When Mother's Day Hurts
Updated: May 10
By Beth Tyson, MA, Childhood Trauma Consultant
I'm just going to say it, Mother's Day sucks for some people. As this day approaches each year, a familiar feeling creeps over me. It initially appears as irritability and fatigue but eventually reveals itself as my old friend grief. I lost my mom suddenly in 2005 and later became a trauma therapist for children in the foster care system. These life experiences make me aware that not everyone wants to celebrate Mother's Day.
Some mothers have so much unprocessed childhood trauma that they cannot care for their children appropriately. Some mothers turn to substances to cope with their home life. Some are incarcerated. And, of course, some mothers are missing, have dementia, or are dead. Whatever the reason is for why you are disconnected from your mother, Mother's Day can be gut-wrenching.
I say this not to rain on the parade of the mothers we are celebrating but to shed light on the millions of people who are part of a club nobody wants to be in, the "motherless club."
If you are separated physically or emotionally from your mother for any reason, I want you to know:
- You are allowed to feel broken, different, and forgotten on Mother's Day
- You are allowed to be angry that you have to buy Mother's Day cards for other people
- You are allowed to spend this day however feels best in your body and soul
- You are allowed to feel jealous of people who have their mom
- You are allowed to grieve no matter how long she's been gone
Children Who are Grieving on Mother's Day
For children exposed to trauma, Mother's Day can resurface feelings of the ultimate rejection they experienced in early life. They may not remember the loss and abandonment with active memories, but they will likely experience it subconsciously. This early life trauma lives in the child's body with implicit memories. Early separation from biological parents is traumatic for children. We begin forming attachment to our parents in the womb, and being separated from that attachment figure is devastating. Because of this, many people experience a flare of deep-rooted shame on Mother's Day from thoughts like:
"If my mother doesn't love me, who possibly could?"
"If she could abandon me, who can I trust?"
"Without my mom here, who will take care of me?" and
"Without her, who am I?"
Separation from our mothers is a life-and-death situation for a species that relies on their caregivers for survival for most of early childhood.
It can be common to think we are at fault for the negative behavior of those who are supposed to love us. Especially vulnerable to these thoughts are young children who are unable to verbalize their emotions and fully comprehend trauma, substance abuse, and death.
Young children are ego-centric, and their worldview is focused on themselves and their parents. Because of this limited perspective, they tend to take the blame for things that go wrong in life. Children also have magical thinking and strong imagination skills that create stories when they don't have all the information. The explanations they come up with for why their parent left are often wildly different from reality. This is why it is crucial to be honest with children.
So, this Mother's Day, I would like to pause for a moment and ask if there is a better way to approach this holiday that validates the experiences of those who have lost their relationship with the person who gave them life.
Could we make it easier for the grief-stricken people in our lives?
Can we look at the ugly truth?
Can we allow people raised by grandmothers or foster mothers the space to acknowledge their biological mothers on Mother's Day? Or do they have to fear being perceived as disloyal to their caretakers if they recognize their mother's loss?
These are the painful questions we need to consider on Mother's Day if we want to help those who are suffering. Grief pulls up a chair and resides amongst us at our celebrations. It's not either/or for those of us who have lost a parent too soon. Even though it's been 17 years since my mom died, I still grieve during the moments she should be here. At every get-together and holiday, I fluctuate between happiness and despair. Watching my daughter learn gymnastics, long summer days on the beach (her favorite place), and, yes, Mother's Day is mixed with conflicting emotions. Part of my healing process is accepting that my celebrations will occur behind glassy eyes.
Some might say I'm taking this too far, but I think it's time we had this discussion. I know others feel the way I do. I can't be alone in this experience. I want to unite the motherless this Mother's Day instead of silently grieving in the shadows of celebration. If we want to comfort the motherless, there are steps we can take. It starts with acknowledging that not everyone has a supportive and caring mother by their side.
*If you work with children, you can incorporate these ideas into your interactions by assuming that AT LEAST ONE CHILD in the group is experiencing distress about Mother's Day and provide opportunities for them to express their feelings.
HOW TO COMFORT A LOVED ONE ON MOTHER’S DAY
Acknowledge, with words and actions, that Mother's Day might be hard for someone you know. This validation can make a huge impact. When we understand a person's experience with empathy instead of judgment, we open the door to healing. Suddenly, someone who feels misunderstood and lost knows that someone else in their life "gets it." This can be incredibly powerful for those without mothers because we often feel isolated in the feelings we experience related to Mother's Day.
Instead of shying away from the topic of mom on Mother's Day, embrace it. Ask if they want to talk about her. Bring up happy memories while also validating the painful ones. Nobody is all bad or all good. Integrating our mothers' negative and positive aspects can prevent harmful binary thinking in future relationships.
Offer activities on Mother's Day that respect the mothers who are missing. Even if the mom abused or neglected her children, the children will still love her. Mother's Day is as much for the child as it is for the mother. Help the child find something positive about their mom. For example: despite her struggles, she cared for herself so she could give birth to you. There is always something good we can find if we look for it.
If a mother is no longer alive or in the child's life, you can participate in a hobby she loved or visit somewhere she enjoyed going. For those who never knew their mother and had no relationship with her, we can point out the qualities she passed down to them—the beautiful color of their hair, their kind heart, and their ability to climb and play.
Make a card or write a letter to mom even though she will not receive it. Creating something for our moms can help us feel connected to her spirit. It helps us to know that we did something to acknowledge her existence instead of ignoring it. Despite the reasons behind our separation, I can't stress enough that most people will always long for the affection of their mothers. Being adopted at birth is no exception. We have a genetic and instinctual connection with our biological mothers built into our psyche that exists beyond the circumstances. Although it may be uncomfortable for you as the functioning parent to accept this, it could cause harm to deny these profound feelings. After many years of research, we know that children do better when they stay connected to their biological parents in some way, even if it's an indirect relationship like honoring their culture or heritage. The safety of the child comes first, of course.
Call a friend or family member without a mom on Mother's Day to say you are thinking of him/her. Share your stories of their mom and let them know you miss her too. As someone without my mom, I am here to reassure you that this will NOT bring up sad feelings that aren't already there. Sometimes people shy away from talking about lost loved ones out of fear we will trigger grief or distress, but the opposite is true. We find peace when the griever can speak of their loved ones out loud. After the tears fall, a sense of calm and relief washes over the sadness.
You will never be able to stop the flooding pain of mother loss, but you can be a container for it when it starts to overflow. Be willing to listen and be present with the feelings that come up when Mother's Day presses on the wound of the motherless.
Holidays can trigger symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety, or possibly a depressive episode, which is why I bring attention to this topic. If you know someone grieving their mother's loss, I encourage you to check on them frequently, even if it's just to say hello.
With the increase in deaths due to Covid-19, children, and adults are experiencing mother loss collectively around the world. It helps us to know we are not alone in our sadness, anxiety, and disillusionment.
* I think it is important to mention that these feelings and activities also apply to Father's Day, which is right around the corner.
LEARN MORE ABOUT CHILDHOOD TRAUMA AND LOSS
On Thursday, May 18th, I am hosting a free webinar on how to help children cope with ambiguous loss. You can register to join us HERE.
To stay up-to-date on future events and free resources, join my private Facebook group, Emotiminds, or subscribe to my bi-monthly free newsletter.
Beth Tyson, MA, is a childhood trauma consultant, 3x best-selling author, CASA volunteer, and PA Child Abuse Prevention Team co-chair. Beth provides trauma-responsive and healing-centered training and guidance to organizations that want to make the world a more compassionate place to live, work, and play. Her children's book, A Grandfamily for Sullivan, is available HERE.