I’ve babysat in my youth and am the aunt who bakes. I’ve been called “piccola mamma” (little mother) by my papà when I took on the role my mentally ill mamma couldn’t. As a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for kids in foster care and as a team leader in the workplace, my mothering and caregiver skills have come naturally. But I’ve never given birth. So I’m not a mom. I understand when mother’s day is hard for those of us without children. And recently, I also am appreciating when mother’s day is hard for women who are mothers.
Having a mom who can’t always be the mom you wish her to be hurts. When I was growing up, my mom, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, spent the majority of her time battling her own demons. My mom wasn’t able to care for her children in the way she wanted to. And I hated her for it.
I know I’m not alone. Mother-daughter relationships can be tricky. Love, hate and everything in between are part of the package, even in the best of scenarios.
Mental illness robbed me of having a fully present, loving mother. Mental illness made me scared of my mom, so I kept her at arms-length. And mental illness in my family’s DNA played a major role in my choosing not to have children, fearful that they, too, would inherit our insanity genes, and that I wouldn’t be able to be the mother I would have wanted to a child with a mental illness.
So it’s no wonder that Mother’s Day is hard for me. And when Mother’s Day is hard — for whatever may be your reasons — here are three things I’ve found help make it a little easier:
1. Give Yourself Permission to Feel
In my new book COMMITTED: A Memoir of Madness in the Family, I share my own thoughts and feelings, including those that paint me in a most unfavorable light. But I’ve learned that it isn’t the thought or feeling that’s wrong; rather, it’s resisting it, hiding it, and shaming it that has the power to poison us and others. Author D.H. Lawrence is quoted as saying, “This is the very worst wickedness, that we refuse to acknowledge the passionate evil that is in us. This makes us secret and rotten.” Every one of us is human. With that comes every spectrum of emotions and feelings and thoughts. Giving yourself permission to feel whatever it is you’re feeling is not only healthy, but also allows for all that you’re keeping bottled up inside to be released and not fester.
Part of why my Mamma, my younger sister, and I all suffered with our mental health is largely due to our staying silent. Silence suffocates. And it makes us resentful of the person(s) we’re with or the place(s) and circumstances we find ourselves in. Whether we’re the child of a mom who’s toxic and wishes she’d disappear or the mom who’s tired and secretly resents her kids, it’s okay. Feel the feelings. Acknowledging them is the first step to taking care of yourself, and, ironically, being better able to deal with others.
2. Give Your Mom A Break
No, I’m not suggesting that you excuse bad behavior. What I am recommending is a shift in perspective. When Mother’s Day is hard for me because my memories include my mamma’s schizophrenic delusions that caused her to unleash her rage, I consider what she must have been going through. She once told me that she used to take me and my three siblings out for walks because she was trying to run away from the voices that were telling her to kill her children. As a child, I didn’t know that. As an adult who does, my heart breaks for her. How frightening it must have been for her. And how strong and courageous she was to fight against what she could not control, protecting us from harm.
No one is perfect. And while my mamma’s mental illness may be an extreme, others’ madness is equally deserving of empathy. We put moms in a category with high expectations. I know I have. As Anne Lamott says in her annual Mother’s Day post, “The illusion is that mothers are automatically more fulfilled and complete.” We forget that moms are human. Letting them off the hook, and letting ourselves sit in their seats, even for a little while, helps us to realize that we aren’t responsible for whatever may be happening. And that, in turn, lets us breathe a little easier.
3. Give A Gift to Yourself for Mothering
When Mother’s Day is hard, become aware of why. Is it because of your relationship with your mom? Or because you’ve lost your mom? Maybe you never knew your mom? Is Mother’s Day hard because you aren’t a mom and wish you were? Or because you aren’t a mom and don’t feel as if you should apologize or explain why? Maybe Mother’s Day is hard for you because you are a mom, and it wasn’t by choice. Or you are a mom who’s not made the best of choices? Or you happen to be the mom of a child who is struggling and you feel powerless and so guilty for wishing they weren’t your kid. Whatever your why is, call it out.
Now stop focusing on the word “mother”; rather, consider “mothering” and its meaning: “relating to or characteristic of a mother, especially in being caring, protective, and kind”… Who in your life, regardless of gender, has shown you “mothering”? To whom have you exhibited “mothering”? How about you practice a little “mothering” to yourself this year?
When Mother’s Day is hard it’s because we believe we have to acknowledge it and suffer through it based on Hallmark definitions imposed on us. But you have the power to determine what you believe it to be for YOU. Choose to celebrate Mother’s Day without considering its biological aspects. Shift your script so that it’s a day about caring, protecting, and showing kindness. These are moments of grace that we’ve all experienced. So give yourself (and others in your life) a gift for mothering. You’ll be surprised at how much easier Mother’s Day will be.