When Mother's Day Is Hard

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Most of us would confess that we take good things for granted, including our mothers. That is why, in spite of any shortcoming the tradition may hold, it is a good thing for there to be one day to remind us to do what we should do every day--show appreciation, love, and respect for our mothers. It brings joy, as past memories are recalled and the way is paved for closer relationships in the future. Houses of worship are packed on Mother's Day; in fact, for churches, only Christmas and Easter have larger attendance.

Yet there is a silent, mostly forgotten group of people--consisting of our neighbors, co-workers, friends, and even family members. They have in common a secret: Mother's Day is a terrible time for them.

Opal had waited until the church was empty. "Pastor," she said with tears in her eyes, "I'm sorry, but I won't be able to be in church next Sunday. It's Mother's Day--and it is just too emotionally charged."

Opal was one of the best-adjusted persons I knew. She was an educator, highly regarded in her field. "I had one child, a daughter, who died from cancer," Opal explained. "You never, ever get over the loss of a child. I have learned to cope quite well, except on Mother's Day, when the emptiness steals in and almost overwhelms me."

This conversation happened several decades ago, and since then I've become aware of many reasons that Mother's Day is hard for so many.

For example, the loss of a mother will dredge up deep feelings on Mother's Day, especially if the loss came during a child's formative years. But the death of a mother at any age can be difficult, especially for those who were either very close to their mothers or those who had unhappy, unresolved issues with the parent they lost.

Children who live with a stepmother can also find the day hard. Should their first loyalty be to their birth mother or to the one with whom they are living? When Linda was young, her mother died. Now that she is living with her father and stepmother, she dreads Mother's Day. "At church, they pass out flowers," Linda explains. "We are to take a red flower if our mother is alive or a white flower if she is dead. I never know which to take." Her quandary lies deeper than the choice of flowers. It also has to do with conflicting loyalties.

Motherhood is sometimes so glorified that the implied message is that women without children have missed out on the most fulfilling and important part of life. And all of us know of couples who are trying to conceive or who await adoption, and the ache caused by the empty cradle.

And over the years, I've found another, perhaps even more unexpected group for whom Mother's Day is often difficult: mothers! It seems even the best of mothers have times around Mother's Day when she has to wrestle with guilt feelings. The sentiments of so many greeting cards are so idealistic that no one could live up to the expectations. Clubs, organizations, churches, and mother-daughter events often include in their program quotations that almost canonize mothers. A favorite is, "God could not be everywhere, so he created mothers." What a lovely sentiment--but what mother can fill the place of God?

Yes, Mother's Day is difficult for many, but this does not mean that we should discontinue the holiday. It is a helpful, even needed time that brings joy to so many. Here are some suggestions to make the day better.

1. Remember your mother. If she is living, send a card. Buy one. Anyone can afford a 99-cent card. Better yet, make a homemade card, or print out one on your computer. Best of all, if you have grandchildren, have them make a card, too. Call mother. If possible, find a way to visit.

2. Express your love in the way your mother appreciates it most. Dr. Gary Chapman, an expert on interpersonal relationships, points out that people express and receive love in different ways. He identifies the five languages of love: quality time, words of appreciation, gifts, acts of service, and physical touch. Remembering how your mother expressed love is a good indication of how she most likes to receive love. If you express your love in a way your mother doesn't understand, she may not feel that you have expressed your love at all, even though you may have given her an expensive gift.

3. Keep it personal, not commercial. Anna Jarvis, the woman whose efforts resulted in Mother's Day becoming a national holiday in 1914, filed a lawsuit to stop a Mother's Day festival in 1923 because she was so troubled that the day had become commercialized. "I wanted it to be a day of sentiment, not profit," she protested. The commercialization so disturbed her that she said she was sorry she had worked to establish the holiday, and she spent all of her inheritance trying to return Mother's Day to the simple, loving time she had intended.

Your observance will not be commercialized unless you make it so. Keep it simple and personal. Speak encouraging words. Be honest. If you don't think you had the greatest mom in the world, don't say so. Rather tell her what you did appreciate and the lessons you have come to value.

4. If you are the mother, be appreciative of any cards, calls, visits, or gifts from your children. Be positive. What do children fear most on Mother's Day? My informal survey came up with one surprising result--a guilt trip. Tamara quoted a familiar saying: "Want to feel guilty? Call home." Her friends nodded their heads in universal agreement. I remember from childhood the sermon Mom gave me every Mother's Day. The theme was always, "Thank you, but remember Mother's Day should be every day of the year." Looking back as an adult, I am sure she did not realize these words came across as judgmental to a young child.

5. Be aware of those for whom Mother's Day may be a difficult time. Make opportunities for them to talk with you about their feelings. Healing can come from sharing with a friend.

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Sheryl was a foster mother for seven years to a girl she loved dearly. It was devastating to her when the birth mother took the child back. "How does one heal after such a loss?" I asked her.

"I shared my hurt with family and friends," she replied "I needed support. I talked with my pastor. I prayed. I came to realize this child had come into my life for a purpose. It was for more than what I could give her. It also had to do with my growth as a human, and my growth as a person of faith." It takes a village to heal. You can be a part of the process for those who hurt. Friends who listen are often better than professional counselors. But don't push. Allow a person the dignity of privacy if this is not the time for her to share.

6. Does your hurt come because your mother is no longer living? Then this day is for you! Anna Jarvis began Mother's Day in part because it was important to her to remember and celebrate her mother, who had died.

Angela put it this way. "For me, the key to getting through Mother's Day is not to try to avoid it. I realize there will be sadness, but that's OK. I find it helpful to go through old photos remembering good times, writing something to or about my mom--for myself or others in the family. Once, I made a list of things I received, consciously or unconsciously, from mom. Although I risked feeling really sad, the whole deal ended up as a celebration. And even feeling sad is a part of the relationship, since no one can live forever. I think the fact I feel sad is an acknowledgement of how much I loved and was loved by Mother, since we don't go to the trouble to be sad (or angry) about someone we don't care about. And I was really helped by talking with my surrogate mother figures--anyone who nurtures and supports me."

7. If you are an adult woman without children, realize you have reason to celebrate, too. A woman like you began the day. First of all, you also had a mother who gave birth and raised you. Celebrate her. And celebrate yourself and the nurturing you do. Times have changed. Being unmarried is finally being recognized as a valid choice with many benefits. Tish Durkin writes in Oprah magazine, "As a maiden aunt, I am not to be pitied. I am to be worshiped."

Margaret, a very classy senior, told me, "I always thought that some day I would marry and have a family, but that day never came. But for me, I have always been happy with the choices I have made, especially since I have felt that I have been where God wanted me to be. But do I feel melancholy or cheated on Mother's Day? Not at all. There are many ways to be maternal. As a teacher and college dean, I have been mother to hundreds."

Let's all celebrate this Mother's Day. Let's be the cheerleader who helps others to celebrate, too.

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