Article Written by Annie Wright, LMFT
For some, Mother’s Day will feel like a wonderful day, perhaps filled with brunch, flowers and time and energy spent with the woman you love—your Mom. Or maybe you’ll revel in having your own little ones bring you their homemade crayon cards and attempts at pancakes and breakfast in bed.
If this day brings you joy and gratitude, that’s lovely and I’m so glad that’s the experience for you! But for many of us, Mother’s Day will not feel this way. Mother’s Day, instead, may feel really quite hard and complex.
Perhaps you dearly long to be a mother and you’re currently struggling with infertility. Perhaps you wanted to be a mother to physical children in this lifetime and it couldn’t or didn’t happen. Perhaps you recently or long ago lost your physical child and are grieving your loss deeply. Perhaps you never wanted to be a mother and/or are now struggling with being one. Perhaps your mother is dead or very ill. Perhaps you never knew your mother and wish you had. Or, and this is very common, perhaps you are estranged from your mother or have a toxic and painful relationship with her that makes celebrating this day complex in a way that no Hallmark card could ever capture.
Whatever the reason, if you’re one of the many of us who doesn’t enjoy this day, who almost dread its cyclical return in the arc of the calendar each year—if you’re someone who actually feels sadness, challenge and pain around this day, I want you to know you’re not alone. Not at all. Being triggered by Mother’s Day is an incredibly common experience.
To be a mother oneself and to be born of one (as we all are) is deeply, unbelievably complex and I don’t think we do a good enough job in this culture acknowledging the multidimensional and often painful aspects of this.
Anecdotally, I was talking to some girlfriends who are also therapists and we were all saying that we’ve noticed a pattern across the last few years in our therapy practices: there’s always an uptick of client calls in the week or two before Mother’s Day (and also before Father’s Day and before Thanksgiving and Christmas, too).
So let’s face it: holidays centered around families can be triggering and challenging for many of us. That’s why on this Mother’s Day, I want to speak to you if you’re one of the many who are triggered by this day. I want to reach across the internet and give you a virtual permission slip of sorts to not feel pressured to enjoy or celebrate this day despite what the echoing cacophony of messaging all around you may say, and instead offer up a list of ways to alternatively “celebrate” Mother’s Day and a list of some great resources to do some re-mothering healing work, to grieve and just generally take care of yourself.
A list of ways to alternately “celebrate” Mother’s Day if this day doesn’t feel easy for you:
“To be a strong woman, to be a fierce woman, to be a true woman, to be a leader, to be truly powerful, you have to get to place where you can tolerate people not liking you. And know that when you actually do that, you have to fall back on your own moral imperative in your own moral trunk and say, ‘I don’t care, this is what I believe. This is who I am.” – Eve Ensler
Whatever the reason you dislike Mother’s Day, for many of us, there may be an accompanying sense of guilt or pressure around these feelings.
All around us, between radio and TV commercials, shops and their marketing campaigns, or even attempting to make plans with friends who are unavailable on the day that Mother’s Day falls, there is a nearly pervasive unspoken sentiment: Recognize this day! Enjoy this day! Not to mention the fact that we live in a global culture that largely puts an overwhelming amount of emphasis on honoring and prioritizing family despite the fact that this may or may not be healthy or supportive for you as an individual.
And all of this cumulative pressuring sentiment may feel hard, no matter how rooted and grounded your reasons are for not liking this day. That’s why I personally and professionally feel very strongly about speaking up about the complexities of this day and providing a virtual permission slip of sorts for you to honor your own experience about this day, not what you feel you “should” experience.
And so my list of alternate ways to “celebrate” Mother’s Day is an attempt to help you reflect on what your authentic experience is, and to provide you with some inspiration on how to hold this day in a way that feels good and right to you based on your experience.
1. Be honest with yourself.
Really take the opportunity to check in with yourself and reflect if, in your heart of hearts, this day feels good or hard for you. Reflect on why this may be, what you honestly feel called to do or not do on this day, and what feelings and thoughts come up for you when you imagine doing what you want to do versus what you believe you “should” do. From a place of personal honesty, you can begin crafting a plan to take care of yourself on this day.
2. Give yourself permission not to celebrate this day. At all. Period.
Remember, despite the fact that I’m writing a list of ways to “celebrate” mother’s day, a big way you may want to “celebrate” is by not doing anything at all. By not celebrating the day in even one way. And this may include not calling your mother. And that’s more than OK! Please allow yourself the permission to consider not celebrating this day at all if that’s what feels good and right and true for you.
3. Plan in advance how you will spend the day.
If there’s a part of you that does want to celebrate, honor and acknowledge this day in some way, I encourage you to plan in advance how you will spend the day. Perhaps brainstorm with your therapist, your best friend, your partner, your kids or a member of your support group what a good “game plan” for this day may look like for you. Sometimes the things we need and want most to do will require some advanced planning —like travel, reservations or coordinating with others—so if it’s too late this year, allow yourself time next year to consider planning in advance how you would like to spend the day.
4. Think about what would bring you comfort and solace on this day and seek that out.
If Mother’s Day is something you want to honor in some way and the day still feels painful for you, I encourage you to think about what kind of celebration could bring you comfort and solace in your pain. Think about the needs and wants you may have emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually when reflecting on what could bring you solace and comfort. And then give that to yourself.
5. Spend the day mothering yourself.
One other creative way to think about “celebrating” Mother’s Day is to think about ways in which you could spend the day mothering yourself, giving yourself some kind of attention and care your mom may have given to you when she was alive or might have given you if she was more functional or even if you had known her at all. Perhaps this may mean booking a supportive therapy session on this day, or spending the day at the spa getting a massage or mani/pedi or taking yourself on a shopping trip. Whatever is going to help you feel “mothered”—cared and looked out for—incorporate this into your Mother’s Day celebrations and spend the day mothering yourself.
6. Disconnect if you want or need to.
Take a break from social media (and all those potentially triggering “best mom ever!” posts) if you need or want to on Mother’s Day. Set your phone to airplane mode. Maybe get out of the city and into the nearby forest and mountains, away from the brunch spots that could be filled with families. Let your friends know you’ll be offline for the day and really just disconnect in any way you need to in order to support yourself mentally and emotionally.
7. If you do spend the day with your mother and it’s a complex relationship, hold the boundaries you need and want to take care of yourself.
Perhaps this means limiting the amount of time you spend on the phone with her, or maybe even just sending a text versus any voice-to-voice contact at all. Or maybe it will help you to have brunch out in public, but not at your house. Whatever logistical and emotional boundaries you need to set for yourself in order to have contact with your mother on this day, please set them.
8. Let those closest to you know what the day brings up for you and what you need and want.
For many of us who are recovering from abusive, neglectful or dysfunctional childhoods, a personal growth task we face is to share and reach out for support with safe, functional people versus keeping our pain and suffering to ourselves. And even if you don’t come from a background like this, it still may feel helpful and supportive to reach out and connect with a safe and trusted someone—a trustworthy sibling, a dear girlfriend, a mentor or therapist—and let them know Mother’s Day feels hard for you.
9. Spend the day with women and mentors who give you mothering energy and who feel like mothers to you.
I firmly believe if you didn’t have the mothering you wanted as a child, it’s not too late to be inspired by or receive actual mothering from mother models and mentors. These figures and mentors may be found in real-life (whether through a caring therapist, an aunt, a professional mentor, a neighbor who takes you under her wing, your best girlfriend) or even be fictional or witnessed from afar in the media. The goal is to seek out examples of what good mothering looks and feels like to you and to let this mothering energy in and allow it to help meet some of your needs and wants and for it to inspire your own, ever-evolving self-mothering journey. So on Mother’s Day, perhaps consider spending time with those you receive mothering energy from.
10. Spend the day with those *you* mother.
There are so many ways to mother others beyond bearing and raising a child! If you couldn’t have physical children in this lifetime, chances are you likely still “mothered” many along your journey. Mother’s Day can be a wonderful chance to spend time with those you “mother” like godchildren, nieces/nephews, your Little Brother or Little Sister, etc. If it feels like a good option for you on an otherwise complex day, consider spending time with those you have mothered.
11. Spend the day helping those who may also be having a hard time.
I’ll say it again: Mother’s Day can be a painful, evocative holiday for many of us. And, for some, the way they choose to “celebrate” this day is to spend the day helping others who may also be having a hard time. Perhaps this looks like visiting a neighbor, a friend who also dislikes the holiday or an assisted living home to spend time with someone who can’t be with their own children or who has none. Maybe this looks like volunteering that day or showing up to or facilitating a 12-Step Meeting.
12. Incorporate a ritual into the day that is meaningful to you.
Depending on your circumstances, craft a ritual that feels meaningful to you on Mother’s Day. Visit your child’s or mother’s grave, or write them a letter. Bury that letter in the yard and plant their favorite flowers over it, burn it in your sink, mail it to no address. Write a letter from your mother to you that you wish she would have been capable of writing if she was more mentally functional or still alive. Look at photo albums of your lost loved one, cook a meal of their favorite foods, say a prayer to God/Goddess/The Universe about your wishes to be a parent. Whatever feels like a meaningful ritual for you, weave it into the day.
13. Cultivate a mindset of grounded empowerment.
Finally, I would encourage you to work on your mindset and view of this day. Instead of feeling guilt or pressure, try to work on giving yourself the internal permission to have your experience—no matter what it looks like!—and for this to be OK. You have a right to feel whatever you want about this day. You have a right to do with your life whatever you want. And that includes how and if you celebrate this day. You can also use this day as an opportunity to open up to re-mothering healing work you need to do, explore any forgiveness or grief work that may have to be done. This day has the potential to be an opportunity for growth for you, not just a cyclical trigger in the calendar.
A list of resources if you need to do some re-mothering healing work, grieve or just generally take care of yourself.
Again, the reasons for why Mother’s Day may feel triggering for any of us will vary wildly and widely. And the resources we need to help us with our unique triggers and pain points can be equally diverse. So I’ve included a short list of multimedia below (it’s by no means exhaustive!) in the hopes that even one of them might be just the right kind of soul medicine you need on Mother’s Day. Peruse them, and I truly hope they feel helpful to you.
- Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss by Hope Edelman. (book)
- The Emotionally Absent Mother: A Guide to Self-Healing and Getting the Love You Missed by Jasmin Lee Cori MS LPC. (book)
- Warming The Stone Child: Myths And Stories About Abandonment And The Unmothered Child by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, PhD. (audiobook)
- Mothers who regret having children are speaking up like never before. (article)
- What does it mean to remother yourself and why is it so critical for our growth as women? (article)
- The Five Healing Tasks of the Un- and Under-Parented. (article)
- Yes, sweetheart, you DO actually get to grieve this. (article)
- How boundaries impact every area of your life and what to do if yours need work. (article)
- Why you don’t “need” or “have to” forgive anyone if you don’t want or feel ready to. (article)
- Womb of Light: The work of Bethany Webster. (website and articles)
- This is to Mother You by Linda Rondstadt and Emmylou Harris. (song)
- Some “real” non-Hallmarky Mother’s Day greeting cards from Emily McDowell, like this one. (product)
Wrapping this up.
If nothing else, I hope what you take from today’s article is this: You have permission to feel however you feel about this day. You have permission to not like and not want to celebrate Mother’s Day.
This is a complex and triggering holiday for many, many people. If this is the case for you, I hope you will take care of yourself on Mother’s Day in whatever way you need or want to.
And please remember that everything I shared today can also be applied to Father’s Day one short month from now. And now I’d love to hear from you in the comments below: Is Mother’s Day complex for you, too? If so, what is one way in which you “celebrate” or take care of yourself on this day? Leave a message and your suggestions in the comments below so our community of readers can benefit from your wisdom.
And until next time, take very good care of yourself.
Annie Wright, LMFT is the founder and clinical director of Evergreen Counseling – a therapy center located in Berkeley, California-as well a licensed psychotherapist who specializes in complex relational trauma.