Tina* spent most of her therapy sessions in the weeks leading up to Mother's Day in a funk. "Why is it," she asked, "that a woman can have a highly successful career, be a terrific friend and wife, have many interests and do oodles of volunteer work - but if she doesn't have children she's considered a pathetic failure?" Tina and her husband had decided years earlier that they loved one another and their very fulfilling lives too much to add children to the equation. "We just wouldn't have been able to give kids the kind of attention they needed and keep doing the other things that were important to us." She was generally happy with this choice. But as Mother's Day approached, she felt bombarded by ads and articles that denigrated both her decision and her accomplishments. "What markers can I give for my life that anyone will equate with being a mother?" she asked.
Tina was not alone, of course. This holiday stirs up painful feelings for many of us. Not just difficult relationships with our own mothers, but also problems with our own children, an inability to become pregnant, and even marital problems, mixed with the media's rose colored glasses view of the institution, leave us feeling that we alone are missing out on one of the great joys of life.
One year Anne* told me that she could not face the family celebration. She and her husband had been trying unsuccessfully to get pregnant for several years. "I don't want to disappoint my mother," she said, "but I really can't stand being around my siblings right now." Her sister was pregnant. Her brother had small children. She felt that the reminder of what she did not have would simply be too much to bear.
Hallmark sayings aside, one of the problems with Mother's Day is the fact that in our culture we have a decidedly confusing attitude towards motherhood. On the one hand, we have an idealized picture of what it means to be a mom. And on the other we love to criticize maternal failures and imperfections.
To make things even more difficult, while we romanticize the experience, we provide little to no training for it and not a lot of support once it happens. I once heard the psychiatrist Daniel Stern, who quietly changed the way we understand infant development, discuss the lack of communal support for new moms. He said that some of the best help women get after their babies are born comes not from professionals, but from hospital cleaning staff, who calmly share their own experiences and offer useful tips for mundane, yet extremely important tasks like breastfeeding, diapering, and getting home with the new bundle.
I have had my own difficulties with Mother's Day. For several years I dreaded it because it highlighted conflicts between me and my own mom. What kind of gift, what kind of card, could I send that would be honest yet loving? Then, long after she and I had reconciled, I tried to start my own family. For six years the holiday filled me with pain, dread, envy - ugly feelings that I hated in myself and could not bear for anyone else, even my husband, to see.
When I finally did have a child, Mother's Day lost its importance. Oh, there was a big celebration the first year, of course. But after that, it seemed to me that the day itself was far less important than the rest of the year. Yet I do like to get something from my son - a phone call and a small gift is more than enough - because I think it's important for both of us that he mark the day in some way or another.
Clearly it's easier to get through this holiday when you are not longing for something you do not have. We are bombarded by images that tell us that we will not only be fulfilled by parenthood, but we will even become beautiful as a result! That image in itself should be a dead give-away. New parents are inevitably bleary-eyed and disheveled. The only exceptions to this are the models and actresses whose photos we see. And they are fully made up and dressed for these pictures with their adorable offspring.
There are many reasons to hate this day. Perhaps you are battling with your own children, or with your mother. Or your mother might have died, and, even if it was years ago, all of the hoopla might stir up feelings of sadness about her absence. Your children might forget to call or send you a card. Or you may be childless. Whether this is your choice or not, you are most likely not going to be able to avoid at least some of the discomfort both Tina and Anne described.
So what can you do to get through this day? Here are a few simple ideas:
1 - Remember that the images of motherhood that you see all around you are wishes, not reality. They are the contemporary version of the "happily ever after" of fairytales. Parenthood is often confusing and difficult at its best, and frequently (gasp) not even rewarding! Although it can provide genuine pleasure, it can also create genuine unhappiness even in the best families with excellent parents.
2- Being a mother does not make you a good person.
3- Not being a mother does not make you a bad person.
4- Try to find a way to celebrate what you have, rather than focus on what you're missing. If you are mourning a loss, celebrate the person who is gone. Go to church or synagogue or mosque, light a candle, say a prayer; and then go to a movie or make dinner with friends (just don't plan to go out to a local family restaurant!) If you are alone, try to do something pleasurable -- get a manicure, or get your hair cut or maybe even splurge on a massage. Or take a yoga class or a long walk. If you don't want to be alone, send an email to friends and see who you can enlist to do something with you.
5 - Remember that you are not alone in this!
And finally, again, remember that motherhood does not automatically turn any of us into successful or happy people. Most women will not admit this, but when I was trying to conceive, a friend told me that her maternal fulfillment came not from her own children, but from her relationships with her numerous nieces and nephews and even the offspring of her own friends. "There's too much conflict between me and my kids for those relationships to be truly rewarding," she said.
I have always remembered this, and now I will also admit it. Being a mother is not the most fulfilling thing I have ever done. I love my son, and I am very glad to have him in my life. I am sure that not having had him, I would have troubles believing this, because I too was caught up in the fantasy of what motherhood would be. But my relationship with my husband is also wonderfully satisfying. My friendships are rich and deeply meaningful. I have become closer to my siblings and the rest of my family as I have gotten older, and that has been incredibly gratifying. And my clients, students and colleagues, all of whom teach me as much as I can ever teach them, provide me with unspeakable joy.
Yes, motherhood has its share of joys. It is also a lot of hard work. But whether or not we are mothers should not be the definition of who we are.
*Not her real name - all names and other identifying information have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals and families
Daniel Stern.(2000) The Interpersonal World of the Infant: A View from Psychoanalysis and Developmental Psychology.Basic Books, Publisher.