What of Mother’s Day with less-than-ideal mothers?

Deeper considerations on motherhood.

Picture 123Of course no mother is perfect, but some mothers are far from the kind of mother a child yearns for. Family celebrations, like Mother’s Day, birthdays and Christmas or other religious festivals, can be painful when relationships are rocky, when love is ambiguous, when one feels love but not liking, or no love at all, but we still feel duty-bound to celebrate that day.
How can we then feel authentic in celebrating Mother’s Day? How does one greet one’s mother with true heart-warmth when they have been lacking in understanding or let bad things happen to us or have been thoughtless, even cruel in one’s own childhood? Or when they still try to interfere, control, manipulate, even bully us, even as adults with families? Sadly too, sometimes in old age, (when parents need us more intensively) failing strength, decrepitude and dementia can also make them more self-centred (even narcissistic) and unpredictably tyrannical, especially towards the very daughters who do the most for them.

There is a strategy that can help bring healing and more heart’s ease into this, though it is not easy and is not always successful outwardly. This strategy follows a simple rule: Find gratitude for their gifts and compassion for their weaknesses. It is a strategy we can choose to use when dealing with anyone we have difficulties with, one that keeps understanding and positivity as priorities and helps to keep reactiveness, blame and prejudice at a minimum. It helps too, when we ourselves are the target of our own criticism—when we feel that we ourselves are less than ideal mothers and perhaps undeserving of accepting the love that is offered to us on Mother’s Day. Here too we must also find recognition and acknowledgement of all we do right in caring for our children, and find compassion for ourselves, when we act in ways even we do not like. Life can be hard. We are not perfect. What is important is that we are striving to be better and we are willing to try to heal the hurts we cause in our children. (Apologising is a good start and it is never too late for that.)

Gratitude for their (our) gifts and compassion for their (our) weaknesses.

One further comment is needed before elaborating on this strategy. It is always helpful if you can stand centred and clear about what is unacceptable behaviour in your family and your life—such unacceptable behaviour may be manipulative, bullying, disrespectful, unkind— then you can also be clearer on whether you wish to diplomatically discuss unacceptable behaviour in others or withdraw and avoid it altogether. (This latter can be a wise option where denial, blame, deep neurosis, mental illness or drug use is present in the offending person). Taking your family away at times of family celebrations can sometimes break the patterns of other’s expectations of you. Sometimes the focus has to be on healthy communication within your own family and removing yourself from the negative behaviour of extended family may be necessary in order to do this. After all, children need protection from manipulative behaviour or negative messages from other family members.

Gratitude and invisible mothering

Much of what mothers do is invisible. There is always a huge amount for which to be grateful to mothers. I saw a cartoon once about a mother who went out for the day, leaving her small children with the father. It showed the father and the children meeting the mother at the door when she got back. Behind them was chaos, toys, everything in disarray. The caption said: “You know how you always ask me what I do all day…”

Because the tasks of caring, (but mothering especially), involve preparing the space for good things to happen, organizing, ordering, maintaining, watching over, we often only notice these things when they are NOT done. Caring also involves being awake enough to prevent bad things from happening, being ready to ‘nip things in the bud’; separating siblings when they are too tired to learn constructively from disagreement; observing the grumpy tiredness which can precede illness; making the environment safe for young children to play freely, without constant admonitions; thinking ahead to meet nutritional needs with healthy snacks; putting children down to sleep before they get over-active from tiredness. Nearly all mothers, whatever their faults, try to do this, some more successfully than others, but often at their own expense, working very long hours when they are tired, exhausted, pregnant, working outside home as well, and so on. Worldwide research shows that women work longer hours than men in caring and housework even when they are in full time paid work. We need to acknowledge this in our mothers.

This is invisible mothering which often goes unnoticed and unappreciated. We should really call it parenting, because many dads, especially single dads have to do it too. But this is about Mother’s Day so bear with us, fathers. This invisible organization is a skill which takes time to learn, something perhaps women, often with more skill in multi-tasking, find easier than men. But it is something which needs acknowledgement and appreciation, not just on Mother’s Day but all year through. When we show our appreciation for all these small everyday tasks, visible and invisible, that parents and other family members do, we teach our children about gratitude. We model appreciation and forestall the “entitlement responses” which sadly plague so many children today. Gratitude and the expression of appreciation then becomes part of what we value in the family, of how we live together in community. And of course insults, put-downs, derogatory remarks and constant criticism cannot be part of such a value base, which makes such things unacceptable, always.

Mother’s Day gives us a chance to review how well we are acknowledging and showing appreciation for all that the mothers in our lives do. This may need a little help from us to open the children’s eyes to all their mother does and to think about ways to spoil her on this day and more often. We can encourage them to make the effort to take on some of a mother’s tasks for the day and do them for her instead. Bought gifts especially may need more thought: that the gifts we give are not just another way of making sure mother serves us better! If the household needs a new iron or toaster, then get it for the household, not for mother on Mother’s Day. Find something for her which she otherwise would not get for herself or make her something which can then be filled with our love for her in our effort. Perhaps all this should also remind us to be grateful for, and not take for granted, all the work grandparents do in the care of children too these days.

The not-so-perfect parent in us needs this acknowledgement all the more too. Appreciation makes all but the most narcissistic person do better. For the struggling, overworked parent, gratitude can be food for their soul, in doing what seems an often endless list of tasks each day.

Not-so-perfect mothering and compassion

Mothers are not perfect. Sometimes they may be their ‘best selves’  and then we love them, but sometimes they may succumb to being their ‘worst selves’, perhaps after sleepless nights, during illness, after taking on too much and so on. Looking back, I have to admit that I would be my ‘worst self’ in that time pre-menstrually—it would be then I would feel everything I was doing, while trying to be a good mother to four children, was too much and I would over-react to something trivial which had become ‘the last straw’ on my over-burdened back. Research is showing that due to hormonal changes within the menstrual cycle there are times when woman willingly take on and can cope with many more challenges than they can later cope with at other times. Women need encouragement and support to do less and take care of themselves better at times when their energy is lower. This needs true understanding and support, not jokes or rude comments, if we are to support women’s well-being and educate our girls to know their bodies better and look after themselves with respect.

Sometimes women act chronically as their ‘worst selves’; it may be that they are ill, completely exhausted, suffering abuse or mental illness, or resorting to alcohol or other drugs as a way of coping. Sometimes mothers stand back and allow a father to be his ‘worst self’ regardless of the effect on the children.

For those who as children suffered frequent misunderstandings, neglect, even abuse, it can be painful to reconcile our mixed feelings when Mother’s Day creates inner conflict in us. Perhaps one can say “I love you” but not that “I like you or what you did.” Here we can only try to work with gratitude and compassion. Can we appreciate them anew with more understanding hearts for all they did do, even when we feel disappointment for what they did not do, perhaps could not do? Can we appreciate that they may have done the best they could within their circumstances? Can we value what they gave us even by default, even by negative experiences from which we nevertheless learned? Can we see that they were women of their time, greatly disadvantaged by their gender—sexually, financially, socially, politically, educationally? They did not have the same choices some of us have today, but probably the majority of women in our world still do not have. Can we bring more understanding hearts to review our childhood disappointments and hurts? Can we get to know our mother better by looking at her biography with compassion, at our own childhood with deeper understanding and appreciation so that Mother’s Day can be a fuller expression of our gratitude?  Can we ultimately understand them for what they did or did not do and let go of blame so that our unresolved hurts do not get taken into the next generation?

There is something biographical that works into this. In considering our own mothers, it is also interesting to consider the gifts and problems that come to us through our mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers. For this we must know something about their biographies, our family history. Are there qualities socially, culturally, genetically which we can identify that we have benefited from in our own lives—quiet courage, compassion, artistic or intellectual giftedness, independence, and so on, that come to us through our mother’s line? There are also tragedies which get passed down from one generation to the next. Can we stop it at ours? Another place for acknowledgement, compassion and gratitude.

What we teach our children on Mother’s Day is about not just love and gratitude, but also understanding, compassion and forgiveness.

See also the blog Authenticity in Mothers Day for some thoughts on working with our children.