Despite the greeting card and flower vendors’ cheerful endorsements of Mother’s Day which falls on the second Sunday of May each year in the U.S., not everyone finds the day to be one of celebration. For many people, Mother’s Day is filled with painful memories and/or current stress. The reality is that not everyone loves their mothers. Many have endured abusive relationships with our mothers, and thanking them for the “care” they provided for their children seems hypocritical at best. Some people are estranged from their mothers: Sometimes gratefully and sometimes with a lot of pain still attached to the separation. Our society provides a lot of support around divorcing a spouse, but there’s almost nothing there for those who decide to “divorce” a parent.
Other people were blessed enough to have wonderful mothers in this life, but those mothers have died. For those whose mothers aren’t here to celebrate because of death, the day can be horribly painful for surviving children, especially in the first years after their mothers’ deaths. While it will not eliminate the pain of the loss, sometimes doing something to celebrate the deceased woman can greatly help ease the discomfort of this holiday. Making your mother’s favorite meal, going to her favorite park, making a donation to her favorite charity… all of these are great ways to remember a mother. In my belief system, our deceased relatives are aware of us and our prayers, so I believe if you send thoughts to your late mother, she will hear them. It’s never too late to tell someone you love them, even if you aren’t able to hear them say it back.
If you are feeling particularly giving, know that there are always people in nursing homes who are terribly lonely on holidays. Either their children live far away, they have no descendants, or they’ve been abandoned by family. Regardless of the reasons why, these people can always use company, but especially on holidays when others have visitors and they do not. Most nursing homes will be happy to pair you with someone who would love to have you show up with a flower in hand and a willingness to talk for a while. (Please note that food gifts are not always the best with the elderly due to health-restricted diets.) If you don’t have a mother of your own to visit, know that there are many other women who could symbolically stand in her place.
For others, Mother’s Day is painful because they have had miscarriages or have lost a child (or even multiple children) to death. This is especially true when the child who has died was the firstborn but no subsequent siblings have been born. The women in these situations know in their hearts that they are mothers, but they don’t have children here to celebrate with them. Our society is less certain about whether these women are mothers, and people often don’t know how to handle the bereaved mothers. As is our society’s dysfunctional tendency, the usual result is that bereaved mothers are ignored on Mother’s Day (not to mention the other days of the year).
For many women, Mother’s Day is a dagger in their heart because they are suffering from infertility. They desperately want to be mothers, but they are not able to for whatever reasons. To see motherhood glorified all around them can make the women enduring infertility feel even more hurt than they already are by the traumas of infertility.
For biological mothers who have put their children up for adoption, Mother’s Day can also create a great deal of pain. While the choice to let another woman become a mother when one is not able to raise a child oneself is an amazing gift, the child that the biological mother gave up will always be in her heart. For some women, Mother’s Day may be a day of “what ifs” and mourning because they are not with their biological child even if they know they’ve made the best decision. For others, it may be a day of regret for making the choice they did.
Thirteen years ago when my twins were still toddlers, I attended Mass at a friend’s Catholic church on Mother’s Day. In what I’m sure the planners thought was a beautiful ceremony, all of the mothers were encouraged to come forward and receive a carnation at the end of the service. I was horrified. I knew that at least one of the women in the congregation had to want to be up in the front but she wasn’t able to be for some reason. While it’s one thing to pray a special blessing over those in the congregation who’ve given life to others, it’s another thing to bring them to the front so that all the non-mothers stood out like sore thumbs among the sea of men. In a probably unnoticed act of solidarity, I refused to go forward even though I had a toddler in my arms.
For me personally, Mother’s Day used to be a painful day. I am estranged from my narcissistic mother by choice. I haven’t seen her in 22+ years. I don’t miss that particular woman at all, but part of me will always miss the fantasy of the healthy loving mother whom I never had. For many years, I used Mother's Day as a time to pay tribute to the women who were mentors for me and who provided me with healthier role models of what women should be like; they played a role in mothering me in when my own mother could not. I also had many years where Mother’s Day was a painful reminder to me that I had lost a child. I now choose to focus on the beauty of the children who are with me, though it took many years for me to get there. I’m grateful that I can now find joy in the celebration of being a mother, but on Mother’s Day, my thoughts and prayers are always with those for whom it’s a day of pain.
© 2015 Elizabeth Galen, Ph.D., Green Heart Guidance, LLC