Virginia Ironside's dilemmas: I wish I hadn't read my mothers letters

"There was so much about how thoughtless I was. How can I stop feeling guilty?"

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Dear Virginia,

A friend was clearing out her late mother’s effects. Her mother was a great friend of my mother, who’s also died. She came across a bundle of letters my mother had written to her mother. When I read them, I was really upset. There was so much about how thoughtless I was and how badly-behaved, and how she thought I didn’t care for her – a string of complaints and unhappiness about me. I don’t think I was anything more than the usual teenager, but now I wish I’d never read the letters. How can I stop myself feeling guilty?

Yours sincerely, Mike

Virginia says...

It’s impossible to stop yourself feeling guilty. However, I think there are some ways of looking at these letters that might make you feel less guilty.

For a start, you were a teenager. I know there are some saintly teenagers who think of no one except others – strange, selfless beings who are always considering their parents’ feelings and running errands for their grannies. But on the whole, our changing hormones and the very act of growing up to be an adult necessarily make most of us push away from our parents simply in order to detach and form ourselves as independent beings. Some young people are able to do this relatively sensitively and kindly, but most just follow some kind of hormonal imperative and tear away, ripping our mothers’ apron strings to shreds, and, simply in order to grow and survive, reject a lot of what our parents stand for, desperate to stand on our own two feet. The very act of birth is frequently painful for the mother as her baby starts to grow too big for the womb. Little chicks can’t develop into chickens without breaking the shells of the eggs they’ve been living in.

In other words – it’s normal. You weren’t especially horrible. You were just growing up.

And have you considered that this letting off steam to her friend might have been your mother’s way of continuing to show her love for you in person? I’ve often felt ashamed of things I’ve said behind their backs about loved ones to my friends. But it’s not totally two-faced. It’s a way of protecting them and the relationship, because if I said these things directly they’d be too hurt and would probably never forgive me. If I were to have said directly to my mother what I thought of her, she would have been a broken woman. Fundamentally, I loved her too much to want to cause her so much pain. I loved  her more than I resented and was irritated by her.

And have you thought that your mother might have been writing to console her friend? If a friend’s been very upset about someone’s behaviour – perhaps your mother’s friend was upset about her daughter’s behaviour – we look to similar examples in our own lives to make them feel less alone. “I know how you feel – much the same happened to me,” you say, and sometimes you exaggerate your feelings so that your friend will feel comforted. I know I’ve done that in the past. Perhaps your mother was being kind and sparing you.

And remember that mothers rarely boast about their children to other mothers. It’s highly unlikely your mother would ever have written: “Mike has been so helpful today. I am blessed to have such a wonderful, thoughtful and unselfish son. I love him so much, he is the light of my life.” It would have looked like rather unpleasant and impolite gloating.

Finally, be aware that, were your mother alive today, she’d be horrified if she knew you were being made so unhappy about these private letters.

Readers say...

It was not your job to make her happy

When my mother died, I was in a similar situation. Her diaries contained page after page of complaints about me, about her sisters, work colleagues… it was all tremendously painful and I struggled  with guilt for a long time. I have since come to realise – after many months  of therapy – that my mother was, indeed,  a very unhappy woman, but that it was  not, and never had been my “job” to make her happy. I learnt to feel sorry for her, locked in her anger, unable to speak honestly and openly with me or with  my aunts about the resentments that  had built up, and about her dissatisfaction with her life.

Perhaps you are able to make a “timeline” from these letters, and put them into the context of her life. Was she writing at a time when other things were making her unhappy, and the letters were, subconsciously, her way of “venting”? Her generation were unable to access the support groups, the talk shows, or any of the therapeutic arenas open to us. 

You can’t “unsee” the letters, and you can’t talk directly to her, but you can ask yourself “was I the best son I could have been?” If the answer to that is “yes”, and you can start to understand the woman behind the letters, you will forgive her and you can start to move on. Good luck.

Shelagh Fox, by email


Shred the letters

I suspect that if you’d kept a teenage diary it would have been full of complaints about your mother – how unfair she was; how she didn’t understand you; how you couldn’t wait to leave home. 

It’s what we do. We put our angst down on paper because it’s therapeutic, but it’s a pity you’ve read your late mother’s thoughts – they were not intended for you. She would be devastated to think that she was hurting you now.

Maybe you were no more thoughtless and badly behaved than any normal teenager but, either way, you can’t alter the past. My advice is to shred the letters, otherwise you will just make yourself feel bad every time they resurface.

Sandra Griffiths, by email


Next week's dilemma

I’ve been reading a lot of articles and books about sex recently and I feel that, at 30, I want to explore my sexuality. My partner and I have a good sex life, but I would love to know what it would be like to try bondage, spanking and perhaps role-play. I went to a sex shop recently and saw so many things I’d like to try out. The problem is that my partner shrinks from the idea of trying out anything new. He goes into his shell when I mention anything like this to him. Do you think I should say that if he’s not interested I’ll be tempted to try things with other people? Would that change his mind?

Yours sincerely,


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