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When Mother’s Day Is Painful

What can you do about Mother's Day?

Mother’s Day: Like many holidays, it can be a day of celebration and joy or a day of sadness, disappointment, and anger. It can amplify painful feelings between and about children and parents. If your relationship with your mother is bad, Mother’s Day can be a day of reconciliation — or it can make a difficult situation worse. The same is true if you have a troubled relationship with a child, whether still young or living at home and grown-up.

Even if you have a good relationship with your mom and your kids, the day can easily sour those good feelings. Odd things can create painful difficulties. You may fight with your sister or your father-in-law, your husband may forget to get your 2-year-old to draw a picture to put in the family card, or your daughter may forget to call, and even though you talk almost daily, you feel like she should not have forgotten this day, even if she sent a beautiful card and a perfect gift.

In other words, besides being a day of sadness for many because of its reminder of losses of loved ones and dreams that have never been fulfilled, Mother’s Day is a day just made for hurt feelings and family ruptures.

You probably don’t need any more examples, but I’ll give you just a few:

Bob* is 15, mad at both of his parents, and stays in his bedroom and on his computer the entire day.

Mary,* recently married, gives into her husband’s request that they take his mother out for lunch, since she’s alone and he’s an only child. Mary’s mother, he reminds her, has her husband and all of Mary’s siblings. But her mother’s feelings are so badly hurt that she refuses to get on the phone when Mary calls to wish her a happy Mother’s Day.

Jack’s* family never exchanged gifts, so he doesn’t think to get his wife a gift on her first Mother’s Day after their baby is born. “I love you honey,” he says in apology when she bursts into tears that evening and confesses that she had been waiting all day for flowers or a card or something. “But you’re not even my mother!” She storms into the bedroom and locks the door.

Emma’s* 20-year-old daughter is in Europe for the spring semester and completely forgets the holiday. Emma tries to be understanding, but thinks, "I would never have done that to my mother.”

Henry* has not spoken to his mother in 20 years. She was an abusive alcoholic and he left home and never looked back when he was a teen. But Mother’s Day always leaves him deeply depressed. “Why don’t I have a mother like everyone else?” he asks himself every year. “Did I do something wrong?”

And of course, if you have lost a child or a parent, or who have longed for children and for one reason or another have not had or been able to have them, the day can be unbearable.

So what can you do to protect yourself and your loved ones on this “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day”**?

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I have a number of suggestions on an earlier post about Dreading Mother's Day.

But here’s another one:

My clients and all of the therapists I supervise and teach are probably very tired of this idea, which has become something of a mantra of mine, but I say it over and over again because it’s both true and difficult to grasp: Mother-child relationships are constantly changing. (This is also true for father-child, sibling-sibling, partner-partner — in fact, for any relationship.) Interactions, understanding, and attachments develop and change throughout a mother and her children’s lives. My profession has an unfortunate tendency to see parent-child connections as frozen in time (the title of one of my articles on the subject). We take a snapshot of remembered childhood interactions and say, “Oh, that explains everything.” (OK, so that’s an over-simplification. But you get my point.)

Relationships are always evolving, because every human being is always developing. It’s obvious when your children develop that they are not the same as they were five or 10 years earlier. But you are not the same person that you were 10 years ago either, although you may have many of the same qualities and characteristics. You have matured in some ways, learned new things about the world and about yourself, and just the fact that you have lived 10 more years gives you a different perspective on things. And — surprise, surprise — your parents are not the same, either.

So how does all of this understanding help you get through this horrible, terrible day?

Simple: remember that the day is just one day in a year, one day in a long and complex series of interactions that make up a rich and multi-faceted relationship with your child or your mother. It is not a snapshot of a whole relationship. Don’t turn it into one.

As always, I would like to know your thoughts about these ideas. How have you dealt with difficult Mother’s Days? What do you think about the idea that relationships are always changing? How do you keep from making one moment in time into a lifelong pain?

*Names and identifying information changed to protect privacy.

**Quote from the book Alexander and the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day by Judith Viorst

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F. Diane Barth "Frozen In Time: Idealization and Parent-Blaming in the Therapeutic Process" Clinical Social Work Journal, 2009