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Surviving Mother's Day: 5 Strategies to Get Through

For some daughters and sons, this holiday hurts.

Key points

  • For many adult children who were neglected, scapegoated, ridiculed, or otherwise unloved, Mother's Day brings up complicated emotions.
  • Getting through Mother's Day as an adult child of a difficult mother requires seeing and managing one's own emotions.
  • Specific ways to handle a difficult mother on Mother's Day include setting boundaries and expectations as well as practicing self-compassion.
Marijus Auruskevicius/Shutterstock
Source: Marijus Auruskevicius/Shutterstock

It’s easy to scoff at this made-for-commerce holiday—the very woman responsible for putting it on the calendar ended up bitterly denouncing “the charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, and other termites” who had hijacked her noble homage to idealized motherhood—but in truth, it’s a tough day for many daughters to get through. There are those for whom the day is bittersweet as they remember loving mothers who are no longer alive to fete, and then there are those daughters for whom the day is a reminder that they were unloved, neglected or dismissed, put down or marginalized, scapegoated or ridiculed. For them, the second Sunday in May brings up a tangle of complicated emotions.

These are the daughters who count this day as emotionally painful. Those still in contact with their mothers wrestle with how little they can do and still fulfill their filial duty and maintain appearances. One daughter posted: “No card with a message I can send in any store so what to do? Send no card or write something totally hypocritical on a blank notecard and feel as though I’ve betrayed myself again?” Another, now the mother of two young girls herself, writes, “It’s drearily and depressingly predictable. I will take care buying her something, wrap it beautifully, and ship it because she lives several hundred miles away. Then, on Sunday, I’ll call and she’ll tell me that the gift isn’t ‘her’ or that it’ll just add to the clutter of her home and then she’ll spend the next 20 minutes telling me about the perfect present my sister sent. And it always makes me feel like I’m stuck in my childhood, trying to please this woman who can’t be pleased and makes me feel lousy about myself.”

Even when they’ve become mothers themselves and that Sunday now belongs to them, the tsunami of images and messages in the media—of mothers and daughters hugging, of joyous and heartfelt reunions, of bouquets and bracelets engraved with a daughter’s name—along with the enthusiasm of well-loved friends and neighbors can make the unloved daughter feel as isolated and alone as she did as a girl: “It’s always a very rough day for me and I have the added guilt of my oldest daughter’s sometimes falling on this dreadful holiday. It’s a real struggle to celebrate the anniversary of my own motherhood and keep out the negativity of watching everyone else shower their mothers with love. I don’t even feel deserving of it with my own kids.”

It’s a day that brings back the hurt of feeling singled out, different from everyone else, and shut out from the magic circle where mothers are loving and kind. Rather than fight to stay above water, there are some things an unloved daughter can do to make getting through a bit easier.

1. Anticipate your emotions and work hard at managing them.

Writing down how the day makes you feel and labeling your emotions can help bring a certain amount of clarity. Ask yourself questions: Does this day make you feel isolated, sad, hurt, or angry? Look at the words you’ve written down and think about why you feel as you do. (“I feel sad because, even now, I wish my mother loved me” or “I feel angry because I did nothing to deserve her treatment.”) Seeing not just what you're feeling but why you’re feeling as you do can help you process your emotions. If you’re prone to rumination, make sure that you steer clear of “hot” processing—recalling what happened—because that will only intensify your feelings of pain.

2. Focus on people and experiences that make you feel calm and secure.

Recognizing that this day acts as a trigger for you can help you defang feelings of anxiety. Studies show that simply visualizing being with someone who makes you feel good about yourself or being in a place that makes you feel happy and safe can be an effective tool for managing emotion. You can also use writing in the same way—describing in detail what it’s like to be with someone you care about and how you felt in the moment or how a place helped center you and why—as a way of grounding yourself. Try to steer yourself away from remembering specific moments in the past which included painful encounters with your mother because it will only set you back.

3. Recognize your ambivalence.

Children are hardwired to love and need their mothers, and it’s normal, even as an adult, to feel a sense of longing for what you missed and needed. Permit yourself to mourn the loss of the mother you deserved and didn’t get. Focusing on your positive qualities and thinking about what your mother missed by not being close to you is another way of gaining a different perspective on the relationship. This is what one woman wrote me: “I’ve only thought about what I missed—love, support, and affection—but turning it around on its head has actually helped. She missed me—smart and funny—and two fabulous kids and a loving son-in-law. Seen that way, she’s the real loser. That makes me feel better about myself and my choices.”

4. If you’re seeing your mother, set boundaries and expectations first.

It has been something like 30 years since I saw my mother on Mother’s Day but, in retrospect, it’s clear that I often set myself up for hurt by hoping that, somehow, this would be the moment at which everything would change and she would actually love me. I know that other daughters, deep inside, still hold that hope. But magical thinking won’t help you navigate seeing your mother or other family members; setting boundaries and managing your expectations will. This isn’t a shout-out to be rude or divisive but to be clear and firm about behavior that is acceptable and behavior that isn’t. If your mother begins to engage you in a negative way, simply tell her that you won’t countenance it and, if she doesn’t stop, remove yourself from the situation by going into another room or leaving the table if you’re in a restaurant. If other family members are present, steer away from confrontation as much as possible. If need be, simply say goodbye and leave. Despite the cultural myths, no one has permission to disparage or verbally abuse you, not even the woman who put you on the planet.

5. Mother yourself and cultivate self-compassion.

Do something nice for yourself—whether that’s taking a long walk, going to a museum or art gallery, or buying yourself some flowers, or otherwise treating yourself to something special. Celebrate you either alone or in the company of those who care about and love you. Work on being accepting of yourself and remind yourself that your mother’s actions are about her, not you. As I have written before, spending some time with photographs of your childhood or adolescent self and appreciating who that girl was can be very helpful. I’ve done this, looking for the difficult child my mother always talked about in my younger, smiling face, and it is really eye-opening.

Copyright 2016 Peg Streep

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