When Mother’s Day Isn’t Happy

Holidays can be controversial.

In December, there are debates about Christmas vs. Hanukah vs. Kwanzaa vs. nothing. If you celebrate Christmas, there are debates about Christmas trees, nativity scenes, Santa Claus, saying “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas,” and gift giving.

In October, there are heated discussions about pagan origins, the appropriate age for trick or treating, and whether or not little kids should wear or be exposed to scary costumes.

In March or April, there are arguments about Easter bunnies and eggs, the observance of Passover, and whether or not Good Friday should be a work holiday.

You name any holiday or a popular celebration day, and you can probably find controversies about whether or not it should be a holiday or how people commemorate it. There will be lively kitchen table discussions and water cooler arguments and internet debates about them all. We hold these markings of time close to our heart, and many of our memories center around our family’s and community’s traditions surrounding them. We are often hurt and offended when we feel like our traditions or rituals are belittled or threatened, and our emotional connection with them runs deep.

Perhaps one major celebration hits closer to home than any other. Mother’s Day.

Do you know the most controversial thing I have ever posted on Facebook? It was a status that said something like, “Hey, Mother’s Day is hard for a lot of people. Please be sensitive to people who are hurting.” Yep. That has been the quickest way to receive a lot of outright criticism, private messages and personal talking-to’s in all of my years on social media.

Do you know the greatest looks of shock I’ve ever seen from church leaders was when I requested that the leader be mindful of those who were struggling on that day? Note that I used the plural form in that statement. Because, yes, it’s happened more than once, and in more than one congregation.

It’s not just me who has experienced this. Over the years, I have known a multitude of people who have been lambasted for questioning something about Mother’s Day.

Why does this get people so riled up? Goodness, I could write a whole series on that subject. To sum it up, I think it’s because motherhood is close to the hearts of everyone. Since we haven’t reached a point where human babies are grown in a lab, we all spent our earliest days nestled in the womb of a mother. Our earliest knowledge of life and the world and everything began taking shape there. After we are born, must of us stayed with our mothers and continued to learn through her influence. Some of us had mothers who more actively influenced our learning. Some of us learned from the absence of our mothers.

There is a primal connection that exists between mother and child that impacts us throughout our entire lives.

But mothers, being humans like the rest of us, are imperfect. Even the very best of mothers has screwed up. Even the very best of mothers ignored her children at times. Even the very best of mothers sometimes spoke hurtful words to her children. Even the very best of mothers made choices that harmed her children. Every single one of them. And most of us are okay in spite of that.

But Mother’s Day comes around. And everything is supposed to be happy. Moms are awesome! Mothers are fantastic! Mamas are super! They’re always there! They always care! They always know just the right things to say! They are heroes to be worshipped, it seems.

But inside of us, we know that’s not true.

In the midst of all the tremendous things moms do, they sometimes wound us. And those wounds, especially if we have not taken time to acknowledge and tend to them, can strike a dissonant chord within us. We buy sappy, over-the-top cards and act like everything is perfect because that seems the right thing to do. But inside, if we are being honest, we know that it’s more complicated than that. Most of us had really great moms, and we earnestly want to express our gratitude and appreciation. But it still seems insincere to say that everything is flowers and hearts and happy hugs. Because roses have thorns. Hearts break. And happy hugs often come after tears. And at this time, more than any other perhaps, there is an expectation to be able to say “Every Mom is awesome! All the time!” So we buy a bigger bouquet or a shinier card to try to compensate for the discomfort in our souls.

When a person suggests that Mother’s Day might be hard for some, it calls attention to our own pain. And we are deeply uncomfortable with pain. We can’t possibly endure pain. And in our instinctive avoidance of our own pain, we dismiss the pain of others. And that dismissing hurts. Our avoidance of pain creates more pain for others.

So what can you do instead?

By all means, feel free to celebrate the mothers in your life. Express your love for them. Exclaim your gratitude for them. But be honest with yourself, that no matter how great your mom was, she wasn’t perfect.

Be honest with others by not pretending that every mom on this earth was awesome. Because the people who were abandoned or abused or neglected by their moms had a different reality.

Be present with others who are feeling the absence of their moms, whether they lost them yesterday, last year, or 30 years ago.

Be mindful of others who are reminded more on this day than any other that, despite their desires and efforts and dreams, that they are not moms.

Be kind to others whose children are not with them. Maybe their children are in heaven or in prison or simply not here. This is a hard day.

Be compassionate to others who are in a difficult season of motherhood. This is an extraordinarily painful day for those who are finding it hard to find joy in mothering.

Pay attention to those who have tears in their eyes or aching empty arms and embrace them. Notice who stayed home today to avoid facing others and let them know you understand.

But please don’t pretend that Mother’s Day is happy for everyone.

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