Daphne Stevens, Ph.D.
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“What are you doing for your mother for Mother’s Day?” It was a question that got tossed around among friends and co-workers when we were in our thirties and thought we knew everything.
We had clever ideas for thoughtful gestures and gifts. The problem was that most of us were so tentative about our fledgling status that we couldn’t stand too much mother-connection. I mean, where was a card or a gift that conveyed, “I love you, but I’m working through my Mother Issues now and I have some lack of clarity about where you end and where I begin. I want to tell you that I love you, but I don’t want you to misunderstand. I want to acknowledge you, but I need to find my own path. I’m not sure you can understand that, and it kind of pisses me off. I want you to know that I’m pissed off–and I want you to know that my pissed-off-ness doesn’t mean I don’t love you.”
I mean, does FDS offer a flower arrangement that conveys that?
In my youth, I knew a few young women who made gestures that confused their poor mothers no end. One classic example is the friend who, caught in an ambivalent relationship, sent a card that said, “You’ve been like a mother to me.” Another friend, in a more love/hate bond, sent her mom a Venus Fly Trap from the florist.
Ambivalence about mothers has been around since the first teenage girl rolled her eyes and said, “Mo-ther,” in that universal language of love commingled with disdain that’s unique to mothers and daughters. “Mother issues” have sent millions of women to shrinks support groups with two central questions: “How can I keep from being like her?” and “Why aren’t she and I closer?”
One cure for that ambivalence is found through the process of raising our own daughters. Oh, the cure doesn’t show up for the first eight years or so, while they are adorable and snuggly. But as we realize that our pre-pubescent daughters are looking at us with the same blend of derision and embarrassment that characterized our feelings about our own mothers, we begin to re-consider things.
It’s a pivotal point in a mother’s life. “Where did I go wrong?” or “What’s wrong with HER?” They’re both self-absorption dressed up as love. But love is about freedom, not guilt or blame.
When a daughter begins the path toward individuation, we can recognize eye-rolling and defiance for what it is. We can say, “Of course she’d rather fight with me than face fears of growing up and facing the world. And of course I feel abandoned and rejected.” When we accept both realities with equanimity, we bless both ourselves and our daughters. But how do we maintain our composure when the child of our heart rages against us with a vehemence that would be a credit to Attila the Hun?
We count to ten a lot. We remind ourselves: Of course she’s not grateful. How would she know to be grateful? Fish don’t know they’re in water. She can’t know how much she’s loved. We commiserate with friends. If we are lucky, we turn to our own mothers, who are usually happy to remind us of our own eye-rolling days, as well as the fine way we turned out.
But our children come into the world with their own predispositions. They’re not us. They’re wired differently. They want different things. We love them and shape them and give them our best, and then they grow into adults with their own values.
Sometimes it’s a wondrous thing. A strong-willed, loud-mouthed kid who glazes over at simple words like “clean your room,” sleeps in the bathtub because there are monsters in the bedroom, and regularly elicits calls from distraught teachers, somehow grows into a person of integrity and graciousness. A teenager who sneaks out of the house, cuts school, and smokes pot becomes an adult filled with skills and a passion to help others.
But it’s a magic that cuts both ways. A golden child, talented and beloved and provided with the best that parents can give grows into an addict. Or seems devoid of personal responsibility. Or can’t seem to maintain a decent relationship. Or worse, becomes a criminal. Parents spend their lives and resources in a maelstrom of anxiety and self-blame.
Sometimes things shift. Addicts become sober, adults in tumultuous relationships get “woke,” and perpetrators of crime change their lives. Hope is found in AA, church communities, therapy offices, even homeless shelters.
Hope, however, is rarely found in the home. While parents are not often the root of the problem, they are almost never the cure. Cycles of bailouts and reconciliation, rehab programs, moving back in with Mom and Dad until they “get back on their feet,” kicking them out, and even taking in grandchildren are tragic to behold.
Yet we don’t have much of a map. Google “adult children,” and you’ll find all kinds of blame-based resources about people recovering from abusive parents. That in itself is helpful and positive. We all need help navigating the process of healing, and childhood wounds can be devastating.
What you won’t find are resources for parents who are hurting. Who continue to blame themselves and to search for answers and help for children in their twenties and thirties and beyond.
Mother’s Day can be cause for celebration. Family lunches, thoughtful gifts, and sentimental gestures are sources of pleasure and gratitude. But Mother’s Day can be lonely for those estranged from adult children. Broken hearts are particularly vulnerable when one is excluded from the Hallmark world.
But here’s what I’ve learned: Motherhood is not about results, being thanked or appreciated, or even about pride or satisfaction. Motherhood is about being a vessel. A life-giver. A nurturer for life however it shows up. And sometimes it means setting boundaries, re-claiming our own lives, or, like a mama bear, cuffing ones cub out of the den. Parents who know the complexity and pain of a failed “launch” will tell you that childbirth is the easy part.
So celebrate motherhood. Love your kids and your grandkids. Enjoy the cards and flowers if you’re lucky enough to receive them–but remember that this is about your ability to give birth and sustain life. That ability lives in you, no matter what your circumstances.
There are a million ways to nurture ourselves, to pray for our children, to help others, and to create. Your Mother’s Day may not be of the Hallmark variety, but real life rarely is. To find joy in the midst of the messiness of life is the ultimate gift of the Mother.