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When You Didn’t Get the Mother You Deserved

roseFor some of my adult clients, Mother’s Day is painful.  That’s because they are surrounded by exhortations to tell their mothers how much they love her.  But what if they don’t feel that?  What if they missed out on the kind of mother they deserved?

I’m assuming that if you’re reading this, you’ve had similar feelings.  Perhaps your mother was absent, or neglectful, or abusive, or narcissistic.  Maybe she’s in your life, maybe you’ve had to cut her out in order to thrive.

Here are some suggestions for handling those painful feelings.

1)  Acknowledge them.

That’s the first step.  Be aware that if you’re feeling something, there’s a reason for it.  Your feelings have legitimacy, even if (especially if) your mother failed to recognize that.

2)  Allow yourself space to grieve.

It’s okay to feel sad.  It’s okay to feel angry.  Anniversaries and holidays tend to bring grief to the surface, and Mother’s Day may remind you of what you didn’t experience.  You’ll see other people out for their brunches and picnics in the park and you’ll wish you’d had what they did.  Again, all legitimate.

3)  Make a plan for what to do with the day.

Anticipate that you may have a hard time.  Think about what would be most comforting to you.  Maybe it’s planning a romantic day with your spouse, something that has nothing at all to do with parents and everything to do with being an adult yourself.  Maybe it’s celebrating with your own family in a way that’s extremely different from how it would have been done in your family of origin.  Or maybe it’s laying low and pretending it’s not Mother’s Day at all.

4)  If you are going to have interactions with your mother, plan that carefully, too.

You’re entitled to your boundaries.  If your mother is hard to enforce boundaries with, then maybe bring your partner or a friend who can help you do it.  Someone can text you at a prearranged time and you can say, “I have to go now.”  Yes, it’s her “special day” but special has its limits.  You need to have yours.

5)  If Mother’s Day is intensely difficult for you and the feelings linger for days or weeks afterward, it might be a sign that you have a lot of unresolved material that needs processing.

This doesn’t always mean therapy.  It could involve journal writing, art, meditation, exercise, self-help books, long walks… But realize that you need more than you’ve been giving yourself.  You might have wanted to leave your mom behind, but sometimes our parents won’t stay where we put them.

There’s a great therapy quote (forgive me if I’ve used it before, I love this one!) where a client asks a therapist, “How come my parents can still push all my buttons?”, and the therapist responds, “They installed the buttons.”

This stuff runs deep.  Be kind to yourself.

Rose image available from Shutterstock.

When You Didn’t Get the Mother You Deserved

Holly Brown, LMFT

Holly Brown is a marriage and family therapist in the San Francisco Bay area. She has a private practice in Alameda ( ). She is also a novelist ( Her latest is HOW FAR SHE'S COME, a workplace thriller which received a starred review from Publisher's Weekly: "This provocative tale will resonate with many in the era of the #MeToo movement."

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APA Reference
Brown, H. (2014). When You Didn’t Get the Mother You Deserved. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 5, 2020, from


Last updated: 12 May 2014
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