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Dreading Mother's Day? 5 Strategies to Deal with that Sunday

Coping with the legacy of an unloving mother

“Worse than Christmas. Way worse,” one daughter emails me. “The holiday of hypocrisy since it’s the day on which I conveniently forget everything hurtful thing my mother has ever said or done and I collapse under the pressure of filial duty and send flowers anyway. And every year, she complains about them. ” “Buying a card is paralyzing,” another remarks. “# 1 Mom? Um, no. I end up buying a blank card with a benign image and then scribble something that doesn’t totally compromise my integrity. And I end up feeling guilty too.” “It hurts, plain and simple,” says another. “It’s a day of loss. Just a painful reminder of the love and support I never got.”

It’s been many years but I remember the horrible emotional turmoil I used to feel on Mother’s Day and the confusion about what to do: Call? Send a gift? Crawl into bed and pray for Monday? All my friends, of course, were off feting their mothers.

It’s important to remember that for daughters (and sons) whose mothers are unloving, unsupportive, emotionally absent or actively critical and dismissive, there’s real pain on the second Sunday in May. There’s a huge irony in the story of the woman who conceived of this holiday —the joined-at-the-hip and thoroughly enmeshed daughter who never had children herself named Anna Jarvis — and made establishing it her life’s mission. She rallied, bullied and cajoled until she finally got President Woodrow Wilson to sign into law the national sanctification of motherhood. But, in the end, she tried not just to disavow it but to dismantle it. Bitter and enraged that it became nothing more than an opportunity for commerce, one of her press releases read: “WHAT WILL YOU DO to rout charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, kidnappers and other termites that would undermine with their greed one of the finest, noblest, and truest movements and celebrations?” You have to love her use of the words “kidnappers” and “termites,” don’t you? Anyway, it was too late; the crown jewel of the Mother Myths was firmly established, along with commercial opportunity. In fact, this year the National Retail Federation predicts roughly $20.7 billion will be spent celebrating Mom, with the consumer shelling out an average of $168.94.

Amidst the kudos to those of you who will be celebrating loving mothers and those who did their best, and to those mothers among you who look forward to the day, let’s acknowledge the fact that all mothers aren’t loving and that, yes, sometimes Mother’s Day hurts. For those of you for whom the day is less than cheery, here are some strategies to help you through, unvetted by science but proved through experience.

1. Be good to yourself

I’m suggesting we set aside Saturday, May 10th as “Mother Yourself Saturday.” One of the biggest struggles an unloved daughter has is getting the “ mother voice” out of her head—one that tells her she is unlovable, unworthy, and deficient. This applies equally to sons. That voice can be supplanted by another voice, through healing and consciousness, informed by your own appreciation and understanding of who you really are, not who your mother thinks you are. In her book, Women Who Run with the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estés, writes of the healing that can help repair damaged or failed maternal relationships: “The remedy is in gaining mothering for one’s young internal mother.” Other women —friends, mentors, teachers, therapists—can help “mother” that self as can you. On Saturday, May 10th, mother yourself by connecting with the activities and people who feed your sense of yourself. Work on clearing away the debris that muffles that voice that says “You are fine. You are good. You are worthy. You are you.”

2. Acknowledge the cultural pressure

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: In the court of public opinion, it’s always the daughter who’s on trial. In part, we have Anna Jarvis to thank for that, but the intertwined beliefs that mothering is instinctual and that all mothers are by nature loving are so commonplace that the assumption is always that it’s the daughter who has provoked the quarrel or whatever tension there is in relationship. If you’re keeping your contact with your mother to a minimum or have no contact at all, Mother’s Day is likely to exert more pressure than usual on you. You may second-guess your decisions or feel guilty as a result. Support yourself by realizing it’s not easy to stay afloat with all that smarmy sentiment and all those emails exhorting you to “Remember Mom” in your inbox. Remind yourself that if you had had the mother they’re all talking about, you’d be talking to her….

3. Understand your ambivalence

One of the hardest things is that we are hardwired to need our mother’s love and that neediness absolutely co-exists with our need to protect ourselves from her hurt and harm. I say this as someone who spent almost twenty years of her adulthood trying to sort out this complex of feelings, and I now realize, as I didn’t then, that my own neediness often made things worse. Try to get in touch with what you’re feeling by writing about it —science has shown that the effort to create a coherent narrative is an effective way of dealing with difficult emotions and promotes healing —or talk to someone, preferably a therapist. There is no shame in wanting to be loved, by the way, nor does wanting your mother’s love make the relationship your fault.

4. Anticipate your emotions

If this particular day has caused you pain in the past, work on managing your emotions ahead of time. Since Mother’s Day celebrations may include other family members who may not necessarily share either your feelings or your experience with your mother, prepare yourself for that. If certain things trigger your feelings —the way your mother always compares you unfavorably to others, for example—bring those instances into your consciousness so that you can be prepared. No one can push your buttons unless you let them. Use “if …then” thinking, as in “If someone says or does x, then I will simply do y” to clarify your thinking.

5. Set boundaries

If you feel you have to celebrate the holiday —you feel too guilty or obligated or there’s too much drama associated with ducking it —remember that, as an adult, you have the right to choose how you want to participate. Decide ahead of time what you will and won’t do, keeping in mind that Mother’s Day is not a free pass to say nasty or hurtful things to you or anything else. Remember that an alternative to drama is to walk away, literally or figuratively.

While you are still her child, you are no longer a child, and your mother no longer gets to dictate how experience is to be interpreted unless you allow it. You have a voice and you should use it in the best and truest way you can. Again, set those boundaries and the rules of engagement ahead of time, and you’ll have a better time dealing.

And remember: The day after Mother's Day, thank goodness, is Monday.

Copyright© Peg Streep 2014


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Estés, Clarissa Pinkola. Women Who Run With the Wolves, New York: Ballantine Books, 1997.