I greet Mother’s Day every year with mixed emotions: the joy of my own motherhood tinged with the pain of those who suffered at the hands of their mothers. Facebook has intensified my camaraderie with the latter group, not because people post their painful memories. They don’t. Many people who were abused, unwanted, neglected or traumatized by their mothers know by instinct that they are supposed to remain silent on Mother’s Day.
Not all mothers “mother” well. I know people, mostly women, who were slapped, hit and locked out of their homes by their mothers. I know people whose mothers verbally denigrated, criticized and scolded them beyond reason. There are mothers who said to their child, “I should have aborted you” as well as mothers who abandoned or routinely blamed or manipulated their child, creating deep wounds of neglect and injustice.
You don’t read posts on Facebook about this type of mothering. This time of year, posts feature mothers who laughed, loved unconditionally and mothered joyfully. For people who did not have this kind of mothering, these posts can provoke envy and sadness, a wistful wondering what it would have been like to have a mother like that.
Mother’s Day does not distinguish between good mothers and bad mothers. Bad mothers are included. And that is how it should be – often bad mothers never intended the depth of harm and trauma they inflicted. They never knew – or they lost sight of – how to give of themselves and nurture their young rather than use and abuse their small charges for their own ends. They often are unaware or regretful or in denial about the trauma they inflicted. The recent child-abusive Time Magazine cover offers an example. Commentators quickly questioned the judgment and emotional health of the model (as in “take my photo”) mother who used her camouflage clad 3 year old son as a breast-feeding prop. Yet, it does not seem to have occurred to the publicity seeking mother that this sexualized, permanently online photo of her son standing on a chair to suck her breast might now, or later, traumatize him.
Of course most mothers make some number of horrible mistakes in raising their children. There’s no training for the job and the culture has increasingly urged modern mothers to keep their needs, goals and emotions primary. Few women know that good mothering, good nurturing will entail a heart wrenching compromise of the self for most women. Even those who feel willing to give of themselves so completely can find the daily challenge of containing one’s own emotions and needs formidable.
Some mothers, though, get it all wrong from the beginning. Without intervention, their horrible mistakes become a way of mothering and they end up traumatizing one or more of their children.
People usually tell me their bad mother stories in whispers, over dinner with wine. They talk about their trauma only to outsiders like me. Their caution is wise. Families often blame the victim for a mother’s cruelty and they resent – even reject – the member for sharing private family secrets. Victims of bad mothering arrive at words like “abuse,” “neglect” and “abandonment” very slowly – as if the label implicates their own self worth. Who wants the world to know that your own mother didn’t think you were worth caring for and loving properly?
For those traumatized by their mother, Mother’s Day is best embraced as a day of healing. Traumatized children will spend years with emotional wounds that impact their lives, long after a mother has perhaps apologized or matured and corrected her parenting. As one psychologist put it so well, traumas “do not end happily ever after but take years of working through to achieve healing.” On Mother’s Day, as others say prayers of gratitude for the warm, nurturing love of their mother, victims of bad mothering must focus on acceptance, forgiveness and moving forward. For some, this will include reconciliation with their mothers – others will find their voice and health only by leaving their mothers behind.
Mother’s Day is also a worthy day to recall those women in our lives who did love and nurture us. Women have a unique role in conveying to the young “the values that embody our humanity . . . nurture, care, patience, self-sacrifice.” (E. Fox-Genovese). While we typically assume that mothers discharge this responsibility, other women often model these values in the lives of children – sometimes as an intentional palliative to the bad mothering they observe in a child’s life. It is a worthy and comforting reflection to identify women from your childhood who conveyed such values to you – and to mark with gratitude their presence in your life.
Whether you honor today a woman who simply made some mistakes – or a mother who, through her own frailties and failings, traumatized you – find a way to include in your reflections true gratitude and forgiveness. Try to model for others the virtues that eluded your mother in her care for you. Extend yourself to a woman who may feel saddened because she did not, does not, have a loving, nurturing mother in her life. Be that person for someone else today and celebrate Mother’s Day, the good and the bad.