It’s Mother’s Day again. I know because my Facebook page has been filling up with sweet photos of friends’ moms and heart-felt memes encouraging everyone to appreciate theirs while they still have them. Seeing those sentiments makes me happy for those whose mothers deserve recognition, but it also reminds me that not everyone is as fortunate. So, I’d like to offer a word for those who could never honestly make these posts; who feel the need to fall silent so others may enjoy the day.
Here’s the dilemma:
The ideal mother is a joyful, caring, self-sacrificing, loving being whose greatest desire is to nurture and protect her offspring. In reality, a mother is someone who does her best to manage a household of cranky children, endless meal prep, piles of dirty everything and still try to have a personal life and likely also a job. But on Mother’s Day, and many other days as well, her child still views her as closer to the ideal. Why? Because the child’s love for her bridges the gap.
But then there are those “mothers” whose gap is so wide the Chesapeake Bay Bridge couldn’t connect them to the ideal. As a Navy chaplain, I’ve had a steady diet of their stories, since one of the quickest ways to escape a brutal childhood is to join the military. Some accounts were so awful that it would make me wonder how their now adult child lived long enough to be sitting across from me. Yet even that person would likely hedge on saying their mother was completely to blame. Why? Because something inside told them it was their job to close the gap. Even if their mother cooked meth in the bathtub, shot their sister, was perpetually under the influence, beat, abused, and neglected her children, brought home a continuous line of unstable men, abandoned the family, maxed the credit cards she took out in their name or put Satanic spells on them. Somehow, it was partially their fault.
“If only I were a better daughter, things would be different.”
“I know I am supposed to honor my mother, but how do I do that when she is so neglectful and mean?”
“I hate holidays. All they are is another opportunity to be abused. But my mom says she wants me to come home. Do I have to go?”
“My mother doesn’t work because she can’t pass a drug test. She says if I don’t continue to send my paycheck to her, my siblings will starve. I need to keep some money to live on, but I don’t want to hurt my brothers.”
“What do I owe my mother despite how she’s treated me?”
These painful laments were difficult to hear and often I would drive home telling my windshield what level of harm I wanted to inflict on said “mother” just to get it out of my system. So imagine what the annual arrival of a day to celebrate mothers does to those who’ve suffered through childhood with them. Since rage is not a fit sentiment for a greeting card, silence is all that’s left. But that loud silence also deserves guidance. So, here are a few of my responses that have passed the scrutiny of those who have endured these kinds of mothers, in case one or two might be helpful to someone you know:
- You don’t get a free pass in life because you had a crappy childhood. You are still responsible for who you become. Even if your mother was raised in a tough situation, that does not mean she is justified passing it on to you. The same goes for you. Fix what’s broken. Let her be the end of the line for negative and addictive behavior.
- In a parent-child relationship, the parent is the responsible party. Even if your mother wants to “identify as a child” and acts like one, that doesn’t make it so. You are not to blame for being too young to be the adult you both needed.
- A child’s love is not enough to turn a woman with criminal tendencies into something she is not.
- You don’t get extra points in life for suffering or making those around you suffer. If you are psychologically unwell because of your experiences, see a counselor and take meds, if necessary.
- Take stock of what you learned: Practical household skills out of necessity? How to be self-sufficient at an early age? The perspective that comes from really seeing where addiction or untreated mental illness leads? You are stronger in many ways because of your difficulties.
- You can still believe in the Hallmark card ideal of motherhood, even if your mother didn’t fulfill it. Just know that an ideal is a concept of perfection, a guide toward becoming more excellent, not an achievable end state.
- People are not all one thing. Your mother could have been the vilest creature imaginable and still have done a few good things worth remembering.
- All adult relationships are voluntary, even the one we have with our mother. If yours is toxic, stay away. If there’s any chance for a future relationship, it will be more possible if it has not been poisoned by continual negative interactions.
- The best way to honor your mother is to become the best version of yourself, the one she would have wanted for you if she had been able to do so. This is not something you owe your mother. This is what you owe yourself and the world around you.
As Mother’s Day approaches this year, if your own mother is more worthy of a “pink slip” than a greeting card, let her go. It’s just another day on the calendar. But if you are brave, try to find a way to “rejoice with those who rejoice”. Honoring those who do their best to nurture the family, who cherish children and see that role as essential, is good for us all.
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