Mothers’ Day mourning

Mothers’ Day tastes of grief, to me.

I went to a teeny rural school. The other kids came from conservative families, traditional, married parents in stereotypical gender roles. My family was likewise conservative but there was one stark difference: my parents were divorced and I did not have — at least visibly, for the purposes of tuckshop duty and sports day cheering or even braiding my hair — a ‘real’ mother. I was teased for it.

Ours was a thrown-together family; my stepmother and father married suddenly when I was barely five years old and it never really felt like she fit into a maternal-shaped space in my life. So each year when we crafted glittery cards and picked chrysanthemums from the school garden for our mummies in that first week of May there was a hollowness in it, for me. Not that I didn’t love and appreciate the woman who fed and clothed me and administered band-aids; of course I did. But it was ambivalent love.

A wounded child needs her love to be unflinchingly returned. That is what we mean by the unconditional love of good mothers: it is not just that they love but that they know and accept children in all their faltering fragility, and that they know, most of all, that affection offered however ungracefully by a child is not a thing you should swat away. I saw my stepmother extend openness and warmth to her biological children but not to me, and that is how I learned to feel a little bitter about the chrysanthemums. (It was only recently when I saw how my own daughter was embraced by my partner in a starkly different way — different because my partner is consistently open and kind and loving with Bean — that I understood more fully the pithy root of that bitterness.)

When I was a child pretending to be normal at school, making a Mothers’ Day card was not optional. Ambivalence was not tolerated. Compounding the hurt was the failure of those around me to acknowledge that I had suffered any meaningful loss. My biological mother had wrenched herself from having a permanent presence in my life with such brutal surprise that there had never been time, or permission, to grieve. Everyone around us had rallied behind my father; they had pitied him in his imprudent first marriage and I grew up with the implicit knowledge that my dad was a good person and therefore my mother must have, somehow, been bad. I was not meant to cry over a bad person.

It’s not so simple. If she was, is, anything, it’s closer to broken than bad.

As an adult I became more cynical about Mothers’ Day. It’s a commercial invention. It makes money from the perpetuation of the myth of the perfect mother and the infuriating pinkification of everything. If you watch the TV commercials, it’s apparently about receiving slippers and nightgowns — or worse, domestic appliances — as if they magically compensate for being the designated toilet-cleaner for most of one’s life.

Of course, there are families for whom Mothers’ Day is an opportunity for genuine expressions of love; the kind that could come on any day but so often get lost in the rush. These are families I have struggled not to envy, pushing down the unbearable feeling of missing-out with critique and yes, cynicism.

It’s a hard day for a lot of women, certainly for anyone coping with infertility or pregnancy loss. When I desperately wanted a baby and was facing month after month of negative pregnancy tests, Mothers’ Day ads with images of fresh-faced children offering burnt-toast breakfasts in bed had me sobbing. It pretty much felt like a conspiracy designed to torment people like me: not only motherless, or childless, but both.

I guess I thought that a baby of my own would anesthetise me against the pain of past Sundays in May. And don’t mistake my meaning: Bean and the day she was born and everything about her is my Best Thing. Mothers’ Day gifts and cuddles are blessings like gifts and cuddles on any day are. And tomorrow I will steal a little of her weekend with her dad to smoosh her to my chest and catch a bit of joy.

But the joy of mothering, though healing, cannot really compensate for motherlessness.

I have a maternal shadow over my life: shadow, because it is absence more than presence that causes the greatest pain (although both of my mothers have inflicted pain more directly, too). It is hard to write about this loss, about the way it seeps into everything, the way it never fully recedes, without sounding ungrateful for the blessings I do have. It is difficult to admit the depth of my pain without seeming melodramatic. But I persist in trying to express it because I know there are others feeling it too.

On social media at this time of year, we motherless women huddle together in a wary kind of sisterhood.

I wish there more spaces for us to carve out alternative narratives to counter the nauseating Hallmark celebration of mundane maternal stereotypes. And mostly I wish there was safe harbour for those of us who find the bombardment of reminders of what we lost, or never had, particularly cruel. I am thinking of the abused and abandoned, the aching and bereaved. I am thinking of the lonely and bitter and grief-stricken ones. Lost girls. Adult orphans. Cast-offs from a would-be chain of maternal inheritance.

Solidarity, sisters.

15 Comments

Filed under Feminism, mental illness, Motherhood and Parenting

15 responses to “Mothers’ Day mourning

  1. I hated making those cards, I never knew what to do with them – my mother died when I was seven – I gave them to my dad with embarrasment. He was a kind man failing at filling the void.

    I can’t tell you how much I love it when one of your blog posts lands in my email account. You give a voice to what I am feeling, to what I remember. Thank you.

  2. Jess64

    I have no history with mother’s day. I had that “normal” family, I now have two girls. And still I approach mother’s day with caution. I had being told today is the day to appreciate mothers. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences, like the person above I’m always so excited when one of your posts comes up in my feed.

  3. Oh Liz. I just want to hug you so much. While I came from a broken home, parents finally separating when I was 14 after years of acrimony, I sided with my mother. Largely because my father was, and remains, an utter bastard. Oh he loves us, but he has no idea on how to treat people.

    Twice now I have been prepared to say goodbye to my mum (major surgery for her) and once she attempted suicide. So every day is a bonus.

    But my loss of my father, of a real father, lets me see just a little glimpse of where you are coming from. My father-in-law, however, he is the man I would have loved to be my real dad. Loving, open, inclusive.

    Your pain is so eloquently expressed in this post, and I still just want to hold you, to take some of that pain away. I am sorry I haven’t chatted more over the last year. I shall try to change that.

    Much love to you all, the best of mothers.

  4. JE

    Wonderful sharing! I will work 8 or 9 hours tomorrow making sure a plethora of pink and black themed confections pass muster for the wealthy country club bitches, yet another Mother’s Day away from my 2 kids, corporate slavery. Around 3pm I will drive an hour with my children to spend some time with the abusive, bitter, nasty lady that adopted me 45 years ago. Oh, she taught me well the loyalty to my Mother routine. I prayed for my parents to divorce! Please let me live with you, Dad! He died in a single car wreck when I was 18. This year marks the second Mother’s Day of finding my birthmom. All hope hung on finding someone who gave me away. She was perfect! Beautiful, happy, successful! And no communication for 4 months! Tonight, I am taught by two women how to not be a good Mom. I practice peace, honesty, acceptance, love, and best of all-communication! Quality time! I try to listen and love! I had a great Dad for a short time. I miss him on Mother’s Day! I, too, feel lost and angry and cast off! Love my kids and vow to break this curse! Thanks for letting me vent.

  5. For me, this has been the first mothers day since my mother died almost eight years ago that I have not cried. Having a daughter who is old enough to make me a card and give me a present has been very healing. I really appreciate those women who ran a mothers day stall at her school, potted plants and made biscuits. It has helped me appreciate the present.

    • *hugs*
      It is lovely to get those hand-made cards.
      I found last year easier than this year, because at least then I had someone to call. Now that my stepmother has made it abundantly clear that she will not be even nominally here for me, it’s added salt to old wounds.
      But I have hope for next year.

  6. I wish I could mother that little girl that you were.

  7. Pingback: A Childless Mother, Is still A Mother. Though her arms may be empty… her heart never will. | seventhvoice

  8. Solidarity.

    Your writing has, over multiple mothers’ days and normal, painful-for-no-reason days, really helped me. Helped me to think about these things, and my own wounds, and comforted me that I am not alone. This mothers’ day I feel less hurt, less alone, less broken. Still broken, and I guess I always will be. But also aware of those others around me who are broken or damaged and yet manage to be incredible people who I stand in awe of. I no longer feel quite so sure that I am unloveable and selfish and worthless, like my mother made me feel. I have women in my life who are not mothering me, but who are there for me and give me some of those things, and who help me to mother myself.

    Here’s to solidarity and to what healing we can find in each other.

  9. I’m sorry that Mother’s Day is so bittersweet for you. Those days with your stepmum would have been hard, when you saw how differently she treated her biological kids.

    My Mother’s Day has always been about handmade gifts and flowers for my mum and my kids continue that tradition. The only thing I find hard is the absence of a partner to help the kids make Mother’s Day special. I don’t get spoilt on Mother’s Day, it’s just another day, but with presents. Thank goodness for Mother’s Day stalls at school.

  10. Sukie

    You have completely summed up my feelings about the day (and many other “commercial” days). I am fortunate to have a mother, but my father died when I was 8 and was immediately replaced by a stepfather who was a very difficult person. In addition, I am childless on purpose, so the day is even more hollow, since I don’t get to “celebrate” my little human creations…nevermind all of the other things I have nurtured and created in this life. These sorts of days are so narrowly conceived. Yes, we need new models of celebration all the way around the year. Thank you.

  11. Love this post! Thank you for sharing

  12. Really well-written and sad piece – those ‘Hallmark’ days really do have a way of making people feel lonely and isolated.

    My ‘dread day’ is Christmas. I know it isn’t true that every single other person on earth at Christmas is having happy happy joy joy funtimes pulling crackers and eating turkey. Some people don’t have any family at all. There are feuds, and drunken fights, and hurtful words and resentments and stress. But of course, that’s never talked about. All we see are the images and messages of perfect families.

    The talk of a ‘shadow’ over your life when you’re missing someone or something on one of these days rings true. The way I get through it is the concept of ‘the family I choose’. Yes, I am missing key people in my life. Nobody can ever take their places. But I can choose to surround myself on these occasions with others who love and appreciate me, and that draws out a lot of the pain.

    I’m glad you’ve found people to ‘huddle’ with through the tough times too. I hope in time there will be more awareness and happenings and narratives for you too.

  13. Pingback: I Missed My Window | anonymous real thoughts

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