Mother’s Day is the second Sunday in May. For those who have a loving relationship with their mother, this is a special day set aside to celebrate that bond. It is a day to bring Mom breakfast in bed, to send her flowers, to do some chores around the house that will make her smile. It’s a time when families gather to show grandmothers, mothers, stepmothers, and aunts that their efforts to nurture and support the rest of the family are noticed and appreciated. As one website so eloquently puts it:

“Mother is one who nurtures you in her womb for nine months and brings you forth to enjoy the supreme blessing on earth, that is, Life. Mother is one who guides you through your infancy and turns the soft, helpless creature to the powerful and successful YOU. She is the guardian angel protecting you and supporting you, feeling for you and serving you silently always with a smile on her face. She prides herself watching you grow and provides you a shoulder to cry on whenever you need. She is every child’s best friend.” —

For some people, though, Mother’s Day is a painful reminder of a relationship they think everyone else has and they don’t. The reminders at the malls to buy something lovely and thoughtful for mom, the florists’ ads, the signs at the supermarket “make something special for Mom on her day!” pick at a deep and throbbing emotional wound. Their memories of mom are in sharp contrast to the idealized version of the card companies and the sentimental narratives of the Mom’s Day websites. As one young writer to PsychCentral’s “Ask the Therapist” put it:

“My mother covered my mouth and nose to keep me quiet, sat on me to restrain me, took my possessions away, hit me, slapped me, kicked at me, and even choked me a few times. . . When has she ever truly encouraged me? Does she, as she claims, love me? Actions, not words, say otherwise. . . The emotional wounds she inflicted are raw and bleeding. . . She has ruined my life.” — 14-year-old boy

The boy, and so many others like him, speaks with wrenching pain. Often they wonder what they did or didn’t do to deserve abuse when others get nurturing and care. They wonder if there is something wrong with them that their own mother rejects them. They stay away from intimacy in fear that they will unerringly find someone just like mom no matter how hard they try not to.

Some keep trying to get their biological mother to be the kind of mother they ache to have. They go back again and again to beg and cry at an emotionally dry well, thinking maybe this time it will be different. Often they are disappointed. Others try to force their mothers to right wrongs, old and new. Every encounter is fraught with anger, yelling and accusations. They are usually disappointed too.

It’s always worth a try. There are some mothers who are better at the job once they themselves are not overwhelmed. Once the kids are grown or their own lives settle down, these mothers get back in touch with themselves, get treatment, get out of a bad situation, or get a financial break. They feel terrible they weren’t up to the task of taking care of their children. They heal. They mature. They apologize. They and their children go forward, relieved to finally connect.

But it’s not hopeless even if the biological mother is inaccessible, indifferent, or dead. If you weren’t born to a motherly mother, you still need one, in the sense that we all need to feel unconditional love, validation, and support from a motherly person. You can still have one if you are willing to let go of the idea that the only person who can do the job is your biological mom. It’s a big shift in thinking to recognize that it is the relationship that is important, not necessarily the person.

If Mother’s Day makes you feel sad, depressed, and left out, perhaps this is the year you will take charge and begin to do something about it.

  • Accept that some people just don’t get a mother out of their mom. You’re certainly not alone.
  • Remind yourself that it’s not your fault that your mother couldn’t be nurturing. It’s not that there is something fundamentally wrong with you. It probably wouldn’t have mattered if you were good, right, and perfect in every way. Some people are just not meant to be mothers or not meant to be mothers at the age or time when they gave birth.
  • Focus on the fact that things change once we are no longer dependent. As a child, you had to keep doing everything you could to please the people you depended on. You needed what minimal care they could provide. You needed to avoid being hurt or ignored. But things are different now. As an independent adult, you can afford to distance from people who reject you or who give you pain. You don’t need to make your mother be motherly to have a mother. You can go elsewhere.
  • Adopt a “mom.” Actually, adopt several since it may take more than one person to fill the role. Seek out other female relatives you like and let yourself get close to them. Maybe the grandmother you only got to see twice a year as a kid would really like to know you better. Accept other offers of inclusion into families with gratitude. Maybe your best friend’s mom or your partner’s mom thinks you are terrific. Open your heart to these women and let them love you. Nurture friendships with older women you meet who share your interests. They will treasure the companionship and your willingness to learn from them. You will have wise women in your life.
  • Find positive role models for mothering in literature, films, and history. Their stories resonate because they speak to the core human need for nurturing. Observe how those characters find strength and resourcefulness within themselves when they need to protect their families. Study how they support and nurture those around them.
  • Realize that men can be “mothers” too. Men who are secure in their masculinity are fine about showing their more “feminine” side. These are men who encourage and nurture those around them, who are generous with their time and talents, who are willing to do some of the little extras that make a house a home or an office a comfortable workplace.
  • Open yourself to “mothering” from your god, nature, higher power, inner voice. Whatever you call it, that perfect being who loves you perfectly can be the same source of comfort, guidance, and love as the idealized mother of Mother’s Day cards.

For those of you fortunate enough to be born to the perfect or at least “good enough” mom, celebrate. You are truly lucky.

For those not so fortunate: Your mother may have given you a miserable childhood but the experience doesn’t have to ruin your life. It’s never too late to develop a mother-adult child relationship of mutual love, respect and caring with women you admire. These are the women to send flowers to on the second Sunday in May.