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Mother’s Day Disappointment

Mother’s Day shame and blame.

I know that Mother’s Day, like Valentine’s Day, is part of a capitalist conspiracy to make money, but it still matters. Indeed, my stealth investigation deep into the heart of mommy territory indicates that many mothers secretly feel disappointed with their Mother’s Day experience.

Psychologists say disappointment occurs when outcomes don’t match expectations, and the greater the disparity, the greater the disappointment. In the case of Mother’s Day, expectations are often high. Will our children, stepchildren, and partners acknowledge our sacrifices and mother labor? Will Mother’s Day gestures feel superficial and empty, obligatory and begrudging, or joyful and heartfelt?

Mothers’ expectations are high due to the centrality of the mother identity to our self-concept and the large swaths of our adulthood dominated by parenting responsibilities. Being our children’s mother is one of the main things that we are. Expectations are also raised by Mother’s Day media coverage and advertising.

Two disappointed mothers I talked to envisioned Mother’s Day at home with family, lounging in pajamas; one anticipating rare control over the TV remote, and both expecting others to cook and clean.

In one case, adult children visited for the weekend (good!) only to leave piles of dishes and laundry in their wake (bad!). In another case, adult children arrived for a visit (good!) but expected to be fed a mom-cooked meal (bad!). Other mothers expressed disappointment with low-effort acknowledgments such as texts and hurried phone calls, or being taken out for meals or activities that they ending up paying for.

It should be noted that mothers feel guilty about their disappointment; they don’t want to be ungrateful or petty and they don’t want to think poorly of their children. So, Mother’s Day disappointment creates dissonance.

When Mother’s Day fails to meet social and personal expectations, there is a feeling of embarrassment when others inquire about your special day. Not that most mothers will readily admit to the disappointment written on their faces and heard in their voices. In their minds, it reflects poorly on their children and on their mothering. It hurts their public image to admit that their mothering failed to inspire an enthusiastic celebration.

Mother’s Day disappointment includes an explanation search. Was our mothering so poor that our children are unmotivated to properly honor us? Did we disappoint them by failing to meet their expectations? Many of us jump to this conclusion when we don’t get that “Atta-Mom.”

Did our parenting create narcissistic offspring reluctant to put mother first for an entire day? Psychology professor Jean Twenge might say so, but it could be just simple cluelessness because they’ve never been schooled on what their moms want.

So maybe disappointed mothers need to better express their expectations, and maybe they need to lower them. But maybe spouses/partners and children need to do better. They need to give Mom an entire day where it’s about her and what she wants to do; a day where she receives sincere, effortful appreciation for her mothering, even though it wasn’t perfect.


D.D. Johnston, & D.H. Swanson (2007). Cognitive acrobatics in the construction of worker-mother identity. Sex Roles, 57, 447-459.

J.A. Sheppard, & J.K. McNulty (2002). The affective consequences of expected and unexpected outcomes. Psychological Science, 13, 85-88.

J. Twenge.