Mother’s Day Is Not for Everyone

When you're dealing with grief or complex family dynamics, it can be a challenge.

Woman with flower

Design by Tiana Crispino

In April, Parachute sent out an email to their mailing list with the messaging that Mother’s and Father’s Day “can be sensitive times for many of us. So if you’d prefer not to receive emails about these holidays, you can opt-out of them here.” Maker’s marketplace Etsy had made a similar move. The Fortune article that reported the news had several shares by users on Twitter, alongside praises for the sensitivity and consideration.

Anne, who lost her mom to leukemia three years ago, said she was impressed by Parachute’s seemingly small gesture. “Mother’s Day, in particular, is so heavily marketed,” she said. “When I talk about marketing, I’m primarily thinking of emails from every brand under the sun telling me not to forget mom. ‘Don’t forget Mom!’ or ‘Is Mom far away this year?’ It’s like, 'Yeah. Mom is really far away.' I find the phrasing to be so insensitive.”

The sensitivity thing, for Anne, was personal and also not. She said that as challenging as the death of her mom was for her and her family, facing those difficulties made her more aware of the complications of other people’s grief: “My mom was sick. Losing her didn’t happen overnight. I had a really good relationship with my mom. My parents were together—I don’t have that aspect that makes my grief complicated."

"I also, through following all sorts of grief accounts on Instagram, have come across several mothers who have lost babies," she adds. "And it just made me so aware of the complications and the breadth of difficulties people must feel on Mother’s Day. And the fact that the marketing is so umbrella that just goes out to everyone when it’s so complicated for so many reasons for so many people?”

Grieving a parent is complicated. And when layers of complicated emotions are added, it makes it all the muddier. Delilah, a dear friend of mine in middle and high school, lost her mom when she was four. This I had known. What I didn’t know (and what she felt unable to share with people at the time) was that after her mom died, in order to help with raising her, her dad married her mom’s sister, a cultural norm in Indonesia where her mom is from. They didn’t stay married, but Delilah’s aunt co-parented her as a mother figure. We grew up in Indiana, where elementary school guidance counselors made what Delilah would describe as a spectacle of her family circumstance, but “to the [Indonesian] community, my aunt was always my mother,” she said. “I never had to explain myself a whole lot because they just kind of understood. ‘Yeah, this is what our people do.’” 

Between an imaginably tumultuous custody battle and lack of emotional outlets, Delilah felt emotionally disconnected from both of her parents. But today, she has let go of any resentment and even empathizes with them both, which she credits to her own reparenting of herself and the friends she met in college. They taught her “what it means to be loved and validated and cared for without false pretense,” she says. “I took that and said, ‘Alright, what do I need to do in myself to be better for myself, for my future relationships, my partners, my platonic friends, and if I decide ever in the future to have a family.’”

To the Indonesian community, my aunt was always my mother. I never had to explain myself a whole lot because they just kind of understood.

House and flower

Design by Tiana Crispino

Chala has never been able to celebrate Mother’s Day because their mom doesn’t celebrate Mother’s Day—their mother is a Jehovah’s Witness and doesn’t observe holidays that don’t have ties to the Bible. That is just a small piece of a larger picture of Chala’s relationship with their mom. Chala speaks lovingly to their mother’s character (“one of the sweetest and most compassionate and genuinely kind people in the world”), but their mother’s faith made them fear being open about being queer and trans.

“It’s something that is so heavily vilified within that kind of religion that I conflated what the religion was teaching with what I assumed my mom would also believe,” they said. “We still have a connection, even if there are certain things that we don’t talk about—which sometimes doesn’t feel like enough. And sometimes her having to pick and choose what we can engage [in conversation with] doesn’t feel like enough, but sometimes with moms, you really just take what you can get.”

Chala spoke of chosen families, whom queer and trans people often lean on, but felt like it was natural to long for that connection with the person who gave birth to you. “That’s something that we all deal with, whether we admit it to ourselves or not, whether we sit with it or not. This is why when they’re not emotionally mature enough to care for us the way we need them to, it hurts all the more.”

And making room for parents who have caused harm is not always a linear choice for others. Like Riordan. Riordan's relationship with their mother has had personal strains on it since childhood. When the hypothetical of forgiveness came up, it was not something that particularly spoke to them. “It’s interesting when you bring up forgiveness because that is something I have a lot of ambivalence about,” they said. “I’ve never quite figured out what forgiveness means, but for my relationship with her, I don’t think I have forgiven her. But I don’t hold any resentment toward her. It’s just a shrug. That’s how I feel.”

I’ve never quite figured out what forgiveness means, but for my relationship with her, I don’t think I have forgiven her, but I don’t hold any resentment toward her.

When Mother’s Day is a challenge to celebrate, it is because Mother’s Day assumes the obvious falsehood that everyone has one to celebrate. It assumes that the social contract between parent and child is always understood and upheld. It assumes that enough people have an uncomplicated, two-parent household, free of family politics and related responsibilities. It assumes that those experiencing grief, neglect, or hurt may easily turn the other cheek so that greeting cards and flowers can continue being sold. But perhaps one thing Mother’s Day is often right to assume is that there is love. 

Junaid described some personal circumstances about his family, specifically ways in which he watched his mother withhold kindness and support toward particular decisions made by his older brothers. “It makes me think, ‘When is it gonna be my turn to disappoint her seriously?’” he said. 

Further, Junaid described the conversations he has since had with his mom, attempting to open the floor for understanding. When I asked him what makes him work so hard on this relationship, he hardly thought twice. “It’s simple because my parents are very important to me. I’ve tried to, over the years, rationalize my way out of it and be more apathetic, but I’ll always come back to, ‘No I just care too much.’ And I do. So I put in the work. And sometimes it’s easier and sometimes it’s harder.”

I put in the work. And sometimes it’s easier and sometimes it’s harder.

Similarly, Dylan started off our conversation with empathy, saying her mother is a good person—that she has compassion and gratitude for her mom—but that being her mother’s child required a lot of independence, maturity, and having to emotionally manage her own parent at a young age. “I know she had the same thing in a more extreme way with her mom,” Dylan qualifies. “Like my basic needs were taken care of. Hers were not.” 

Dylan will send her mother a card and give her a call but described a clear disparity between the way she and her husband approach the holiday. They honor her mother-in-law by going out for a meal and make a bigger effort to celebrate. But these Mother’s Day gestures are mirrors of the efforts her mother and mother-in-law put into their relationships with her, respectively. Which, she said, still bothers her. “It is frustrating because I would love to just be able to go to my mom and not have the conversation become about her,” Dylan said. “I don’t know if I will ever get used to it. It kind of feels like a loss in a way.”

It is frustrating because I would love to just be able to go to my mom and not have the conversation become about her.

And that’s something we see less conversation about—old wounds that still hurt, that still seek closure. Tessa, who is coming up on six months of no contact with her mother, thinks there’s a lot that is romanticized when it comes to sour relationships with parents. “I would rather this all just not be the case. I still just wish that I had my mom,” she said. “That’s not healed no matter how hard I work on it. It’s like a biological response. There are random days where I think I’m gonna be okay, and I’m not okay.”

There are several groups meant to aid in grief and isolation, but one that's particularly helpful and mission-driven is an organization called The Dinner Party. It's a part support group, part community space meant to provide solidarity and support for grieving 20-to-40-somethings. 

“We know that many look at Mother's Day with some big feelings of dread. We're missing our moms, mom figures, and the ones who made us moms... wishing desperately to be a mom—the day can really suck,” said TDP’s Aggie Fitch. “Giving 'advice' is tricky with something as varied as grief. Some people may choose to ignore the day completely. Maybe it wasn't a part of their relationship with the person they lost, maybe they just want to block it out, stay away from Instagram, and go do something that feels fun and light.”

Grief can behave in so many ways. Tessa had described establishing zero contact with her mom like a breakup, one that she’s still freshly healing from. Dylan compared her circumstance similarly. Anne had put it succinctly: “Whether my mom died or not, I deserve to live my life the way I want to live it. And I think there’s something healthy to coming to that conclusion, and [thinking of] the ways that we grow up. I feel ahead of a lot of my peers. I’ve worked through that. I’m thankful to be in that space.” 

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