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When Mothers Day Hurts

Cultural expectations about motherhood can open up wounds.

Key points

  • While mothers are commonly envisioned as giving themselves fully to their children, maternal narcissism is also real.
  • For the children of non-loving mothers, Mother's Day can feel like a post-traumatic stress trigger.
  • Ways for children of non-loving mothers to make the best of Mother's Day include keeping boundaries and allowing their own feelings.

Nobody wants to be a "Debbie Downer" on Mothers Day. It's a blessed and sacred institution and should be. Truly, what is more amazing than giving birth to gorgeous little ones and watching them grow, develop and become? It is certainly one of the most beautiful things about being a woman. To awaken on Mother's Day and cherish the memories of parenting is a day to behold. It is the opportunity to value our own maternal strengths and appreciate the intensity of a mother's love.

But, there is another side that is rarely discussed and leaves many women in a state of pain. What if you were one of those daughters who did not have a mother who knew how to give unconditional love and empathic nurturing? What if your mother does not live up to the cultural standard of that loving mom illuminated by Hallmark?

Mother's Day for the daughters of non-loving mothers is a kind of post-traumatic stress trigger that brings some to an emotional collapse and others to memories of childhood that don't necessarily stand up to the picture of proverbial apple pie and maternal embrace.

Motherhood is still idealized in our culture, which makes it especially hard for daughters of narcissistic mothers to face their past. It's difficult for most people to conceive of a mother incapable of loving and nurturing her daughter, and certainly, no daughter wants to believe that of her own mother.

Mother's Day is this country's most widely observed holiday, celebrating an unassailable institution. A mother is commonly envisioned as giving herself fully to her children, and our culture still expects mothers to tend to their families unconditionally and lovingly, and to maintain an enduring emotional presence in their lives — available and reliable no matter what.

Even though this idealized expectation is impossible for most mothers to meet, it places mothers on a heroic pedestal that discourages criticism. It is therefore psychologically wrenching for any child or adult child to examine and discuss the mother frankly. It is especially difficult for daughters whose mothers don't conform at all to the saintly maternal archetype. Attributing any negative characteristic to Mom can unsettle our internalized cultural standards. Good girls are taught to deny or ignore negative feelings, to conform to society's and their family's expectations. They're certainly discouraged from admitting to negative feelings about their own mothers. No daughter wants to believe her mother to be callous, dishonest, or selfish.

But, maternal narcissism does exist. Bridget remembers giving her mother gifts to prove her love. She felt particularly sad about a Mother's Day plaque she gave her mom, with the phrase, "World's Best Mom" printed on it. "Mom really didn't like it. She hung it up for a while and then took it down and gave it back to me. Mom said it didn't fit her décor when she redecorated her kitchen. I still have it. I just gave up after a while."

Great expectations can bring pain and trauma when not realized or brought to fruition. Some Fridays, for instance, are just Fridays with no big expectation of anything. But if that Friday was Christmas or your birthday, and your hopeful forecast was dashed, that's a different story. In our cultural institution of motherhood, the belief is embedded that a mother's love is the saving grace. People say, "What would I do without my mother?" But, if you are a daughter who says, "What am I going to do with my mother because she is hurtful, mean, or ignoring..." it makes you pause on Mother's Day. The reminder of the desire for that special mother hits you once again.

So you head out to get a card. You want to be a good daughter and do something kind. This is good. We can have the ability to love, even if our parents do not. But what do you send them? Is it a mushy card that is not authentic? Is it a card that says how wonderful they were when they were not? Is it real?

Every Mother's Day, emails flood my inbox. The struggle ensues. Adult children of narcissistic parents ask, "What do I do?" Let's look at some important tips if Mother's Day brings you disappointment, pain, or sad memories.

Follow Your Value System

If your value system tells you to do something kind because it is what you believe, then go for it. Just be sure you are relying on your own beliefs and feelings rather than what is dictated by Hallmark, culture, tradition, or family expectations.

Don't Live in a World of "Shoulds"

"Shoulding" all over yourself will get you nowhere. Operating from your internal desires is best. "Shoulding" can be messy.

Don't Be Cruel or Snarky

If you live in a family that has a tendency to be cruel or snarky...don't bite the bait. No need to stoop to the same level. Use your strength and kindness to project your message.

Keep Good Boundaries

If you desire to not have contact with your mother or you have your own plans, know that's ok. You drive your own bus. Just drive with care and stay on a kind pathway.

Celebrate Your Own Motherhood

If Mother's Day brings you sadness, focus on your own mothering and how you have worked to parent in different ways to break the generational legacy. Look for your own strengths. Spend time with your own children and grandchildren. If you're not a mother yourself, seek out special friends.

Allow Your Feelings to Surface

Know that this day can bring great sensitivity. If this is you, embrace your feelings. Work your recovery. If you are emotionally supporting an adult child of narcissistic parents, don't tell them to get over it already. It's not helpful and causes additional trauma.

Muse About Possible Gifts You Gained

Most mothers, even if difficult, bestowed contributions. Of course, the obvious is the precious gift of life, but there will be others. Maybe she was musical, artistic, intelligent, or talented in some way that you inherited or learned. Perhaps she taught you to decorate or cook well. Look for the gold in her and ponder those qualities.

For those who were raised by narcissistic parents, these tasks are not so easy. Not only do you suffer from the trauma but also the guilt, self-doubt, and anxiety about what to do on this universally celebrated day. Your best revenge is success and keeping the focus on your own recovery.

Elan Golomb, in Trapped in the Mirror, states, "Every child of a narcissist must develop his or her will if he or she is to recover." Let it be your will to work recovery, make your own decisions about Mother's Day, and how you spend each and every minute of your own precious life. Stand in the truth. That's courageous. Let it be.