Forgiving my Mother and Forgiving Myself

In All, Jenna Maye, Uncategorized by Jenna Maxwell4 Comments

When I started this blog, my goal was to create a place where I could share fitness tips, recipes and stories. It was important for me to keep things on a personal level with you guys; for all of you who train with me, you know I’m a fairly open book.

When I was brainstorming what to share with you this week, I kept on getting little reminders about some heavier things from my past. I decided to take these reminders as a sign that it’s time to share some of my childhood story. It’s still pretty hard for me to talk about, but I think that it’s crucial for me to share. We spend so much of our lives these days on social media, representing our glossiest of selves that it can be easy to forget that most of us have real, painful and raw stories that we far too often sweep under the rug.

So here’s a little of mine.

When I was 14, my Mom left me. In a basement suite. Alone. With only $45 I had made babysitting that night. Before you feel too sorry for me, I need to make it clear that this was my choice. I refused to go with her because I refused to have her catastrophically destroy my stability yet again.

Before I continue, I should probably explain that my Mom has severe bipolar disorder. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, bipolar disorder is a mental illness that causes those who suffer from it to experience periods of extreme highs (mania) and extreme lows (depression).

To grow up with single mother suffering from bipolar disorder meant that my childhood was categorized by a lot of chaos. By the time I was a preteen, we had moved over 15 times. We’d lived in two tents for month-long periods and spent time in transition houses when my Mom’s abusive relationships made us worry for our safety. I was home-schooled because I was heavily involved in co-parenting my younger brother and sister. But as I got older, I realized I was starting to parent my Mom too.

I could always sense when things were about to spiral one way or another, but I always hoped that she would pull through. I lived with pretty serious anxiety not knowing when she was going to lose it next, and spent a lot of my childhood tiptoeing around her on eggshells.

Don’t get me wrong — we had lots of good times as well, but my life was ultimately dictated by my mother’s mood each day. I also had a very weak sense of self because so much of my identity was tied up in my Mom.

When I was 14, I finally enrolled in the public school system. I made friends, volunteered at a community centre and had a ton of babysitting clients. I was starting to develop a life outside my role at home, and finally got to start acting like a normal teenager. It felt so, so good — but I could also sense that my Mom wasn’t doing well.

There were always little signs that marked where she was at mentally. She would overflow sinks and bathtubs. She cleaned constantly and pulled all of the appliances away from the walls. She would talk a lot, but without making much sense, and would bring strange dead plants home to grow. I can’t explain how weird it was. It scared me.

The day before Mother’s Day that year (I’ll never forget which day it was, because of the irony) I went to babysit these two little boys I looked after regularly. My Mom dropped me off as normal, and I went in and got settled as the parents prepared to leave. Suddenly, there was a knock at the door and my Mom stormed in with my siblings in tow. She demanded that the wife drive me home when I finished that night because she didn’t trust the father (there had never been a reason not to). After sufficiently embarrassing me she left, and when the parents came home that night the wife drove me home. She asked me if everything was okay. I almost started crying as I lied and said that yes, everything was fine.

I dreaded entering our basement suite. It smelled like rotting garbage from all the dead stuff my Mom kept bringing home. I snuck in and because it was so dark I assumed that everyone was asleep (it was past 11 pm on a school night), but as I started to get ready for bed, I realized that nobody was home. This made me extremely nervous — the last time my Mom had done this, she’d piled us all into our Suburban and driven us down to Disneyland with no plan, nowhere to stay and very little money to survive on. I didn’t want to go through that again.

They finally arrived home just after midnight. I had no idea where they’d been. My Mom demanded that I give her the money I’d made that night (all 45 dollars’ worth) and told me to pack up my things and get ready to leave.

I refused. I had school the next day. I’d almost made it through my first year of real school!
She got really angry and grabbed my arm really hard. “Fine then,” she said. “Stay! Rent’s due at the end of the month.” She bundled up my brother and sister, and walked out.

That night, I cried myself to sleep and in the morning I called my mom’s sister Auntie Karen. Although she lived out in Alberta, she quickly called my Grandpa and they sorted out a plan. Next thing I knew, I was off to live with my Dad and his family in White Rock until everything calmed down. I would be able to commute out to Vancouver to finish my school year.

There are so, so many parts to this story and I can’t tell it all in one blog post. This situation may sound fine, but I had only met my Dad and his family twice. They were basically strangers. While they were very welcoming and despite their best efforts, it was hard to fit in to their already established dynamic. I felt very alone.

Once the police found my mom, they had to forcefully drag her out of our apartment in front of my siblings. My brother and sister (11 and 7 at the time) were then juggled between family and foster care.

This is a very complicated story, and one that’s difficult to summarize in one blog post, so I’m going to fast forward a little bit here.

My mother and I were eventually able to start navigating a very complicated relationship. I was angry, and she tried to control me even while I was living with my dad. This eventually culminated in me not speaking to her for almost two years. But this was what I needed! It was amazing to feel like I was taking back my own life and to finally find my identity outside of the circumstances of my Mom’s mental illness. I was finally able to breathe.

But I also had extreme guilt. Not only did I distance myself from my Mom, but I distanced myself from my brother and sister as well. I had too — I couldn’t breathe around my Mom.
Fast forward several more years down the line. I was in Thailand on a yoga retreat and suddenly I was crying in a cot in the middle of the night, feeling extreme sadness. I missed my Mom. I realized in this moment that she was only human, and it wasn’t healthy for me to constantly carry around the survivor’s guilt and grief I’d felt since I refused to go with her that night.

It didn’t happen overnight. First there was a call. Then, we had a few short visits. Eventually, we started spending holidays together again. I chose to tread slowly. And it wasn’t exactly your picture-perfect nuclear family, but I figured out a way to include her in my life again.

To this day, my relationship with my mother is extremely complicated and I’ve established some very defined boundaries. I’ve realized that I don’t have to give her all of myself to make her happy. It’s not my Mom’s fault that she’s sick, and it’s for this reason that I chose to forgive her. We’re only human, all of us, and it’s our humanness that tears us apart — but it’s also what stitches us back together again. I’ve been in therapy for years, and have read many books to help me find the answers on how to accept my circumstances and my mother.

The main push I experienced that helped me forgive was the realization that there was no purpose in carrying around negative feelings and emotions my entire life. My Mom did the best she could, and to some extent it must have been okay — I made it here, to where I am today.

I read once that our souls choose our parents before we’re born, and that we’re brought into this world to learn what lessons they have to teach us. One of the biggest things my Mom has taught me is that everyone deserves a second chance. It’s impossible to always be our best selves, every single day, and it’s okay to fuck up sometimes. We all deserve to find the strength to look someone in the eye and say, “I forgive you”. Those three simple words can snowball into a powerful transformation and help you let go of the past.

At least, it did for me.

Until next week,


  1. Jenna, what an incredibly strong woman you are. Your story is so well-written and clear. It must be really healing for you to sum up the dynamic you have with your mother and her illness. I’m sure she is very proud of you. If you were my daughter, I know I sure would be! Thank you for sharing your experience here, and for reminding your readers of the power of forgiveness.

    I’m grateful to know you as I do!

    1. Author

      Thanks Lucia for reading. Yes its been healing for sure. xo

  2. Jenna. I have read this 3 times with a lump in my throat. Although I was aware that your childhood was less than ideal, I did not know how much you have endured to get where you are today. Certainly puts life in perspective. I am awed by you and you should be so proud of the beautiful and smart woman you have become. I am honoured to know you my friend. Xo

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