When Mother's Day Hurts
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 appears at first as irritability and fatigue but eventually reveals itself as my old friend "unresolved grief." I lost my mom suddenly in 2005, and later became a therapist for children in the foster care system. These life experiences make me acutely aware that not everyone has a mom to celebrate on Mother's Day. Some mothers abandon their children. Some mothers are addicted. Some are incarcerated. Some are mentally ill. And of course, some mothers are dead.
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 they never asked to be part of, the "motherless". I want to connect with others who are motherless and talk about how it's okay to feel broken, different, and forgotten. It's appropriate to cry as you come across "gift guides for mom," perusing the internet quarantined alone, at home. It's acceptable to be jealous of people planning zoom calls with their mom. You are allowed to spend the day curled up in a ball in your bed crying as you wonder how life turned out this way. It doesn't matter if it's been six months or 16 years; it is healthy to allow your emotions about your mom to exist on this day, whatever they may be.
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 on a subconscious level. They may have hidden 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?"
It is 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 were unable to verbalize their emotions and fully comprehend mental illness, substance abuse, and death.
This Mother's Day, I would like to pause for a moment and ask if there is a better way we can approach this holiday that validates the experiences of those who have lost the relationship to the person who gave them life?
Can we look at the ugly truth - that not all mothers are available or capable of loving us the way we need them to, and acknowledge that mother's day can be hard for the millions of people who don't have a mom? Are those raised by grandmothers or foster mothers able to acknowledge their biological mother's on Mother's Day? Or does it feel like a betrayal? These are the hard questions we need to think about on Mother's Day if we want to help those who are suffering from loss.
I know some might say I'm taking this too far, but I think it's time we had this discussion. I know there are other's who feel the way I do. I want to unite us 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 in their life.
*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.
COMFORTING THE MOTHERLESS ON MOTHER’S DAY
Acknowledge, with words and actions, that mother's day might be hard for someone you know. This statement alone can make a huge impact. When we validate a person's experience with empathy and understanding, we open the door to healing. Suddenly, someone who feels very 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 as they relate to our loss and trauma.
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 the negative and positive aspects of our mother's can prevent harmful black and white thinking in future relationships.
Offer activities on mother's day that honor or respect the mother's who are missing. Even if 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 stayed healthy enough to 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, 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 mom's can make us feel purposeful and 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 mother's built into our psyche that exists beyond the circumstance. 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. When the grieving can speak of their loved ones out loud, we find peace. After the tears fall, a sense of calm and a feeling of relief washes over the grief.
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 want to bring attention to this topic. If you know someone who is grieving the loss of their mother, I encourage you to check on them frequently, even if it's just to say hello. With the increase of deaths due to Covid-19, adults are experiencing mother loss collectively around the world. It helps us to know we are not alone in our sadness, anxiety, and disillusionment. If you are experiencing mental health challenges, I encourage you to reach out for psychotherapy or guidance from your doctor. Tele-therapy is taking place during quarantine, and you can get help.
* I think it is important to mention that these feelings and activities apply to father's day too, which is also right around the corner.
To learn more about coping with grief, loss, and trauma please visit my blog.