Losing Our Mothers
How to Survive Mother's Day After Losing Your Mom
My mom had barely been dead for two months when my first Mother's Day without her rolled around. I was 27, had just watched her die of pancreatic cancer, and was in the middle of a process I like to call "returning to your old life after living through your worst nightmare." Every day was a slog that ended with me crying somewhere: the bathroom at my new job, splayed out on the floor of a yoga class in shavasana, or curled up in bed as sleep eluded me. The looming arrival of Mother's Day only heightened my depression, and I was desperate for a distraction, something to focus on besides the mom-shaped hole in my life. When I came across a 10K race for kidney disease that just so happened to be on Mother's Day, I pounced. Something about pounding my bones against hot concrete felt right, like I might just be able to crush myself up into oblivion and forget the entire day.
Instead, training for the race just gave me more time alone with my memories of her. My brain circled back over and over to one Mother's Day in college, when I drove the three hours from Maine to surprise her at brunch outside Boston. She wept when she saw me, and something about her reaction had made me feel so proud. I couldn't believe that my mom loved mesomuch that my appearance in a mediocre suburban restaurant could move her to tears. As I ran, I saw that moment—her shocked face, her standing to hug me, her smile as she cried—over and over again.
But what haunted me even more during my runs was not being able to remember how I'd celebrated her last Mother's Day alive. I could not recall what I'd done to mark the day—possibly a phone call or a voicemail left in haste. I went back and dug through old emails to see if I sent a note or e-card, but there was nothing. On race day, I stomped along the running trail of Central Park in tears, furious with myself for not showering her with balloons and flowers and gifts to demonstrate much she meant to me, how much I would miss her when she was gone.
It has been nine years since my mom died, and the churning grief I experienced those first months and years after her death has mostly subsided. Therapy, time, and Xanax are powerful healers. Now, I approach my grief with equanimity and the occasional weeping meltdown mixed in for good measure.
But there is no getting around Mother's Day. Every year, its looming arrival causes an emotional explosion. One day in early April, I'm minding my own business, buying some cheese for my book club, when suddenly an email pops up on my phone. Crate & Barrel has "fresh gift ideas for mom!" And there I am, standing in line at Trader Joe's, spiraling. Sure, I have my coping mechanisms in place: I set up ad-blockers to avoid the endless barrage of Mother's Day content online. I confess my pain in a secret Facebook group for other women who are motherless. I know the places to avoid (brunch), and the things that help (yoga, tender time with friends, alcohol). But ultimately, I've learned that the only way to survive a motherless Mother's Day is to simply plod through it head-on, no matter how much it hurts. And man, does it hurt.
The first few Mother's Days without my mom felt awkward and stiff, like being forced to wear a new pair of jeans that are two sizes too small. One year, two of my best friends invited me out for brunch. It was an incredibly thoughtful gesture, their way of protecting and standing by me on a tough day. Instead, it just made me irritated and annoyed—how could they possibly think I could handlebrunchon Mother's Day?—and so, I declined. Another year, I hid in the back row of a yoga class filled with adult women and their moms and sobbed.
Although these moments were uncomfortable and hard, making it through them gave me a small boost of confidence. I began to approach the day like some sort of emotional experiment. Now, each year, I go deep into the crevasses of my sadness and shine a flashlight on the ugly emotions I'd rather avoid: the anger, sorrow and regret, the jealousy I feel toward other women with living, breathing moms. Once the thick, hot grief starts to overpower me, I attempt a shift. I text my mother-less friends who get it, I make mental lists of the magic in my life (I am in good health,andI have an actual avocado tree in my yard, what more could I want?), and when my pity party gets to be too much, I imagine my mom telling me to "get your crap together, babycakes." She would then probably start humming "Onward, Christian Soldiers," because there was nothing she loved more than following curt advice with 19th-century British war hymnals.
Lately, Mother's Day has actually become enjoyable for the most selfish of reasons: Now that I myself am a mother, the focus is on me. I have two small daughters who are in the middle of crafting me gifts at preschool and trying very hard not to spoil my husband's secret plans for the day. They've even made the most miserable parts of the day fun again—so much so that I can finally handle a Mother's Day brunch without breaking down in tears. (Which is a good thing, because that's my husband's "secret" plan for the day.) They are excited to celebrate me, and let's be honest, I am excited to celebrate me. If you saw the amount of pee I cleaned up off the floor this week, you'd celebrate me too.
My girls have brought lightness to a day normally reserved for my own bitterness and sorrow. Their excitement has also helped me to recognize that Mother's Day is about honoring my mother, her mother, and generations of women before them. My mom died way before my kids were born, but her influence abounds in how I raise them, from the lullabies I sing, to my fondness for homemade play dough, to my proclivity for yelling. (You inherit both the good and the bad from your parents.)
Despite the buoyancy my kids have injected into the day, a simple email from Crate & Barrel can still spawn dread, anger, denial, sadness, and depression that eats away at my insides. But I don't turn away. Instead, I grab ahold of my darkest moments and squeeze the good out of them.
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