The Dark Side of Mother’s Day

By Gabrielle Frackman, PhD

I’ve made a point of trying to ignore Mother’s Day for nearly my entire life, always with poor success. My mother died when I was young, and I’ve grown up hating Mother’s Day. For me it has always been the loneliest day of the year. Leading up to it I inevitably grow tense, my body viscerally reacting to the indicators of its impending arrival, most notably, the sudden scarcity of Sunday brunch availability at every restaurant that’s worth eating at, and even those that aren't—because no one, apparently, deserves to have brunch on Mother’s Day unless one is or has a mother.

On the week of Mother’s Day there is only one thing on the menu—a big, bloody slab of prime mother-related disappointment. It’s not rare but it’s raw. I hunker down and bear it, allow myself at least one good sobbing session, only because I’m starving and there’s nowhere to eat. And then I return to the “ignoring.”  

But here’s the catch: it’s not about me anymore. In this way, my career as a psychologist working in women’s reproductive mental health has shown me one facet of what it is to be a mother and have a responsibility for someone besides myself. It’s not by chance that I’ve chosen this field, but it still sometimes feels like a cruel joke that the one day of the year I don’t want to acknowledge is the day that unhinges some of my patients the most. Many of them will undoubtedly try to “ignore” it as I do. My job is to help them face it and resist jumping on the avoidance bandwagon with them.

My patients are mothers who are struggling with perinatal or postpartum depression and anxiety, ones who want to celebrate motherhood but are questioning whether they actually hate this thing that stole their freedom, sleep, and focus, and sometimes their careers, relationships, and old identities. My patients are the women who think they are damaged beyond repair when the sounds of their children laughing no longer bring them joy or when they have intrusive thoughts about hurting their children or themselves and realize their lives are no longer their own to end if they want to without significant collateral damage (see below for resources if this describes you. You’re not alone). 

My patients are some of the 6.1 million women in the United States dealing with infertility. They are the ones on adoption waiting lists, the ones doing countless rounds of IUI or IVF and sometimes going broke in the process. They can inject themselves with hormones without batting an eye, rattle off medications and protocols like they’re baby names, which they dare not even think of lest they get their hopes up. They are the ones tracking ovulation with twenty different apps, casually dropping terms like “fertile window” and “ovarian reserves,” inventing ways to keep their love lives hot while planning intercourse with calendar invites, and trying to “stay positive” while recognizing that what used to be fun and intimate is now stressful and mechanical and leads to arguments with their partners more times than not.

My patients are women who still can’t get pregnant and worry they will never be worthy of a brunch seat, who are rethinking their identities and grappling with the possibility that they may not embody the mother archetype that society has deemed worthy of this commercial holiday. They are the ones who did get pregnant and have been puking for forty weeks straight while being told by everyone how amazing pregnancy should be. In their dehydrated states they bitterly question whether it’s all worth it just for a mimosa-free Mother’s Day brunch. They’ll puke that up too. My patients are those who have lost pregnancies and wonder whether they belong to the Mother’s Club, whether an uncompleted pregnancy still “counts.” They will probably skip brunch to avoid the torture of listening to the other mothers croon about their living children, to avoid dealing with others’ awkward dance around what they don’t know how to talk about and the shattering silence they often choose instead. 

My patients are the single mothers running on no sleep. They are the ones who are constantly sick with whatever virus is going around daycare, who must care for themselves and their feverish children at the same time with zero backup knowing it will always be them doing every night feeding shift, every school pick up, every everything. My patients are the partnered mothers too, those trying to balance being mothers and lovers, those who can’t seem to find a moment when they aren’t needed by someone. They are the women pumping in session, blotting breast milk from their blouses on the way to an interview or an important meeting, killing it in the boardrooms and secretly crying later because they miss their babies and resent having to choose; or the ones not crying and feeling guilty for that.

My patients are trying to navigate a political and social system that often fails to appreciate or protect them by skimping on maternity leave or not giving paid maternity leave at all. This is, of course, only if they have survived childbirth, which is surprisingly still an uncertainty in America where we have the highest maternal mortality rate of any industrialized country in the world and significant racial disparities. By that standard, it’s hard to prioritize issues like the absence of subsidized childcare or pre-school. Despite these affronts against mothers, my patients remain innovative, redefining what motherhood means every day. They are champions.   

My patients are also the motherless like me—those who wonder their worth and can’t seem to recover what never was without a mother to instill it in them. Mother’s Day reminds them of how profound mothering is with its joys and challenges, which makes them wonder whether it’s possible to be whole without it. They are those searching for ways to mother themselves and for the knowledge of how to raise children of their own after experiencing so much trauma and heartache, disappointment, and a lack of mothering. Or they lost their mothers more recently and find themselves equally adrift and alone without them. Whether these relationships were adoring, antagonistic, or the conflicted in-between, we carry the longing and rage that grows in absence. 

Mother’s Day will always be a reminder of what was and what will never be, and while there is the present—what is—the reality isn’t quite what Hallmark suggests. The women who didn’t get the memo think they are insane and wonder how everyone else seems to know how to get through it. Why is it so easy for them? It’s not. 

It’s my clinical responsibility to address this day with my patients. We prep for it, we plan self-care and mobilize social support around it, we talk about what it means. This only dulls the ache, but it’s better than nothing. I never had to be so mindful of Mother’s Day before I chose this specialty. My patients often have many feelings about it, and I need to have feelings about their feelings, even when the kid in me is throwing a temper tantrum about facing this day. I don’t suspect it will become easier if and when I’m a mother myself.

Here’s what I tell my patients. You are women. You—we—are more than any one role we might function in. We are more than just our hopes and our passions, our fears and regrets, more than any one choice. We are complicated creatures, composed of incredible contradictions, at once who we are and also who we choose to be. We are constantly evolving whether we like it or not. Change can feel excruciating, but it’s a power to be harnessed. I want to tell them that I am in awe of their courage and resilience, grateful for all they teach me. They are fiercer than they know. We are built to withstand pain. We don’t need to run from what hurts. Even I need a reminder of this sometimes. There’s a difference between pain and suffering and that difference is in one’s willingness to accept pain. My job is to remind women not of what they can be but what they already are. 

We can’t change what we’ve lost, whether it be our mothers or our fantasies of who those mothers could have been, our children or the dreams of the children we hoped to have. We must mourn those relationships and try to find fulfillment another way. Those who have lost their mothers early as I did get what is both a blessing and curse—the opportunity to build in their minds the mother of their dreams: one who isn’t ever demanding, invasive, manipulative, or needy. It’s tough not to miss the perfect mother. In this way, imagination and idealization only accentuate the missing. But imagination is also the way out of hardship, and loss breeds imagination. We are meaning-makers and far more creative than Hallmark.

So Mother’s Day may sting and burn. It may be complete crap or great fun, involving multi-generations of women eating tea sandwiches at the Plaza Hotel. Whatever cup of tea you have, even if it isn’t the sweet variety, it is yours, and it’s not so much about the tea itself as how we choose to share our cups. This day will run its course, time will continue to pass, the hurt will change, and so will you. Let’s talk about Mother’s Day, but let’s talk about all the other days too.

 

* For more support, see Postpartum Support International. Call the PSI Helpline: 1800-944-4773 to be connected to local resources.

 

Gabrielle Frackman, PhD is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Women’s Program located within the Neurological Institute at Columbia University Irving Medical Center.

Topics

Mental Health, Psychiatry