Well, shit. I see we have to go through this AGAIN. It’s Mother’s Day weekend — that time of year when the posts hit social media trying to save the world from complexity, trying to strip the sweet from its partner, the bitter, and pretend that we can have all the gauzy sentimentality without any of the darkness. After reading no fewer than three of these pieces this morning, I decided I must rise from my reclined and happily inert position, mount my trusty blogging steed, and ride forth in defense of human wholeness once again. But I had coffee first.
This will be my first Mother’s Day without my mom, who died last October. For the last few years, my mother tried to nudge Mother’s Day in the direction of my sister’s and my motherhood, and away from hers. Instead of spending the day with her, the three of us would meet for lunch either a few days before or a few days after at her favorite Italian restaurant just south of downtown, the one with the exposed brick and the perfect bread. The place I still can’t go yet.
So here I am this Mother’s Day, at once a mother and a motherless child, thankful for the fact that my mother encouraged us to associate the day more with ourselves than with her. But still, it’s right in your face and you start to wonder “how am I going to feel about this?” And there they are — the articles about Not Having Your Mom on Mother’s Day.
And man, so many of them contain a version of what I can’t help but think is really terrible and sad advice:
Don’t cry today. Your mom would want you to be happy.
People, NO. The layers of wrongness to this are legion. I mean, I get it. We want people to be okay, and we want them not to be so destroyed by a holiday that they cannot enjoy it. But we have to stop this, and here’s why: because an immutable characteristic of an authentically lived life is that we are not always okay. We have to stop fearing pain and grief, and we have to stop trying to enforce cheer. It takes a lot of courage to follow loss and grief down its own path without trying to control it, direct it, manage it, or resist it.
Because following it means things like this: You will cry when you open your cabinet one random morning and see the two beautiful coffee mugs your mother gave you after your divorce because, as she insisted, you will need two again someday, Jennifer. You will. (And I did.) And you’ll have tears in your eyes as you open the fridge and get your coffee creamer, because it’s an odd time for that to happen, and you may have to explain it to your husband. But that’s what it means to surrender to loss instead of merrily pretending that my mother would not want me to be sad.
The funny thing is, in that moment, I appreciated her so much. What I felt in that moment wasn’t just loss. It was a blend of loss, pain, appreciation, and gratitude.
And I know this in my bones: You can’t have one without the other. Over time, the proportions may change, but I will die on this hill: Attachment and love are partners with grief and loss. Loving someone is complex, and it’s still complex after they’re gone. Joy and pain swirl together and must be experienced as an entity of its own. There’s a reason for the word bittersweet.
Instructing people to control their emotions and not cry on Mother’s Day because their mother wants them to be happy is a warning not to trust the process, and to wrest away control of it for the sake of something that may or may not be true. That’s so sad to me. I’d rather be open to the memory of my mom tomorrow, come what may. I may cry a lot, or not at all, or perhaps a little bit when I visit the tree that fell in my yard the day after she died. I’m not stepping off the path for anyone, even if my mom would be so ill-advised as to want me to.
Trusting the process also has the benefit of including people who are motherless for all manner of reasons other than death — abandonment, involuntary separation, estrangement, addiction, mental illness, dementia, imprisonment, or any combination of the above.
So if you really want Mother’s Day to be about you instead of about your mother’s absence, then keep to your own path. Feel what comes. Cry if you want. Tears are cleansing and often beautiful. Or don’t! That’s fine too. Or maybe you’ll find that Sunday is fine, but Monday hits you like a truck. No one is sure what’s around that curve. Trying to control it is an illusion, destined to fall apart.
So my advice for motherless children on Mother’s Day is just this: Stay curious, and don’t listen to anyone who tells you how to feel. They probably mean well, but they’re talking more about their own fears than about you.