For those of us with difficult relationships with our mothers, Mother’s Day is tricky. It’s one of those times when the expectations of society are blaring loud and clear.
Leading up to it we’re constantly hearing messages, in both subtle and overt ways, telling us mothers are kind and loving, nurturing and giving, that we should love our mother no matter what and always forgive her. There’s a big misconception of mothers being infallible and above criticism. And for those of us who’s mothers were not necessarily kind and nurturing, we have to deal with being triggered by ads and commercials proclaiming how special mothers are and how well we need to treat them on this special day.
Not that being a mom is easy!
As a mother, I can testify that it is one of the hardest roles I’ve ever held. Being a mother has asked me to grow and learn constantly; to be humbled, hurt and tired but still carry on with love and patience. I fail and try again, fall but get up and keep going. Mothering requires so much and there is very little thanks.
But having been on both sides of this equation now—being a mother and being mothered–I still believe there are things moms should be held accountable for, no matter how hard this job is. There shouldn’t be exemptions for anyone to act terribly or treat someone poorly just because they “bore them into the world.” Being a mother does not entitle you to mistreat or abuse your child.
Why I Chose No Contact With My Mom
I know for some people the abuse from their mother is obvious and cruel. They are mean right out in the open. There are mothers who injure, lock up or even sell their children for sex. As horrible as it sounds, that does happen. But another category of children suffer in silence because everything seems so nice and normal from the outside. Some mothers are great at putting on a mask for the world to see. They are great at faking love when they don’t actually have it at all. Some abuse is not physical.
Although, to be honest I was physically abused as a child–under the name of “corporal punishment.” And while I don’t think children should be hit at all—ever—it’s definitely not supposed to be done in anger and leave red welts or make it hard to sit down for days.
But if that’s all there ever was, if that was the only “abuse” I ever experienced, we probably wouldn’t be here now. I could have let that go and moved on since parents don’t continue to spank their children in adulthood, right? But these scars aren’t external and the truth of the conditions on her love didn’t fully become apparent until I was an adult.
A Picture-Perfect Family
Just to be clear, there were lots of happy moments growing up: plenty of game nights and movie nights, camping adventures, and road trips. There were moments full of laughter, pranks, and sheer joy. There was also plenty of shame, guilt and trauma. But in my young brain I believed we were a family and always would be. I never expected to lose my connection to them, or have to choose between trying to stay connected to them and improving my mental health, but here we are.
I’d always imagined my siblings and I would raise our children together and have these giant family gatherings with all the cousins laughing and playing together. But that didn’t happen, and I have searched my heart to find out exactly what went wrong.
I know that at many points things could have changed. Even into my 20’s and 30’s there was time and opportunity to alter this course with open conversation and compromise. But we’re here now, and I don’t think things are going to change now. I’ve found peace, finally, even through the grief of those lost connections.
What Went Wrong?
As an adult, I starting making my own choices and my mother made it clear this was not okay, I was not okay. As long as I continued to choose for myself and didn’t follow her chosen path for my life, I would unacceptable and unwanted—forever an outsider in the family circle. I had to be what she wanted me to be. My mother was insulted not only by my choices, but also that I’d had the audacity to make them without consulting her.
You see, my parents are the fervently-religious type. My father followed his “calling” to be a preacher and missionary to the Mormons in Utah. He tries to convert them into Baptists. While some religions seem more flexible and loving, my parent’s religion asked them to put everything–even their own children–on the line. My mother prayed that god would “take me home” in other words, die, if I ever left the family faith. And she really meant it.
When I finally did leave the faith, she disowned me–but not overtly. At first she was just stiff and formal, only interacting with me out of a sense obligation. She subtly rejected me over many years, possibly because she had to maintain her perfect image. Disowning your child is generally frowned upon and in her mind she really is the perfect mother. No one had better question that.
The Slow Rejection
Instead of all at once, she slowly but surely pushed me out of the family–one day, one event, one memory at a time. It wasn’t until I reached my 40’s that I fully grasped what was happening.
Even when I knew she was being icy and rigid, even when she made me feel belittled and unimportant, I still wanted to have a relationship with her. I tried for decades. It’s a normal urge, I suppose. Some part of me just wanted to have a mother even if it was this one. I still wanted my children to have a grandmother and join in the family gatherings.
But then I finally grasped what she was doing. I saw clearly all the time and energy she spent on her other children over the years–the ones who pleased her and followed “the path,” and how, in comparison, she had so little time and energy for me.
So many flights she’d taken to Alaska to visit her favorite daughter and grandchildren whereas she had come to visit me and my children–one state away–only once in 9 years. I mean, it doesn’t take a genius to see it. I’d just been ignoring all of her hurtful behavior, trying so hard not to look.
Years had passed since she’d even spoken to me on the phone. Every time I called she’d let Dad answer and he’d carry on the whole conversation, sometimes relaying messages back and forth between us but she wouldn’t even pick up the phone to say hello. That hurt.
Her Way or the Highway
I realized almost everything she’d been sending me for years—emails, text messages, even presents—they’d all been religiously themed. Mostly her gifts just went into the trash or the donation pile because I don’t need to be triggered by seeing Bible stories on my kid’s bookshelf. Thanks, but no thanks. But I never told her I threw them away. I never asked her to stop sending gifts or revealed how it made me feel when she sent things that she fully knew I didn’t want. Even so, she made it clear how conditional her love for me was.
In the end it was obvious my mom was only interested in interacting with me for the purpose of converting me back to her religion. If I wouldn’t do that, I was dead to her. Invisible.
Not only that, she’d been limiting my ability to have relationships with my siblings. She had been acting as gatekeeper, forcing herself into our interactions and holding private get togethers at her home where only her favorite children and grandchildren would be invited.
I’d see their photos and glowing reports of happy gatherings on Facebook–after the fact. There was rarely an opportunity to bring my own kids to see their cousins, only if I pestered and forced my way in and was willing to endure feeling unwelcome.
As painful as it all was, I realized the only thing left for me to do was to stop trying. I had to find my freedom in order to heal and reclaim my power. No more groveling for a mother’s love I’d never be able to get. No more guilt or shame or control.
Estrangement or Emancipation?
Emancipation is the legal term when children are released from the care of their parents. Usually, of course, it applies to teenagers who aren’t quite old enough to be considered adults but apply for the right to live on their own. I submit that this term could possibly apply to much older children too. Let’s not call it estrangement, let’s give it a new term–I like emancipation.
Even grown up children should be able to declare themselves free from their abusive caregivers, from those who put limits and caveats on their love. That kind of love isn’t real, it’s fake love and it hurts.
I finally saw my mother and her actions for what they really are and decided to cut the ties–to symbolically emancipate myself. I remember how good it felt to let go of the guilt, all the “should’s” around what I owed my mother, all the maxims saying how we should love them no matter what they do. Well, guess what? I do love my mom. That will never change. I love her but I also stopped having a relationship with her. You can love someone and let them go. If they are toxic, if they are hurting your soul, if they’re impeding your growth and happiness–let them go. Let yourself go.
Set yourself free.
For me, it was the kindest thing I could do. All that unresolved hurt from my relationship with my mother had been bleeding into my own mothering—out onto my own children. Even my kids were suffering because of her. And for me, that was the final straw. I had to let go of her for all of our sakes. Now it’s time to focus on healing and accepting things as they are, not thinking what I want them to be.
Letting go doesn’t mean forgetting, it just means we stop carrying the energy of the past into the present.~ Yung Pueblo
Surviving Mother’s Day
Every Mother’s Day it gets a little easier. I just take it one day, one month, one year at a time. I brace myself against all the glowing Mother’s Day ads and laugh off the guilt that comes along with those proclamations of how you should treat your mom. Truly, I do wish there was a mom in my life I could show appreciation to and shower with love and gifts, but there’s not.
There are surrogate moms, mom-like figures in my life and sometimes I send notes thanking them for being there for me like a mother would. The advice, love and support I receive from these wise, kind women has been my saving grace.
But do I “owe” my own mother anything now or at anytime? I say no, I do not. Because being a mother is NOT one single act of giving birth, it’s so much more. Being a mother is a lifetime task of unconditionally loving and accepting your child for who they are and supporting them towards the goal of living a happy, successful, independent life. My mother failed at her task. She gave birth but then abandoned me when I wouldn’t comply with her will.
However, there are still ways for those of us with difficult relationships with our own mothers to enjoy Mother’s Day. Here are my suggestions:
1. Limit Your Contact (Guilt-free)
Everyone is on a scale. There aren’t hard lines or definitive boundaries here. The level of contact that is right for you may be too much or too little for someone else. In between letting your mom have full access to you and going fully no contact, there is a scale of limited contact. You set the boundaries. You decide how much contact is manageable. Set a timer when you talk. If you can only handle 10 minutes, get off the phone or leave after 10 minutes. If you can’t handle in-person conversations, only do phone calls. Your life is your own, don’t let anyone force their way in and shrug off that guilt like water off a duck’s back.
2. Tune It All Out
I tune out all those Mother’s Day ads as much as I can and notice if there is any guilt that arises. If there is, I sit with the guilt and ask myself if my mother actually deserves praise and adoration on this day. Will me reaching out to her out of a sense of obligation make our relationship any better? Is pretending there is nothing wrong and moving forward with the holiday anyways going to leave me feeling good or icky? Will it make me feel better to just gloss over all the pain and hurt feelings? The answer for me is no. Pay attention and follow your heart. Do only what makes you feel good about yourself in the end. Grieve your unideal, lost relationship as long as you need to but then move on, don’t give up on living a happy, fulfilling life.
3. Treat Yourself Instead
Whether you are a mom or not, this day can still be for you! If you do have kids then fully bask in their extra attention and all the special moments. If you don’t have kids, don’t spend the day in misery ruminating about your mom–treat yourself instead!
I’m working on this new practice of mothering myself, also known as reparenting. It’s for those who had inadequate or nonexistent parenting growing up. What I have discovered thus far has been so important for my healing.
It turns out that we can be mothers to ourselves! Yes, I know this sounds a little weird. But if you’ve always wanted a mom to love you unconditionally and encourage you, someone to scoop you up and comfort you if you are sad or hurt…well, you can give those things to yourself.
This topic is so deep I may write an entire blog just on it alone, but for now I can tell you this: If you don’t have the mother you so desperately wanted, treat yourself on Mother’s Day instead. Give yourself what you would like to give to your ideal mom. Flowers, roses, chocolates and a bubble bath? Do it! Take yourself out for sushi and a manicure? Yes! This is now your special day to acknowledge that you didn’t get what you wanted and needed but that it’s not too late. We can mother ourselves and reclaim Mother’s Day as our own. I think it’s high time that we did!
By Sarah Caton
Read more about the challenges of being a parent: “I want to be JUST LIKE YOU” and other Terrifying Things My Kids Say
Read articles on reparenting: