Mixed Feelings on Mother’s Day

May 7, 2015

Mother’s Day can evoke mixed feelings, for different reasons, at different times in the lives of moms and daughters. It is a holiday that seems to lack space for the full range of feelings that are engendered in family, especially mother relationships.

The mothers and daughters depicted on card racks this time of year seem idealized- their love stronger, their bond closer, their affection easier and their gratitude deeper than the majority of relationships. Is there truly enough space in this holiday for the disappointment or anger of an estranged or strained relationship? For the sadness of a daughter who has lost her mother? For the guilt when one person wants distance or independence while the other desires closeness?

When the mixed bag of feelings between a mother and daughter don’t measure up to the card shop standard of love and gratitude, there is a tendency toward judgment. “I’m a bad daughter.” Or “My mom is a bad mom.”

Can Mother’s Day be celebrated in a meaningful way even when there is sadness, anger, disappointment or guilt in the mix? Can it be approached without blame or shame?

Mother’s Day was delightfully simple when I was a child. A handmade card, daffodils plucked from the backyard and French toast in bed. The breakfast-in-bed ritual was a way of acknowledging my mother’s central role as nurturer in the family and at the same time, my growing identification with her. I loved making Mom breakfast in bed.

My freshman year in college, the year my father died, I made an extra effort to make Mother’s Day special. So often that year I thought “My poor mother! She’s lost her husband!” She needed all the special treatment I could give.

By the time I was 21, I was more in touch with the poor me that had lost my father. My college graduation coincided with Mother’s Day that year and I felt bereft that my father wasn’t there to see me graduate. I completely forgot about Mother’s Day and pressured my sister to let me share her gift for Mom so I wouldn’t look bad.

The period of late adolescence and early adulthood is often marked by a realigning of the relationship between parents and children. What was experienced as “normal” or “the only thing I knew” as a child is scrutinized and critiqued by the young adult as she strives for a sense of self that is separate from her family of origin. For me, the process of becoming my own person was complicated by my father’s death and my mother’s grief and depression. I struggled with the loss of my father’s support, and the realization of how much my mother relied on me to be stoic.

I came to a peaceful acceptance of my mother’s humanity through the experience of becoming a mom myself. Perhaps that is what prepared me for the longest and richest Mother’s Day of my life- the 33 days that I cared for my mother in my home as she was dying. Perhaps it is what enabled us to say three of the most important things two people can say to one another: Thank you. I’m sorry. I love you.

There IS enough room in Mother’s Day for a complex mixture of feelings. Approach the day with acceptance, authenticity and a commitment to stay connected. Here are some suggestions for creating space for your feelings this Mother’s Day.

If your relationship with your mother is strained:

  1. Acknowledge your feelings. Don’t try to banish them or label them as “bad”. Instead of judging or blaming yourself or your mom for the feelings you’re having, be curious about them. They hold the key to a greater understanding of yourself and your mother. You might even try sharing them with your mother.
  2. Respect your need for some distance. If your relationship with your mother has been unhealthy or if it is time for a different kind of relationship so that you both can grow, distance may be an important first step in working toward change.
  3. Strive to be both authentic and kind. Say what you mean in a compassionate way. And share something positive with your mom on Mother’s Day.
  4. Recognize the ways that you mother yourself. Nurturing yourself can help lessen hurts and disappointments.
  5. Seek help if you feel stuck. A therapist can help you explore your feelings and develop new ways of relating with your mother.


If you are grieving the loss of your mother:

  1. Honor the ways in which you are a mothering individual. Reflect on the gifts – lessons, characteristics, talents – you received from her.
  2. Acknowledge the “surrogate mothers” in your life. Thank the people who support you and let you know you are loved now.

  3. Do something to affirm your connection with your mother, even though she is gone. Did the two of you share interests? Bake the cake that she used to make. Plant something in your garden in her memory. Watch a movie you both might have enjoyed.

Dr. Sara Corse is a Staff Therapist at our University City office and the Director of our Community Partnerships Initiative. She is also the author of “Cradled All the While: The Unexpected Gifts of a Mother’s Death.”