation except *I’m too busy to see you*.    Having said all that, I know of a mother who is entirely wrapped up in her daughter’s life to the point of visiting daily, cooking meals for her daughter and her family several times a week, taking over all care for her grandchildren when she is with them, and even going to her daughter’s workplace to *assist* her in her job (and this woman has a good marriage of her own, a part-time job, and a network of her own friends).  I think that is too much mothering of an adult but it seems to work for them.

    • avatar David Bolton says:

      LW’s letter comes across as very “Cat’s In The Cradle” minus the selfish parent. I would love to have the opportunity to spend more time with my mother—unfortunately she’s dead. I don’t regret the time that we spent apart (which was significant), because my mother overcame some very powerful personal demons and self-destructive behavior. What I DO regret is that during the time I did have with her afterwards to the time of her death, I was much more focused on the endgame rather than simply enjoying my time with her.

      If her mother is healthy and pleasant to be around—it’s very unfortunate that LW2 regards interest and a need to have regular contact as being “clingy.” I bet she’ll change that tune when kids start coming into the picture.

      • avatar dcarpend says:

        Maybe, maybe not. I know a whole lot of women who are very uncomfortable with a mother or mother-in-law’s desire to take over the mothering of their grandchildren, to the point of wanting to be the one who takes the child to see Santa the first time, buys the stocking, gives the first bike. They want to mother their own children, thanks.

        I adored my mother, and one of the things I most admired about her was that she had a life outside her children — a job she loved, friends she did things with, a boyfriend after she finally dumped my dad (long story, but she should have done it sooner), a book club, an investment club, etc. She loved doing things with her kids and grandkids, but there was never any guilt trip if we were busy with our own lives. Consequently, she was a joy to be around.

    • avatar bright eyes says:

      I agree the letter writer has issues with writing, but I can see where she’s conflicted.
      I have a step parent who ‘stepped’ in and raised me – my own biological father left when I was young. I saw him a few times during my childhood, but after age 11, there was no contact at all. Then 11 years later when I moved close to where he was living and he wanted to have a relationship again, with me making the effort, the trips, etc. By that time, I felt I had a (step)father and he (bio) is a stranger to me.
      But I’m not wracked with guilt about it, I feel that he made his choice when I was young, but I don’t feel love or hate for him. But “society” seems to have the idea that because we’re biologically connected, that I should love him and feel bad that I don’t have a relationship. I think she’s may be upset that she doesn’t feel anything – but given the situation, most people (or is it just me) can’t walk up to a family member who they haven’t seen in years and instantly love them. I don’t understand why she says she’s wracked with guilt unless someone is supplying that guilt. Someone is putting her on that guilt trip and telling her she should feel bad, so she feels bad that she doesn’t feel bad.

      • avatar Lym BO says:

        I think you are right on the money. She is not feeling what she thinks society tells her she should & this is her battle as well as why she has such conflicting statements in her letter.
        I had a friend whose mother left him when he was nine. She visited with he & his 4 sibs at a hotel on weekends leaving him with his alcoholic father. During college he lived with mom & I was always amazed how he & his sisters doted on her after she left them high & dry for so many years. She had money and went through 3 more husbands over the course of 8 years. My thought s were always that the kids felt pushed by society and her own needs to keep her in their lives. I have an older cousin whose mother left her at age 9 as well & I can’t understand how she now acts like nothing ever happened. I guess it is that innate love for mommy formed over those first 7-9 years that grabs onto someone & forgives. I think this is what the LW is attempting to elicit. She feels like she should feel something, but can’t remember–most likely bc she was so traumatized that she grieved & buried her loving feelings so very deep all those lonely, motherless years. While she had a great stepmom, no one could ever make up for the loss one feels when their mother *chooses* to leave them.

  5. avatar Cindy Marek says:

    L #1: I agree with Margo, especially the part about your mother’s seeming unwillingness to pick up a thread. It’s good to be compassionate and caring; however, you’re punishing yourself (why?) over issues far beyond your control and which aren’t your fault.

    L #2: Well I’m not a parent, but I have hoped to make more lady friends. Unfortunately it seems many are wanting to cling to their recently grown children. Who knows, maybe I’d have done the same? I read so many letters to Margo of “empty nesters” who are miserable and lonely, but don’t want to embark on new friendships. *shrugs* Well, I do have a husband as well…and books…and my writing. Good thing! You need to be kind but firm with mom; your husband comes first and *she* needs a nudge out of “the nest.” There are nice and worthwhile childless ladies willing to chat, have lunch, go see a movie *waves hand.* But alas…

  6. avatar wlaccma says:

    It is not high on my two children’s list to hang out with me. They both live a distance away from me. They are happily married and have children, are financially secure and very nice social lives. We babysit when they travel for business or pleasure. We email and we visit them regularly. I am proud that they are independent and have a lot of friends and a life of their own. That is what we wanted for them.

    • avatar dcarpend says:

      Thank you. My mother said that one of the things she wanted for her children was for us to be able to leave home. 🙂

  7. avatar fallinginplace says:

    LW#2:  Feelings are neither valid nor invalid, they just are.  Don’t judge them.  Your family situation has understandably left you with conflicting feelings about your birth mother.  It seems like you would prefer to end the relationship, or at least take a break from it, but for your guilt.  So maybe therapy is indicated to figure out why you feel so guilty and how you might resolve those feelings regardless of whether you decide to maintain the relationship.   That would probably help you make your decision.  And even if you decide to put the relationship on hold, you might choose to resurrect it later – sometimes having children of your own makes you feel differently about your own parents.  Just something to think about.

  8. avatar Julie Pierce says:

    I, also, don’t understand the confusion about LW1. Have you never felt ambivalent about something/someone? It is completely plausible that she does not feel the typical mother-daughter love that many of us relate to and at the same time has feelings of guilt and concern for her mother. Have you ever had an ex that you know was an ex for all the right reasons but you still cared about what happened to them? You still cared if they were broke/hungry, etc? I mean, we, as a society donate money to charity because we care about the well being of complete strangers. Is it so had to believe that this woman might have similar feelings for her mother? And like others have pointed out…it is likely that much of her problem lies in feeling guilty about her lack of feeling for her mother. She probably feels guilty for wishing she could just turn her back on her. People generally want to do the right thing, and figuring out what that is can be quite difficult and confusing.

  9. avatar Kathy says:

    I don’t know if the first letter is confusing, paradoxical or phony, but the letterwriter is most definitely over-dramatizing.  If the bio mom made no substantive effort to have a relationship with her young daughter for years, then she’s not interested. LW1 is fortunate to have a “mom” in her life, and she’s fortunate that she’s not pining away for a bio parent who’s not reciprocating.  Sounds like all is right in the world.  For goodness’ sake, go with it.

  10. avatar Carib Island Girl says:

    Clingy mom: MOVE.

  11. avatar Janet66 says:

    I’m with David Bolton on LW#2. Your mother won’t be around forever and you will regret your current attitude one day.

    I think the LW sounds very self-absorbed. I hate when women get married and think the world should revolve around their husbands and other “married women” and couples. Since half of all marriages end in divorce, you could be in for a rude awakening. I don’t know… I can be in love with an amazing man and have a life with him while still including friends – single, married – and family. Something about the LW’s attitude really rubs me the wrong way. She sounds like a jerk.

    • avatar mayma says:

      I totally agree. My reaction to LW2 was not positive. I read it this way: “I hung out with my mom while I lived in her house and accepted her financial support, but now that my husband has taken on the role of providing for me, I don’t want to hang out with her as much. Why doesn’t she get that?” That is 100% the vibe I got.

      • avatar Lunita says:

        Yeah, I’d like to know how much they hung out when she was living with her mother. Or maybe the mother is trying to make up for the time they don’t spend around the house anymore by having more planned activities. Either way, I don’t understand why she wouldn’t be able to fit her mom into her life. It just sounds like she doesn’t want to. I’m not married but I live with my boyfriend, 30 minutes from my parents, yet I make time to see and call them. I love connecting with them and my sisters and their families.

        • avatar dcarpend says:

          It depends on how much time Mom wants. If Mom wants lunch twice a week and a phone call every day and dinner at her house every single Sunday, Mom needs to get a life.

    • avatar LovePacino says:

      @Janet66: I fully agree with you about LW2!!! When I read her comment noting that “…it’s not high on my list to hang with my mother” it made me think she’d rather do anything else but hang out with mom. I am 43 years old and luckily was raised by a lovely mother whom I still adore and see on a regular basis. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

  12. avatar Skyblonde says:

    I feel you, LW#2. I have retyped this comment seven times because I have so much to say! Basically, this happened to me too. It didn’t change when I had babies. It doesn’t change whenever she gets sick. And when I did talk to her about it, she tried to make me feel guilty and then tried to blame the whole thing on my husband. I have just had to learn to accept that we no longer have the relationship we once had, because neither of us is the same person we once were. If she weren’t your mother, would you hang out with her? (And this ties back in to LW#1-just because she’s your mom, doesn’t mean you have to be close.)

  13. avatar Southerngyrl says:

    Honestly, for LW1, I think I know where the guilt comes from. People are skipping over the part where she tried to reconnect to her daughter (not absolving her of her abandonment of her child). She left when the daughter was seven. It seems like from ages 8-15 she tried to connect to her daughter but was rebuffed b/c of the crazy stepmom. Then dad remarries someone at 15 who finishes raising her. I think she feels guilty because she feels like she could have had some type of relationship with her, but with the gap in their relationship, caused first by her abandonment and then the crazy stepmom, she feels like she really let her mother down.

    She says she feels nothing, but I think that is a lie.

    Who knows why the Mom left. We can all judge and say what we will or will not do. You have no idea what could make a mother leave her child. It isn’t always about selfishness. I for one feel bad for both her and her mother. It is a pretty sad state of affairs.

    • avatar wendykh says:

      Having been in similar shoes I agree.

      But my mom was dead.

      LW1 it’s okay to not feel like long lost lovers. It’s okay to love Stepmom/Mom more.

      Give it time. Love the relationship for what it is. Enjoy. Find out why she left (through observation!). Get to know her as a human. Then love her ….or leave her.

  14. avatar LovePacino says:

    LW2:  I can understand needing some space from a (suddenly!) overly-clingy parent. BUT what I CAN’T understand is the following comment: “…it’s not high on my list to hang with my mother.” I might understand that attitude if the LW were a teenager or a single 20-something, but she is a married adult who claims she previously had a good relationship with her mother. Of course it’s not going to be her TOP priority to hang with mom, but she makes it sound so bothersome/boring/unappealing. Perhaps mom’s clinginess has made it bothersome to spend time with her, but frankly it sounds like the daughter doesn’t want to be bothered with mom at all — and maybe that is why mom is acting this way, because she senses her daughter wants to shut her out of her life??? Just a theory of course, and I would like to add that I happen to believe that it’s entirely possible to be a fully-grown indepedent adult and STILL love your mom and want to see her on a regular basis.

  15. avatar Lym BO says:

    I find LW2 strange. I enjoy hanging out with my mom. Always have. We click & that is that.
    My experience was just the opposite with my mom. She bowed out & continues since I married and had children. We feel like we have to beg her to come visit or have to invite ourselves to visit her. (an hour away).
    My in-laws, on the other hand, had nothing (NOTHING) to do with us while we dated then when we married they suddenly thought they had new best friends. Clingy and overbearing to the max. Their badgering to hang out got so bad that within 18 months we decided to move 1000 miles away from them. (close to my parents). Hubby couldn’t stand up to them & wouldn’t let me…