THERAPY THOUGHTS: A complicated relationship with motherhood

One of my dearest friends from college married a wonderful man and together they had four children.  When their youngest was still an infant, their mother developed an aggressive form of cancer and passed away quickly. It was devastating for the entire family and for so many people who loved them- those kids never stopped missing their mother but Mother’s Day always felt especially challenging.  One year, when the kids were a bit older, they attended church with their dad on Mother’s Day.  A twelve year old boy from their congregation had been asked to speak- he opened his remarks reading a list of statistics he had found from questionable internet sources about the “dangers” of growing up in a home without a mother.  It was the pinnacle of a horrible Mother’s Day experience.  It was the last year any of them attended church on Mother’s Day opting for a fun family outing on that day instead from that time forward. 

I think about that little family and their terrible Mother’s Day experience every year.  

The reality is, Mother’s Day is complicated for so many of us.  Some of us have lost our mothers, others long to be mothers but struggle with infertility, some mothers have strained relationships with their children and some children have strained relationships with their mothers.  As a therapist for over 25 years, I can tell you that I have seen just about every imaginable complicated motherhood relationship walk through my door at one point or another.  No matter the reason this day feels hard, here are a few tips for how to navigate through it: 

1- Recognize that this is a sensitive touchpoint for you.  If you find yourself feeling triggered, depressed, anxious, or sad around Mother’s Day try and identify the reasons you are feeling this way.  Once you identify the reason, you can allow yourself to feel and process those emotions.  Sometimes it’s easy for us to get caught up in how we “should” feel and it doesn’t allow us to process what we are actually feeling.  Be radically honest with yourself to identify your own triggers so that you can begin to heal them.

2- If you have a challenging relationship with your mother, focus on what you can control.  Remember that the way we treat others is a reflection of ourselves and not a reflection on them. One of the hardest things in life is learning to treat someone respectfully even when we don’t respect them. Make sure you have clear boundaries in place to protect yourself. Remember that Mother’s Day is an opportunity to celebrate all women who helped shape you into the person you are today- and that includes your mom (even if all she did was teach you what not to do, celebrate that you have navigated through the adversity).

3- Understand your limits and set clear boundaries.  For my friends who have complicated relationships to motherhood know your limits on this day.  Maybe you send a card in the mail but avoid an in-person visit.  Maybe you (like my friends who I shared about in this post) take this Sunday off of church attendance.  Maybe you need to be proactive in setting up something fun to do on this day with people who support you.  Maybe you need to log off social media for the weekend.  Whatever the case may be, set up your boundaries ahead of time and make a plan. Having a plan (and a support network) in place ahead of time will help the day go smoother and alleviate anxiety. 

4- Finally, be gentle.  This advice goes for people who have complicated relationships with this day and perhaps more importantly for people who don’t.  Do you hate Mother’s Day?  That’s fine, be gentle with yourself.  Do you love Mother’s Day?  That’s great too- but please be kind in acknowledging that this day is hard for many people.  Find ways to celebrate that include those who might be having a hard time (or at the very least, don’t alienate them).  Send a little note to the widow on your street, call up your aunt who has a strained relationship with her own kids, check on your friends who have lost their moms, send a treat to your friend who is going through IVF. Look around your own social circles and look for opportunities to lift others up.

As we celebrate all of our moms this Mother’s Day, let’s also take the opportunity to celebrate all the women who have shaped us into who we are today (because women kick ass… and that includes you too).


- Mary Lou Wise, LCSW