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In Honor of Bereaved Mothers on Mother's Day

Tips for coping if your arms are empty on this day.

Key points

  • Like many bereaved mothers, you may dread Mother’s Day, as it reminds you of the child(ren) you miss so much.
  • Embrace your identity as a mother, as one who has borne a baby or had a mothering relationship with a child.
  • Confide in your partner or a friend, to let them know you want to be seen as the mother you are on this day.
  • Create a ritual that feeds the mothering part of you and remember, many mothers seek respite, and you can too.

Cora, a bereaved mother who reached out to me, reflects on her first Mother’s Day after her baby was stillborn:

My baby had died just a month earlier, so my grief was fresh and bone-deep. I was well aware that I was a mother, as I had all these mothering urges, but I thought, "What kind of mother can’t protect her baby’s life and bring her baby safely into the world?"

I felt such a sense of failure and guilt. But then, during the course of the following year, I realized that just because I had those thoughts and feelings of failure and guilt, that didn’t mean that I was actually a failure or that I had actually done anything wrong. In fact, feeling such a sense of responsibility showed that I was, in fact, a good mother—a mother who would do anything in her power to protect her child. But the reality was that there was nothing I could do to protect my baby. It was out of my hands. And I just had to wonder if this baby’s life was simply meant to be as long as it was.

Instead of questioning my baby’s fate, my job, as the mother, was to simply accept her child’s destiny. That’s all a good mother does, right? Supports her child in fulfilling their destiny and [when a baby dies] makes meaning out of that brief life. So every Mother’s Day since then, I’ve lit a candle in memory of that baby and made a donation to a good cause.

Mother’s Day is a day of honoring mothers.

But what if you’re a mother who doesn’t feel as if you’ve earned that honor?

What if your identity as a mother is challenged by the fact that your baby died and your arms are empty?

What if you have yet to give birth to a healthy, surviving child?

What if you continue to struggle with infertility?

What if you have outlived some or all of your children?

What kind of mother are you if you aren’t raising any children?

What if Mother’s Day hurts your heart because you are thinking of how much you miss your offspring?

If you are a bereaved mother, Mother’s Day can feel more like a day of mourning than a day of celebration.

Here are some tips for coping:

  • Embrace your identity as a mother. Even if you cannot hold a child in your arms on this day, know that if you have carried a baby in your womb, you are a mother.
  • Remember that you’ve been chosen. Your baby(s) chose you to be their mother. Motherhood may not be what you thought it would be, but it is still a role you inhabit.
  • Honor your mothering instincts. If you’ve had a mothering relationship with any child, this is a heartfelt expression of your motherhood.
  • Give yourself grace. Even if you feel as if you have failed as a mother (what kind of mother has empty arms?), know that you have done the best you can with the cards you’ve been dealt.
  • Practice self-care. Just as many mothers are pampered on this day, you can be pampered as well. Treat yourself to whatever makes you feel true to yourself.
  • Ask for affirmation from others. If it would help you to be acknowledged on this day, confide in your partner or a close friend or relative, and tell them that it would boost your spirits to be recognized as the mother you are.
  • Practice self-compassion. If you had a friend in the same boat as you, what gentle, compassionate words or gestures would you offer as a show of support? You deserve this show of compassion from yourself, as well.
  • See yourself as a “good mother.” It is normal to wonder if you’re not, but you can question those upsetting thoughts as you observe them going through your mind. And remember, emotional distress begins with a triggering thought. Soothe yourself by recognizing that you’re telling yourself a distressing story about your situation, and then entertain a kinder narrative about yourself, your life, and your motherhood. Indeed, you must learn to be a different kind of mother, to a little one who is no longer under your wing. As Cora discovered, it can help to see Mother's Day as an opportunity to lean into your own vision of what makes a "good mother."

Finally, as a mother, you can simply refuse to participate in the commercial hype. Mother’s Day is supposed to be a simple, heartfelt expression of gratitude, not an opportunity for businesses to make bank on flowers, cards, and gifts, or families getting stressed out about how to honor their mothers. In fact, many mothers wish they could simply “take the day off” for a much-needed respite from the challenges of raising children. As much as you’d perhaps give anything to experience those challenges, you too can “take the day off” and pursue the respite you desire. That’s what a real mother would do.

More from Deborah L. Davis Ph.D.
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