May 062016

American culture can turn a well-intentioned holiday into a painful knife twist to the soul for anyone who doesn’t fit within the idealized demographic of a perfect family. Nowhere is this more pervasive and obvious than in the ritual observances of Mother’s Day.

Have you ever stood in front of a long rack of Mother’s Day cards and wondered how you could possibly find a card that could say something truthful about your relationship with your mother? Have you ever felt resentful that you felt obligated to send a card at all? Have you desperately searched for a card that says nothing more than “Thinking of you on Mothers Day”—without a hint of what you’re actually thinking? If you answered yes to any of these, read on. This is for you.

I know that my mother loved me. (I’m only able to say that since a recent dinner with my childhood best friend, Donna, who was so certain of it that she was able to help me believe it.) My mother had untreated emotional and psychological problems that made her unstable and ill-equipped to be my mom. Growing up with her was like living in a house filled with land mines on which I would inevitably step whenever I let my guard down. As an adult, I had to learn how to love and nurture myself in ways that I did not learn at home. In honor of Mother’s Day, I’ve condensed many years of healing into a simple ceremony for all of us who had less than ideal relationships with our mothers.  It’s an antidote to feeling guilty, angry, resentful and left out when some well meaning stranger wishes us “Happy Mother’s Day” without a clue as to how impossible that is for us.

This ceremony is for those of us who have/had mothers who:

  • abandoned us
  • deserted us
  • are missing-in-in action, either physically or mentally
  • abused us physically or emotionally
  • manipulated us
  • were violent or cruel
  • were wholly unsuited to the job of motherhood
  • you have had to break up with
  • have broken up with you
  • have—for whatever reason—been unable to fulfill the role of motherhood
  • or, [your situation here:__________________________________]

The ceremony:

Take a few big, cleansing, centering breaths.

Choose to believe (if only for the length of this ritual) that your mother was doing the best she could—even if that best was dreadful—with the knowledge, resources, and abilities she had at the time. (If this feels difficult or even impossible, fake it. Ask yourself what it would feel like if you could believe that your mother was doing the best she could at the time, and go with that.)

Now, write down one thing you are grateful to your mother for—just one thing—even if that one thing is very small or kind of weird. (Of course, you can list more if you like.)

Next, write down one thing (more if you like) that you can forgive your mother for. Remember, forgiveness does not mean forgetting or excusing or justifying. It means releasing yourself from the past so you can move forward. If you can’t forgive her for anything today, write down something you might be able to forgive her for in the future.

If your mother was incapable of mothering you properly, you had to become your own best mom. It’s time to honor you for the great mothering job that you did for you. Write down some of the ways you have been a great mom to yourself—ways you have supported, loved, encouraged, cared for, and protected yourself. Take your time with this one. Write down at least ten ways.

Many of us have coped by finding surrogate mothers—other people who could be there for us when we needed the kind of mom we did not grow up with. Write down the name(s) of these people and three things you are grateful to them for. If it feels right, contact them and tell them. Or send them a card. If that doesn’t feel appropriate, or if they are no longer alive, just send them a little prayer of gratitude.

Now, one last step: go to the store and find a perfect Mother’s Day card for you to send to you. Sign it. Mail it to yourself. Be excited when it arrives.

Happy Mother’s Day.

  2 Responses to “For the Un-Mothered on Mothers Day”

  1. Perfect. Thank you.
    It’s amazing how great a gulf can exist between 2 people who live in the same house. Any holiday or occasion had the same sword waiting to fall. There was no “Merry” to Christmas or happy to birthday.
    I can sure relate to the house filled with land mines! My mother wanted one desperately to control everything in her life (especially me) so that she would never have to deal with anything even remotely unpleasant. When something came up, her denial was so extreme, she would leave me in dangerous situations to fend for myself so that she wouldn’t have to consider that something unpleasant could possibly touch her carefully orchestrated world.
    Yeah. They don’t make cards for that. The best I could do was find one wishing her what she had given me. Yes, there were also good things. Those are what made it so damn hard. If it was all bad, I could have just walked away without the guilt and claws that were hooked into me…

  2. Thank you so much for this article, Barbara. You so beautifully put into words how I feel on Mother’s Day. A relationship between a mother and a daughter is so complex and touches you at your core. My mother’s alcoholism turned what was once a wonderful, loving, supportive relationship between us into something so painful I had to walk away from her and have no contact until she died. It’s been extremely difficult grieving for someone I used to love so deeply and ended up hating. After 3 years, I have started to heal and your beautiful practice will really help continue that healing. I’ve shared this article with others who have been deeply touched by it. So a big thank you from all of us.

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