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Mother's Day Complexities: When Childhood Trauma Is at Play

Personal Perspective: Find comfort on the holiday while coping with trauma.

For those whose Mother's Day is thrown off track by forgetting to make brunch reservations, consider the complexity of the day for those who experienced childhood trauma and who are now also mothers themselves. That’s black-belt-level complexity for this holiday.

Because I love history, I wanted to start this post off by sharing some information on the genesis of Mother's Day. It originated in the early 20th century in the United States, primarily due to the efforts of Anna Jarvis, who intended to memorialize her mother and advocate for a day to honor all mothers.

Although initially met with resistance—what does that tell you about how society values mothers?—it eventually gained popular approval and became an annual celebration. The holiday, when recognized, was meant to honor the mother-child relationship and reflect American values, especially during the Progressive era and World War I when it served to boost morale and express national loyalty, celebrating traditional roles within the family and society.

While Jarvis’s intent to celebrate her mother may have been well intended, the DNA of this day is painful for me as a trauma therapist, in part because the “traditional role” of mothering is shaped by the oppressive social force of patriarchy, who has profoundly negatively impacted many mothers’ mental health, leading to their own inability to care well for their children, sometimes translating into childhood trauma experiences. (Between being a trauma therapist and lifelong feminist, you can imagine how fun I am at cocktail parties.)

Mother’s Day can be triggering for the recipients of poor maternal mental health.

Now, of course, even as I hold the lens and context for why and how the oppressive social force of the patriarchy has negatively impacted maternal mental and therefore contributed to childhood trauma experiences, I’m not condoning, excusing or permitting the actions (or inactions) of mothers that may have led to childhood trauma experiences for their young.

I believe in holding the both/and of this: the pain of personal experience coupled with understanding of the broader dynamics.

So with that said, I want to honor and acknowledge that for those of us who experienced childhood trauma whether directly or indirectly related to the mental health states of our mothers, the second Sunday of May can be especially painful and triggering when it cyclically rolls around.

I’ve written extensively about how to care for yourself on this day (including extending permission to formally opt out of celebrating), the criticality of remothering ourselves as part of our childhood trauma recovery journey, and the invitation to imagine that remothering can and should extend to many and multiple “mothering figures” in our lives.

And again let me repeat: you can understand why and how your mother’s mental health was poor, how her personal, professional, and financial power was undermined by contextual, intergenerational societal forces AND you can still feel deep pain, anger, anguish, resentment, and longing for a different mother and different childhood experiences.

Mother’s Day can be complex for mothers who come from a trauma background.

And then, for a sub-segment of us, we may not only identify with coming from a childhood trauma background, but we may now be mothers ourselves and acutely aware of the impossibility of showing up as a perfectly attuned, perfectly regulated, ever-constant emotionally available parent (that most of us imagine would lead to a non-traumatic childhood experience).

Still though, we’re attempting to raise little humans and create a healthy family when we ourselves don’t necessarily come from one.

And yet, between our own unprocessed trauma (that we’re valiantly trying to acknowledge and work through), plus contending with those same lingering oppressive social forces (you cannot tell me the patriarchy is not still alive and well, if slightly diminished), it is so. darn. Hard.

On most days but especially on Mother’s Day, we may be triggered, not only by the reality of our own childhood trauma experiences and what we did or did not receive from our mothers, but also by what we perceive as our own failures as mothers.

If this is you (and for sure it’s me), I cannot overstate how important it is to hold that compassionate duality: understanding the context in which we’re trying to do this impossible task and recognition and validation of all our feels.

Enlist support to process the complexity.

There is no real thesis statement to today’s post; complex issues can’t be tidied up into bento box solutions. They can only be held with appreciation for their complexity, patience as we untangle them, and a willingness to enlist a higher level of care when and if we need.

So to that end, if you find yourself triggered by Mother’s Day, whether because of your own childhood trauma experiences or because you fear you’re creating trauma for your own children today, please don’t suffer alone. Reach out for professional support. You’ll feel less lonely, more supported, and be able to work through the triggers and fears and even expand your capacity for parenting. You can find a therapist near you through the Psychology Today directory.


Jones K. Mother's Day: The Creation, Promotion and Meaning of a New Holiday in the Progressive Era. In: Cott N, ed. Volume 17/2 Social and Moral Reform. Berlin, Boston: K. G. Saur; 1994:503-524.

Fischer L. The Reproduction of Mothering. In: Unknown title. 2012:236-247.

Rached M, Hankir A, Zaman R. Emotional Abuse in Women and Girls Mediated by Patriarchal Upbringing and Its Impact on Sexism and Mental Health: A Narrative Review. Psychiatria Danubina. 2021;33(Suppl 11):137-144.

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