Mother's Day is the day we celebrate the women who gave birth to us, but sometimes blood is not always thicker than water. Rachel Kelly gives her tips on managing a turbulent relationship – and your own wellbeing
It should be the happiest of days: a dawn visit of a smiling ruby-cheeked child, balancing a tray laden with a soft-boiled egg, a bunch of daffodils and a white-starched napkin. Mother’s Day is when we thank the woman who gave birth to us and make a fuss of her, in contrast to the rest of the time when she makes a fuss of us.
The reality, of course, is that for many Mothering Sunday is more complicated. Not everyone finds it easy to celebrate their mother. Famously, the adopted daughter of the film star Joan Crawford recounted in her memoir Mommie Dearest a litany of abusive behaviour. Crawford would beat up the young Christina, using a wire coat hanger instead of the expensive padded ones that kept her clothes in perfect movie-star condition. Other writers such as Ariel Leve have written about their traumatic childhoods, in Leve’s case in her memoir An Abbreviated Life.
Even when we are close to our families, those we are related to can push our painful buttons more than practically anyone else. In my own experience, running wellbeing workshops for mental health charities as an ambassador for Sane and Rethink Mental Illness, I am very aware of those who have challenging family backgrounds: some readers will not be in touch with their families at all. Patient forums are full of those who are trying to unpick and repair the damage done by less than adequate parents, as are the consulting rooms of therapists.
How then, to negotiate Mother’s Day, when at best you may be ambivalent about your mother, at worst you don’t get on at all? If this is the case, even the awareness of the very difficulty of family life can be a good start. Much of who we are today was shaped for us, not by us. The person that you are right now, reading this, was highly influenced by past events and experiences, and especially your upbringing, over which we have little or no control. In some cases, these experiences are of such complexity it’s almost like a tornado surrounding us. Just knowing this can make us gentler and more accepting of our own nature, as well as those who forged it like our mother.
Be kinder to yourself
In particular, on a sensitive day like Mother’s Day take care of your own inner voice. You might make a point of adjusting your own self-talk to be especially gentle. Scientists have found that higher levels of self-compassion are associated with better health. When we respond to our personal struggles with a kind and forgiving attitude, we enjoy a reduction in stress.
Focus on where you can make a difference rather than dwelling on things you can't change
Remember you're loved
A second strategy is to remind yourself of good friends and kindly people in your life. On a day like Mother’s Day, the ache of the absence of a supportive parent can be assuaged by a simple appreciation pause. Close your eyes, and take a moment to think of all those people in your life who you may have overlooked or taken for granted who do care about you. As you pause, consider how your life would fall apart without long-term partners, close friends, and family members other than your mother who support you. You might want to make a point of thanking them: we ourselves benefit when we are grateful for others.
Find comfort elsewhere
Those who have come to my workshops who feel starved of maternal connection have also found solace in poetry, especially the work of the American poet Mary Oliver. She writes in her poem ‘Wild Geese’ about the sense of belonging we can find in nature:
‘Whoever you are, no matter how lonely
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.’
Another approach is to actively try and let go of a toxic relationship with your mother, using some breathing exercises. As you breathe in, imagine the breath going to the place where you feel discomfort or trouble with your relationship with your mother. Imagine the in-breath bringing light to that area. Then as you breathe out, breathe out the negative feeling at the same time.
None of which is easy, I’ll admit. A final strategy is to decide to focus on where you can make a difference, rather than dwelling on things you can’t change such as a less than satisfactory mother. As the therapist, Wendy Bristow, says on the website welldoing.org of the challenge of a narcissistic mother: “Learn to be more selfish, in a good way. Put yourself and your needs first. Practise the art of knowing where you end and the other person begins, so you don’t spend your life putting others first, because that’s what you learned to do as a child.” And that might mean making yourself breakfast in bed.