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It probably wasn’t until the late 1970’s when Christina Crawford’s tell all Mommy Dearest hit the book stores that we began to talk candidly about the possibility of the imperfect mother/daughter relationship. While talk show hosts expressed doubt to the veracity of Crawford’s horrific tale of abuse while growing up as the daughter of movie legend Joan Crawford, throngs of women reading her book were nodding in assent. Finally someone was brave enough to say what many women (and men) had kept silent for years! Crawford blew the lid off the myth that all mothers were perfect. She challenged the sanctity of motherhood by speaking about the unspeakable- abuse and violence at the hands of a mother. Rather than being June Cleaver some mothers wielded a meat cleaver.

Now some thirty years later, we speak more openly about the conflict in the mother/daughter relationship. Psychologist Victoria Secunda’s 1991 classic When You and Your Mother Can’t Be Friends: Resolving the Most Complicated Relationship of Your Life helped millions of women discuss more openly the pain, confusion and profound loss that occur when these relationships are less than stellar.

So, here comes Mother’s Day. It demands we focus on this most important relationship. While it is true that we all have mothers, it is not a given that the relationship is one that conjures up warm fuzzy feelings. There are abusive mothers, absent mothers and mothers who abandoned. For these daughters, no matter how old, there is always a hole in the heart as they struggle to reconcile the profound confusion and ambivalence they feel toward their mother. On Mother’s Day, these women feel deep loss.

Then there are mothers who have fractured relationships with their children. There are children who disappoint, detach and distance. There are children who are abusive to their mothers. There are children who are defiant. There are children who commit crimes. On Mother’s Day, these women also feel deep loss.

Consider also the women who chose not have children, women who cannot have children, women who have lost children and children who have lost their mother. For all these women, this day is a day of deep loss.

When the culture creates a template for how to experience/celebrate our relationships, it makes it difficult for those whose experience is off the grid to know exactly how to manage their feelings. They are bombarded with standardized, commercialized neatly packaged greeting card scenarios. Not unlike Valentine’s Day, on Mother’s Day (or Father’s Day) many are left feeling not only loss and isolation, but questioning again and again, if they could have done something differently or “What is wrong with me?” The loss is tinged with self doubt as even the most competent adult grapples with the iconoclastic version of this relationship slamming right up against their own reality.

We need to recognize that all these relationships do not fall into a cookie cutter model of Clare Huxtable. On Mother’s Day, many women feel ostracized and marginalized as they struggle to resist getting swept up the fantasy that all mother/daughter relationships are perfect, except their own. They often feel isolated with their shame-filled pain.

In doing research for this article I found the following in Wikipedia: “One of the early calls to celebrate a Mother’s Day in the United States was the “Mother’s Day Proclamation” by Julia Ward Howe. Written in 1870, it was a pacifist reaction to the carnage of the American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War. The Proclamation was tied to Howe’s feminist belief that women had a responsibility to shape their societies at the political level. ” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mother’s_Day)

So on this day of conflicting feelings, perhaps those who have painful relationships can do more than just muddle through. If we embrace Julia Ward Howe’s original intent which was a “pacifist reaction to the carnage”, we can work to cultivate a pacifist and gentle reaction to the internal carnage we may feel. Howe believed that women had the responsibility to shape their societies at the political level and psychology tells us we all have responsibility to shape our lives on the emotional level.

Make peace with yourself. Do away with the shame that creates psychological carnage. The shame only serves to erode your sense of self and if you are indeed someone who struggles in the mother/daughter relationship there is a pretty good chance that you have already have felt more than your share of shame. Don’t treat yourself as you were treated. It only serves to hurt you more than you have already been hurt. Observe this day by bringing peace into your heart.

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15 Comments

  1. CJ on the 07. May, 2011 remarked #

    And even if your relationship with your mother is fairly fine – as mine was – there are times that finding the right card and words to say are not easy. Certainly that was the situation when Mom was on my case and I felt less than loving toward her.
    In a fairy tale world Mother’s Day is all love and light.
    As you said, Donna, that is not always the case. And your very poignant and honest blog helps us all recognize that there is no shame in feeling conflicted on this day. And we know, also, that we are not alone.
    How comforting that is.
    Thank you.

  2. Patti on the 08. May, 2011 remarked #

    Thank you Donna for expressing the pain that can come with these ‘Hallmark’ kind of days. You’re right, finding a card for my mother to express what I really feel is difficult, I typically opt for one that is humorous as that’s safe. And this year, I just mailed it to her.

    Something I’d suggest for those whose birth mothers were not good for them, is to find another ‘mother’ to adopt. I”ve been very fortunate that my BFF shares her mom with me and we celebrated yesterday at a lovely tea.

    I struggled for years to get over the guilt but living in peace with myself is worth the pain of going through the needed therapy to get to this place of peace. Putting in my boundaries of seeing my mother on my terms now is wonderful.

    I”m a wonderful mother to my four-pawed ‘daughter’ who never talks back but can be hard of hearing at times ….or just plain disobedient.

    Please enjoy this day as YOU want to!

    • admin on the 08. May, 2011 remarked #

      Thanks Patti, for adding your voice to an issue many women still feel awkward talking about! When we share the “hard stuff”, we give encouragement to others and empower ourselves.

  3. Stacy on the 08. May, 2011 remarked #

    Thanks Donna. As I read your blog I was better able to recognize the feelings I have been having around not only mother’s day, but all of the “Hallmark” holidays. It’s really just one more thing to do on a day that someone else has chosen to be important. I find that it adds uneccessary stress to my life to have to remember to call or buy a gift to honor people on a specific day (birthdays are enough). I’m a traditional type of person who loves celebrating holidays and enjoys get togethers, but lately I’ve just had enough. As for the comment about finding the right card… I often have a tough time finding an appropriate card for both of my parents and find that I pick the same generic phrases year after year. The past few years, I have not purchased a card or I have sent one with my childrens’ photos on it along with a simple message. I wonder how many people send cards that sound good, but not a word is really true? Just a thought. Thanks for the blog Donna:-)

    • admin on the 09. May, 2011 remarked #

      These “obligatory” celebrations assume that everyone wants to celebrate the same thing in the same way. Rather than these designated days, it would be healthier and more authentic if we celebrated those we loved every day without pressure from external elements. ( Of course, the card, flower, candy industry would not like that!)
      I liked your idea of sending a card with a family photo. It marks the day but without requiring a “false” gesture.

  4. Angela on the 09. May, 2011 remarked #

    Alleluia and amen to this post. Thanks for sharing Donna. I completely agree with Stacy. I love celebrating holidays and people, but when the mood strikes, not just because someone says its time to celebrate. Someone always feels left out. Perhaps if it weren’t such a commercial day things would be better. I have a pretty good relationship with my mother but I still end up feeling coerced by the calendar. I usually don’t buy cards. Is it me or are they extremely expensive lately. The words are often not right. I usually paint a card or don’t send one at all. I like the family photo idea! I’ll use that for my father on father’s day.

    • admin on the 09. May, 2011 remarked #

      Coerced is the perfect word! This is especially difficult when your relationship is terrible and you feel as if you are the only one in the world struggling!

  5. Marilyn on the 11. May, 2011 remarked #

    Mother’s day is difficult for daughters who have mothers but don’t, I have struggled for the past 8 years that my mother has been in a convalescent home with Alzheimers. She doesn’t talk, walk, communicate in anyway and seems to be in her own world.

    I am so sad when I see her. I am always looking for my mother and never finding her. I am a daughter unable to care for my mother as I am looking for her to take care of me.

    I know the reality of the situtation is she is gone. I see no glimpses of my mother, no recognition of the essence of who my mother was.

    When your mother is dead you grieve and move on but how do you say goodbye when the are still here?

    • admin on the 11. May, 2011 remarked #

      Thank you for sharing this painful aspect of the Mother/Daughter relationship. I am sure many other daughters share your sadness and loss as they experience similiar situations.

  6. Isabel on the 11. May, 2011 remarked #

    Great article! Definitely gave me a differenet prespective on Mother’s Day, specially of those whose women/men whose mother’s are not around physically or mentally. Thank you for sharing….

  7. Jan on the 14. May, 2011 remarked #

    Donna, Thank you for expressing what I (like many other women without children, with less than perfect mother/child relationships and other non-June Cleaver examples of mothers) endure when Mothers’ Day rolls around. From the many store clerks, cashiers, and others who wish me a happy mothers’ day (sending a knife through my heart as I usually smile and say “thank you”) to the endless commercials showing mothers and children happily at play or in warm embraces (it is bad enough that these commercials are around, but they are ramped up in the weeks before M’s Day), to the restaurant blitzes and other constant reminders, I am always so relieved when another M’s Day is over.

    AM I romanticizing motherhood? Yes, surely. AM I failing to remember that M’s Day is just a commercialization of what you have reminded us was a wonderful intent gone the way of the “let’s-make-a-buck” Hallmark? Of course. AM I forgetting all the work I have done to deal with not having children? Yup. But it is hard to remember all this when a grinning 6-year-old is showing his smiling teary-eyed mother that he loves and appreciates her because he made her a peanut-butter sandwich too.

    The truth is that I will never “get over” not having a child, there will always be a “tug” when someone innocently wishes me a happy mothers’ day and I will always wonder what it would be like to have someone call me mom. I will always have to deal with this day in May. Thank you Donna for giving me another tool in my toolbox to cope.

    • admin on the 14. May, 2011 remarked #

      Thank you for bringing the perspective of the woman who doesn’t have children. While the person who wishes you a “Happy Mother’s Day” does not intend to hurt, by relying on stereotypical views of women and assuming you are a parent, their message often does just that.

  8. susan on the 14. Jun, 2011 remarked #

    Motherhood is definately seemingly akin to feminity. I lost my mother at age 11. wasnt allowed the grief process. Didn’t have the “training in feminity” that would have best been given by my mother. ( She was a divorced female of the 60’s ) I lived with an aunt and uncle that did their best. They did well. But they could not fill the empty place that belonged to Rose.
    My own child lost me through terrible parental battles. She gained a step mother, and I lost a daughter. 15 years later my daughter and I are reaching to fill and repair our losses toghter.
    Now this isn’t a sad story…because what happens in the shadowy years before light is the process of growth beyond understanding. Both myself and my daughter have a compassion and understanding of loss, suffering, and grief that most don’t. I have gained lots of wonderful mother’s along the way. So I have learned from those wonderful women how to be a mother, how to love, commit, nuture and focus on the real importance of life: Family. I didn’t like mother’s day either…now every mother’s day I can’t decide who NOT to send a card to! ( PS. I was a florist for half my adult life!) Thank God for every mother you now. Love yourself as who you determine to be… not what we are pre-determined to be by society. Go Forward in strength and courage that only a woman can give…know this is true femininity. This is our roles as women. We are all beautiful mother’s… whether we have our own children or nuture others. Have a beautiful woman’s day… Every Day!

  9. Mrs LaCons on the 02. May, 2012 remarked #

    I know this is late but I am SO GLAD I found this. I googled “How to deal with mothers day when you mother doesn’t speak to you”. This was the only thing remotely close to what i was looking for. after the first 3 or 4 pages full of warm n fuzzy website links of course. i really started feeling like i must be alone in this! Thank goodness Im not. My mother hasnt spoken to me in almost two months, ever since my husband and I married. we seem to go thru a 6 month cycle where we are good for 6 months, then something happens and we dont speak for the next 6 months. very draining on the soul esp during these “fake” holidays! just goes to show how shallow modern culture is that they think everyones relationships wiht their mothers is sunshine n roses.

  10. Sue on the 14. May, 2012 remarked #

    My mother would rather die than speak to me, because that is exactly what she did. Rising above her legacy is not confined to a Hallmark moment once a year; it is a constant struggle that occurs every minute of every day.

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