In a commercialised society, Mother’s Day may simply be viewed as the next date after Valentine’s Day for which we are inundated with adverts for flowers, chocolates and saccharine cards. We are awash with images and quotations representing an idealised version of motherhood. How often do we stop and think about what dwells beneath these representations? And what is Mother’s Day like if you have a challenging, ambiguous or absent relationship with your mother?
In the UK, Mothering Sunday has deep roots, with its origins in Greek and Roman springtime festivals that were held in honour of the mother goddesses Rhea and Cybele. As with many pagan festivals, these later became enveloped into the Christian calendar. Mothering Sunday, celebrated on the fourth Sunday in Lent, became the day on which people would visit their ‘mother’ church. Domestic servants were given the day off work, and families would reunite. Children would gather wildflowers for their mothers on their journeys home.
Mothering Sunday is now linked with secular Mother’s Day celebrations and, in the UK, the two are considered the same festival. In the US and many other countries worldwide, a secular Mother’s Day celebration falls on the second Sunday of May.
But what is it exactly that we are celebrating? Mothers, maternity, motherhood, family life, the spring, Mother Earth, tradition, maternal lineage…? And is it worth pausing for a moment to consider why we may, or may not, choose to celebrate these things?
I realise that my own relationship to the day is conflictedAs a single mother of daughters aged 9 and 13, I like to claim Mother’s Day as my own; every year I have some unrealistic idea that this will be the one day I won’t have to do a single chore. It never works out that way, and I find myself doing the normal clearing up with an extra air of resentment! That said, my girls do enjoy giving Mother’s Day presents, and I sometimes get breakfast in bed, which is pretty special.
As a woman estranged from my own mother, I find the concept of celebrating motherhood complex in the extreme. Usually, I try not to think about the difficulty of being estranged from the woman who birthed me and gave me all the mothering she could. But it is always lurking there somewhere in the depths. And Mother’s Day brings those feelings to the fore. How can I expect my own children to celebrate my role as mum, when my own mother is nowhere in the picture? How, despite estrangement and the reasons behind this, can I honour the mothering I did receive?
In 2019, I published Mother in the Mother, an anthology of 53 women’s stories exploring their maternal lineage. New York Times bestselling author Dr Christiane Northrup described the book as “a love song to our mothers, grandmothers, and daughters”. A beautiful description, and an interesting one considering that the book includes stories of women who have experienced great challenges in their maternal relationships. Yet it is somehow the perfect description.
I realise now that by creating this book, I wrote my mother (to whom the book is dedicated) and all mothers, a love song. Maybe it is the one gift I can give this Mother’s Day. The book began its life as an arts project shortly after my second daughter was born. My deep hope at the start of the project (one that I barely dared admit to myself) was that the process would in some way help to heal the rift of estrangement in my family. The hope was not realised, at least not within my birth family. But through developing the project, working with over 300 women and creating this book, I felt, deeply within, a healing, loving process. Exploring these women’s many stories and experiences, I felt that I tapped into a vast river of maternal love, one that was much bigger than any individual family. One that would continue to flow throughout time, finding ways around even the biggest dams and droughts, one that might bypass several generations or be passed through non-biological family, friends and other maternal figures. A cyclical, enduring love, deserving of a cyclical, enduring celebration: a springtime festival, dedicated to this river of maternal love.
Despite the pain it can evoke in me, I realise that, overall, I like Mother’s Day. Falling close to the spring equinox, it is a lovely reminder of nature’s eternal renewal, a celebration of Mother Earth and all she gifts us. I realise that rather than to focus on my birth mother, or my role as a mum now, I enjoy the way that Mother’s Day connects me to all mothers. I have appreciated meeting and celebrating with other mothers at this time, and feel incredibly grateful for all the stories that these women have shared with me. Here, three of the mothers whose stories appear in Mother in the Mother offer their experiences of Mother’s Day.
I am estranged from my mother and have been, on and off, throughout my adult life. It’s a very challenging relationship.
My mother was emotionally and psychologically abusive when I was a child and neglected my emotional needs. I experienced sexual abuse in my teens, but she has never shown empathy, care or compassion. Much of it was ignored or I was blamed for it. She used me to prop her up and meet her needs. She doesn’t understand unconditional love or that, as a parent, you are there to meet your child’s needs, not the other way around. I’m determined that my daughter will never feel the way I did. No one has ever made me feel as worthless as my own mother. She taught me to hate myself. I am teaching my child to love and cherish herself.
I find Mother’s Day very painful on two fronts. Firstly, the loss around my own mum and the constant reminders of mothers. Then, having been a single parent for 10 years (since my daughter was born), the lack of having a partner to acknowledge me as a mother is also very difficult. Usually, my daughter gets excited about Mother’s Day and we try and do something together.
My mother died suddenly from a brain haemorrhage when I was 13. Being an only child, my dad and I sort of raised each other. Sadly, he never really got over the loss and passed away in 2006. I deeply miss both my parents, and in becoming a mother myself, there are endless times when I wish I could just pick up the phone and chat to my mum. However, something about having my own family has also been very healing, like the completion of a process; in many ways, I don’t feel that loss as acutely as I once did. I have a strong sense of being deeply loved as a child and I imagine that my ‘cup’ was overflowing, so that when tragedy struck, I was far better equipped to deal with it. Consequently, I feel passionately that the more love I can give to my children, the more resources they will have to call upon in the future.
Mother’s Day used to be a sad day, one on which I felt left out, isolated and filled with grief. Now it’s about celebrating my own family and my bond with my own children. I am able to feel blessed and lucky instead of sad. I also enjoy taking time to honour and celebrate the brilliant mothers around me who have influenced and shaped my journey.
The only problem with my new relationship with Mother’s Day is my level of expectation! I value it much more than birthdays or other special days. While I don’t want to be showered with gifts and overpriced ‘Mother’s Day experiences’, l do somehow want to be treated like a goddess, and have the whole family second-guess exactly how I want to spend my day! So, this year, I am going to get better at asking for what I need. (Space, time and a homemade card mostly.)
My relationship with my mother is challenging, distant and triggering. It is my deepest enquiry. It sits right in the middle of me and occupies my mind most days. When I was younger, we were completely ‘meshed’ and coupled together through maladaptive personality traits. Later, I left my native country of New Zealand and came to Britain. This great distance speaks of how much of a hold I felt the relationship had over me and how it contaminated my sense of my own self.
Mother’s Day can never feel very honest. It is a time to honour our mothers and, at the age of 48, I am only just discovering a way of doing that, beyond the traditions and sentiment. My mother has gone many, many Mother’s Days without hearing from me, even though the day consumes me privately. It is slowly and reluctantly occurring to me, that the pain I have experienced in my relationship with my mother has been a ‘jagged gift’. I parent more consciously because of her. I communicate with my children differently because of her. I seek out my dreams because of her. I choose beautiful friends and have a wonderful husband because of her. I am fearless to speak out about injustice because of her.
This year, I will tell her all of this and let go of the expectation that she can hear it or understand it. I will celebrate her and myself, recognising the journey we have taken separately in our union, and love her as much as I can. Forgiveness? Never. But I realise I don’t need it. I will arm myself with compassion instead. How she mothered me or didn’t, will never be OK, but I am going to find a way of loving her regardless. For the sake of her, myself and my children. And so it is, the phoenix from the generational rippling of the not so good enough mother. The paradox of the loss is we ourselves, are found.
Pippa Grace is a socially engaged artist, writer and sculptor. She facilitates the sharing of stories and the creation of ‘visual narratives’ at beautifully held, seasonal workshops. Her figurative sculptures explore themes of embodied stories, mythology, partnership and maternity. Pippa lives in Bristol with her two awesome, creative daughters. They all love being by the sea, camping, wild swimming, dancing and sitting around a fire. They are part of a thriving Steiner-inspired community in Bristol. one-story.co.uk
Mother in the Mother is published by Womancraft Publishing.
First published in Issue 71 of JUNO. Accurate at the time this issue went to print.