Mother’s Day has always been a difficult day for me. Throughout my life I would see friends, TV characters, neighbors, movie scripts and advertisements create a picture of what a mother/daughter relationship was “supposed” to look like. The image I had formed in my head was of a mother who was nurturing, caring and selfless – a mother who you adored. She did the cooking and cleaning and helped the children with homework all while having a smile on her face and a twinkle in her eye and balancing a career. This is what I thought a mother was supposed to be – this June Cleaver type, always serving others and being kind and caring with a perfectly crafted meal on the dinner table each evening.
As I grew older, the images changed but the premise remained the same – the mother/daughter bond is supposed to be close, caring and unbreakable – even more so than other familial relationships. You obviously and undoubtedly trust your mother to parent you into adulthood in a loving and kind way, right?
So why didn’t I have that “perfect” relationship and bond with my mom? Where was the twinkle in her eye? Why was she mean to me sometimes? Why was she always upset? Why do I feel like I am not good enough for her? Isn’t she supposed to take care of me? Isn’t she supposed to be nice to me all the time? I don’t understand why my friends are so excited for Mother’s Day. Why do I feel like I have to do something nice for my mom but I don’t want to? Why don’t I feel about my mom the way I am “supposed” to? These were my childhood thoughts and it was unsettling.
When I was about 12 years old, my mom told me that she suffered from deep and chronic depression. She was sad and she was hurting. Mom was different and so I had to be nice to her so she wouldn’t get mad; because if she got mad, things would be more difficult. That is what I came to understand as a child. It was my responsibility to be the grown up.
As I grew up and eventually moved away from home, I was angry about this. Angry that what I was told she was supposed to be from my life experience growing up in a society that places so much emphasis on the mother/daughter bond is different from what I experienced. What about when that bond is broken? Or betrayed? Or complicated, at least?
My mom was not a bad person. My mom was a person who suffered from bipolar disorder and depression. My mom worked incredibly hard to be the best that she could be with the tools and the emotional capacity that she had. I didn’t understand that until she died three years ago. I never had the chance to have a conversation with her about how difficult her life was because I was too angry at not having the mom that I thought I was supposed to have.
I was angry at Mother’s Day because it always reminded me that I could not adequately celebrate my mom or our bond. I was hurt by all of this. I was hurt by her. I was hurt by my misunderstanding of her. I was hurt by the societal norms that created expectations of how I thought I should feel about my mom. I was struggling with what to do about my anger because I didn’t want to be angry and I was confused. Every year, when the beginning of May comes around, and the Mother’s Day balloons and flowers and signs and commercials come out, I am faced with what to do, time and time again, even after she’s gone.
What I have come to realize is that Mother’s Day can be redefined. It can be a reminder for me that my mom did what she could. I am stronger because of her and our complicated relationship. Her mental illness taught me so much about having compassion and empathy for others and their experiences. It taught me to have more compassion for myself.
Mother’s Day is a complicated holiday for many. It is complicated for me. What I am choosing to focus on this year and for years to come is that I can change how I look at Mother’s Day and at the memory of my mom. I can focus on remembering my mom as she was: a complicated woman who had a big heart and wanted to be able to show others that she truly cared for them. She simply did not know how because she was in constant pain. Ultimately, I can focus on who I have become because of my mom. I can focus on pride and empathy for myself, focus on being proud of who I am. I think she is proud, too.