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How to Celebrate Mother's Day When It's Complicated

The Facebook relationship status "It's Complicated" is a great one not only for romantic relationships, but mom relationships too.

Every holiday, I get annoyed by the blatant marketing and abundance of images reminding me, and many of my clients, that we are the outsiders.

For anyone who has had loss, holidays bring up a complexity of emotions and not all of them are happy or conjure up the warm and fuzzies.

Mom hugging a little girly tightly and smiling

I get so tired of the in-your-face ideals that just make hurting people hurt even more. It feels pretty inconsiderate if you ask me.

There are so many varying complicated Mom factors:

  • You have tried to become a mom and can't

  • You've had a loss trying to become a mom

  • You have lost your own mother

  • You never knew your mother

  • You can't stand your mother

  • You have a mother who has been lost to mental or physical illness, or addiction, and the mom you once knew is gone

  • You are a mom estranged from your own children either from their limitations or your own

You ALL deserve a nod and a hug. If we have to have a Day for Moms, then can we include everyone and acknowledge how complicated this day can be? How complicated motherhood can be?

I lost my mom when I was 17. She said goodbye as I went off to a movie with my boyfriend, and when I returned, she had died. There was no illness, no warning. My life was changed forever.

I remember reading Hope Edelman's book Motherless Daughters (a real gem) and one of the vignettes was from a woman who lost her mom at 17 too. She was quoted in the book as saying something about how she felt losing her mom had become a part of the fabric of her identity. It's been a looong time since I read it, but the passage still sticks in my mind. She said something about how if you were meeting her for the first time she would say (I'm paraphrasing here) something about, "I have blonde hair, blue eyes, I'm wearing red coat and I lost my mother when I was 17."

I got that. Boy, do I get that kind of change. I think anyone who has had loss can feel that. Loss just changes you.

Holidays of any kind bring up expectation, nostalgia, longing, guilt, regret, shame and anger.

We can also feel the good in these celebratory days, too. We lost our mom, but have a great stepmom or Aunt or Grandma who filled some holes. Or we have children of our own now and that eases the pain, turning it from a dulled, gut ache to a subdued melancholy.

Still, we are reminded of the births mom never saw, the weddings and graduations and other holidays past. It's a mixed bag. It's complicated.

I recognize how my own losses have impacted my now grown child and how they created issues for him growing up. We have had our periods of tension and separation due to various factors, some mine to own, and, some his. I keep trying, I keep learning and I'll let you know how our brunch goes tomorrow. I know it won't be the place to bring up the past and I will say, "not here, not now" if I have to. I assume he's growing and learning and trying too.

So how do we handle the complicated relationship of Mom? I think it's a mix of good boundaries, a lot of self-care, acknowledgement, acceptance, a little grieving and a moving on.

Here are some ideas:

  1. Set Boundaries. If you have a Mom you have to acknowledge, do what feels appropriate, but don't over do it. If it's a big gathering at Mom's house, come a little late and leave a little early. Have something else to pull you out of the commitment and off to a safer haven. Work, partner, not feeling well. Your excuse can be brief. No need to over explain. Channel your most adult self. It can help to think of her as a mentally ill person. In fact, if we are struggling with mom issues, chances are pretty high she has some diagnosis, often undiagnosed: Depression, addiction, narcissism, borderline personality disorder. These often stem from her own childhood trauma, and while that is no excuse for your own hurt and trauma, it can help us find a little compassion. At least long enough to do the socially acceptable niceties and move on. We are all wounded in some way. Keeping that in the forefront while interacting with her, could help you manage your reactions and nervous system.

  2. Don't celebrate Mother's Day. I'm not suggesting this be the first time you decide to pull away from your mom, but sometimes neither party is healed enough to interact at all. This is where a therapist can help sort this out with you. Some pulling away may be good for both parties but that takes care and strategy and could have fits and starts. You'd definitely need support. If you don't have a mom and don't want to make it a big deal, then don't. It's okay not to. Now that you are an adult, you can define and celebrate holidays any way you wish. One of my favorites included dropping my son off with the mother-in-law and going off for a day by myself! I always figured Mother's Day is the perfect time to ask for a day off from mothering. Not everybody will respond kindly to that, but I still feel like it's a smart choice. I've spent others alone, with non-mother friends (who are often the most nurturing people I know), with my ex-husband, his new wife and kid, and my ex-in-laws, and, now with my spouse and four step-children. Life is funny. Do what feels right. Be open.

  3. Self-care. I know people are getting sick of that word, but you can't fill someone else's bucket from an empty well. Be sure to make some time for you. Whether that's going for a walk, journaling, resting, reading, meeting up with friends. Think about what will make you feel good. I've also learned over the years, that no one will celebrate me quite the way I want so I make sure to design the day for myself and let my family know. The kids may want to do something of course, but I will add in something for me, even a nice little gift. This way I am sure not to feel let down. My well is filled, and I can give love and support to everyone else.

  4. Acknowledge the loss. No matter the kind of loss it's important to take a moment to acknowledge the sad feelings, that hole in your heart. Ritualizing the loss with a photograph, a lit candle, anything to honor that part that is missing can help ease the pain. I know all the brave moms out there don't feel like they can take a minute for their feelings, but that's why we have showers, back yards, and cars, isn't it? Kidding aside, it can be hard to get the space for our own emotions, but it's so important to try to get a little time for it. A walk, a quick drive, a long shower. Acknowledging the complexity and layers of such a simple marketing scheme and how it really plays out.

  5. Move on. Most people can endure anything if they know there is an end in sight. It's just one day. It's just a few hours. Do what you can and move on to more hopeful and lighter things. A funny movie, a friend, a nap, some chocolate. If you didn't get this one quite right yet, it's okay. Capitalism gives us many more opportunities and holidays to practice. Remember you don't have to be a mom, or have a mom, to be a mothering person. A lot of us need mothering, and a lot of us have full wells to give from. Look for people who can love you the way you deserve to be loved and seen and valued. It often comes from unexpected places.

For me, this Mother's Day will be complicated. I will miss my mom. It's been over 35 years and that hasn't changed. Sometimes, I wonder who we'd both be today if she were still here.

Sometimes I idealize it, and sometimes, I wonder if I got lucky in some ways. None of it is easy. I'm closer to my ex-mother-in-law than my current one, and I've acquired four step-children who shine a light on my continued areas-in-need-of-work, and I continue to adjust to being a mom to a grown man and the shifts needed there.

These relationships challenge me in different ways, and keep me on a continual path of learning and healing. In the end, I have to be grateful for that.

If you want support working on your mother relationship or your own mothering, reach out now.

woman on beach alone journaling


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