As we inch toward that second Sunday in May, my email and Facebook feeds fill up equally with ads touting “5 Ways to Celebrate The Best Mom EVER,” and messages from unloved daughters. This holiday—perfect for selling flowers, mugs, keepsakes, and greeting cards encrusted with roses and happy thoughts—is also one that’s uniquely painful for those daughters who lacked their mothers’ love, affection, and support and, even worse, may have endured their constant criticism and disparagement.
“Ugh,” wrote one daughter, “I wish I could go to sleep on Saturday and wake up on Monday. That’s how much I hate it.” Another commented, “The second-worst day of the year for me, the other two being Christmas and her birthday. I never know what to do—whether to act on my true feelings and send nothing or play the game and send whatever betrays me the least. After all, they don’t have cards that say, ‘Thanks for nothing.’”
Why is that this faux holiday—created by an overzealous and pious daughter who later came to hate it for its commercialism—gets under an unloved daughter’s skin? In part, it’s the tsunami of images and sentiments proclaiming that all mothers are loving by definition that throws the unloved daughter’s feelings of hurt into high relief. It’s no easier for the unloved son, by the way. But that’s not the only reason.
1.It makes her feel isolated and singled out—once again
Keep in mind that a daughter continues to need and want her mother’s love even as it’s denied to her—it’s part of her hard-wiring—and that creates a terrible internal conflict. Thanks to the taboos pertaining to criticizing the person who gave you life (or, in the case of adoption, opportunity), the daughter will be loathe to discuss her feelings and experiences with anyone; if she does, she’s likely to be told she’s creating drama or exaggerating. All of this contributes to the daughter’s belief that she’s the only girl on the planet whose mother doesn’t love her, which begins in childhood but that often lasts long into adulthood. In fact, it’s only the Internet age that has ushered in the wider discovery that there are many unloved daughters out there.
But still, Mother’s Day—with all those cards, bouquets, those mother-daughter pairs walking arm in arm and going to brunch together—makes the adult daughter feel it all, up close and personal, once more. There she is again, the daughter left out, banished from the magic circle where someone loves you without conditions. It’s no wonder that it hurts.
2. It re-awakens her worry that she’s flawed and unworthy
Even with therapy, the legacies of childhood that are hardest to shake off are the internalized self-criticism bequeathed by an unloving, detached, or hypercritical mother, and the difficulty of feeling true self-compassion. During childhood and usually into early adulthood, unloved daughters still desperately want to win their mothers’ love; when it comes to blaming someone for the lack of it, the daughter usually defaults to believing she’s the problem. The holiday may act as a trigger for some women, as one daughter recounted: “I still dislike Mother’s Day, even though my mom died a few years ago and it’s me that my kids want to shower with attention. It makes me very uncomfortable, like my birthday does. I’d guess it’s the whole feeling undeserving/unworthy business.”
Daughters who have gone “no contact” with their mothers say that the holiday puts the spotlight on them in unwanted ways, as this one did: “All my colleagues and acquaintances ask me what I’m going to do for that Sunday and it makes me squirm. People change their opinion of you if you tell them you cut your mother out of your life—this I know for sure—and I end up waffling which makes me uncomfortable too, but I don’t want people to think less of me.“
I know from personal experience that sharing your story—especially with people you don’t know well, or strangers such as doctors who ask about your mother’s medical history and you have no idea—can pack a punch to their opinion of you and to the encounter. As a rule, society judges the daughter unsparingly; after all, what kind of ingrate doesn’t fete her mother on Mother’s Day?
3. It brings up drama, trauma, and pain
For daughters who have chosen to maintain contact with their mothers, the day presents a different kind of dread. “It’s the lion’s den,” says Barbara, “I know it but knowing it doesn’t make it any easier. I make all sorts of resolutions about how I’m going to handle her and be less reactive, but I never quite manage.” It can help to anticipate your reactions and set firm boundaries ahead of time such as choosing not to engage, keeping the visit short, and getting your emotions under control, but it may not always work. “This holiday sends me into a tizzy,” Jennifer messages me. “I don’t really have to courage not to see her because I feel the pressure to act dutiful. Yet it makes me miserable. I just don’t know what to do, and at age 42, that’s discouraging, don’t you think?”
The other problem is that the day and your mother’s behavior may trigger old feelings and recall. My mother died more than fifteen years ago and I hadn’t seen her for more than a decade before that, but I vividly remember buying her Mother’s Day gifts as a little girl, each of which was always returned to the store. Worse, I remember her tossing my handmade cards out into the trash along with the wrapping paper. Does it surprise anyone that as a mother, I hold onto every card and note my daughter gives me?
4. It’s a day of mourning
All unloved daughters feel a keen sense of loss, and while it may seem counter intuitive, the final stage of conscious awareness involves mourning the mother you needed, wanted, and deserved. You need to have shucked off self-blame and have acquired self-compassion for that little lost girl you once were to actively engage in mourning.
As my own daughter celebrates me, I’ll be mourning the mother I never had and richly deserved. Not for long, though. I’m giving it five minutes. Oh, and the photo? That’s a sun-faded drawing my daughter made when she was just under seven, depicting how I felt when she was born. Spot on!