–by Julie Beem
There’s a phrase my daughter spits out in anger and rage. One that does not contain obscenities or obvious threats, but still strikes fear in my heart. The phrase is, “It’s Just Like Mother’s Day!” She usually says this through gritted teeth in almost a growl-like tone with her face contorted. Even those who have no frame of reference can tell that she does not have a sweet, positive memory of Mother’s Day. When I hear it, I know immediately that she’s filled with grief and rage and that I’d better suit up for the challenge.
I admit to being rather dense about all the pain and despair that Mother’s Day brought about each year. It took me years to figure it all out, so I’m hoping this blog post will help you catch on faster than I did. Mother’s Day is perhaps the HARDEST day of the year for children impacted by relational trauma. It is also perhaps the HARDEST day of the year for children not living with their original mothers (through adoption, foster, kinship or other loss). Many of our traumatized children live both these things, a double whammy if there ever was.
When my daughter was preschool-age, Mother’s Day brought dysregulation, but dysregulation happened daily at that stage, so I didn’t connect the dots. The hand-made gift sent home from preschool always was accidentally broken or lost before it actually got to me. With other children in our family offering up their gifts and festivities, I barely noticed.
The older she got, the bigger the disruption of Mother’s Day became. Big explosions forced us into understanding how incredibly hard this day for her. Still, I spent a year or two in my own self-centered fog, convinced that she hated me, whining, “why can’t she just give me one day of peace…” until I truly understood that she CAN’T give me THAT day, not that one in particular. There’s too much wrapped up there.
Through my therapeutic parenting lens, I thought I saw the answer: we’ll just skip Mother’s Day! It would have been a great strategy, if it worked. But Mother’s Day is everywhere – at school, at church, on the TV. Through her middle school years, I would literally sneak off with my older/grown children in the week before or after for a nice “date” to celebrate. I loved their devotion to this idea. That kept Mother’s Day weekend super low-key (often skipping church and using it as a spring cleaning/yard work day.)
This post offers no magic solutions. But our Mother’s Days of late have been easier and I think I know why. First off, I’ve fully grasped that my daughter’s devastation around Mother’s Day has nothing to do with me. The explosions she has, although they still look very targeted “at me”…are about the huge feelings of loss and grief that flood her system, feelings she has no way to process. A key to helping this was to give it voice – to tell her very clearly why she was spinning out of control in the days leading up to Mother’s Day. Then we gave her a chance to talk about them (or not), whatever she needed.
The second thing we did was to let her take the lead in how to handle the holiday. Pretending Mother’s Day didn’t exist wasn’t the answer; she knew better. Some years, she’s felt like ignoring it. Others, she’s wanted to spend the entire day with me or have a family celebration. Last year, for the first time (although her therapist suggested it years ago), she wanted to plant a bush in honor of her birth mom. So we did. My husband suggested getting one for me too, but timing is everything, and it wasn’t the right time to do anything other than honor her birth mom’s memory.
This year, there’s a different vibe. I haven’t brought it up to her and there’s been no escalation. She came to me last week and invited me to the Mother-Daughter brunch at church. “Let’s go, Mom! We always have such fun there.” (We do? If you mean attending once and not having to call the police was fun…) I honestly don’t know how much of this new-found calm is due to my ability (finally!) not to take it personally and follow her lead, or if it’s due to her brain having reached a different maturity level. Either way, I’m not looking a gift horse…or free brunch… in the mouth! I accepted her invitation, and we’ll see what Saturday brings.
I wish I had more problem-solving answers for all of you who batten down the hatches as the Mother’s Day storm clouds gather, but since I don’t, I’ll just leave you with this:
- Put safety first.
- Connect to your hurting child
- Acknowledge that you’re doing a SUPER job at this Herculean task. You are truly in an elite group of parents!
P.S. Sneaking out later with your friends for margaritas is definitely allowed! Cheers!