My mother is an extremely happy, loving, enthusiastic person. She loves spending time with family and any holiday that celebrates family or a specific family member, like Father’s Day or birthdays. However, when it comes to Mother’s Day or her own birthday, she has a very tough time. She will spend the weeks leading up to it all excited and discussing all the fun things we’ll do that day, but when the day comes, she’ll suddenly change her mind and actively try to make it like any other day. If we planned on going to her favorite restaurant, dinner time will come and she will beg us not to make a big deal of it and just have leftovers for dinner instead. When we try to insist that she deserves to be celebrated, she will get very upset to the point of tears. For the life of me I can’t understand how she can be so excited for weeks and then without fail, depressed on that day. We have even tried celebrating on a different day, but the same thing happens. We’ve tried everything from making an extra-big deal about it to barely celebrating and keeping things relatively quiet with just a home-cooked meal at home and a card saying how much we love her. Not celebrating at all doesn’t work — one time we saved any celebration until that night, and we found out later that she had been privately crying that day thinking we had forgotten. We’re a very open family and we consult about everything, but however much she tries she can’t seem to fully understand or articulate what comes over her on Mother’s Day and her birthday. She has very strong relationships with her mother (who has since passed away, but this issue stems from long before that), with her kids, and with her husband. We’re very affectionate and hug and kiss and say “I love you” many times a day, and we mean it. She’s the most selfless, self-sacrificing person I know, and it’s almost as if she feels guilty about being celebrated. We are SO proud of her but throughout her life she has never had much self-esteem; is this at all related to that? What can we do for her to keep her from sobbing twice a year as if on cue, and what on earth is causing it? We love her and we just want her to be happy and to know what a phenomenal person she is and how grateful we are to have her!
Thank you so much,
Hi Shelly –
I’m guessing your mother is in my mother’s general age category (baby boomer – right?) There is something weird about every mother I’ve ever known in that generation when it comes to Mother’s Day. (Maybe it’s every generation and I’m just not old enough yet to know it.) I remember as a kid my mom packing a bag and leaving on Mother’s day. I remember her crying on Mother’s day. I remember my dad and us kids, never doing “it” right on Mother’s Day. When I became a mother – I automatically hated Mother’s day. (That is what we call a “learned behavior” people). Until a few years ago, I woke up one Mother’s day and realized that I wasn’t really mad for any real reason and I was torturing my very thoughtful and kind husband. (Sorry again dear.) Maybe I was just following a bizarre tradition I didn’t just learn from my mom, but from what seemed like all the moms I knew. Or maybe there is a bit more to it.
What is this about? I think your mother’s situation might be a combination of a few things that are pretty common. One being the weird set up that is a day to celebrate Mothers. (Read about the dark side of Mother’s day here.) As mothers, we go along and do all that has to be done every day of the year without much applause along the way. Then this one-day rolls around (and maybe for your mom that includes ANY holiday that revolves around her) where the spotlight is focused on you and your 24 hour a day job that you feel like you are failing at more often than not. Not a great set up. In talking to many mothers over the years about this, I have most often heard two things. First is that no one treats you well enough on that day. The dishes still need doing and kids don’t suddenly know how to behave sufficiently well on such a high expectancy day. In the end, we feel unappreciated and maybe it’s only on Mother’s Day we are forced to admit it to ourselves. The other side is the constant praise from everyone else about their “perfect” mother. (Cue annoying Facebook posts.) It can create feelings or worsen existing feelings of self-doubt and bring on the dreaded comparison game. Either way, this spotlight can be painful for mothers, even when they generally feel secure in their lives.
In your mom’s case specifically, I’m guessing that her insecurity includes self-doubt about her worth and her mothering and these feelings get super-highlighted on “the big days” when she is the center of attention. It simply overwhelms her. It’s a little bit like imposter syndrome. She just doesn’t believe that she is as good a person and mother as you say she is. Making her the center of attention is telling her she is great in the biggest way we can in our society and it just might be driving those self-doubts into hyper-focus which can increase feelings of being a fraud or failure.
She sounds like a wonderful person who deserves to be celebrated, but she feels undeserving. One thing you could try with her is to ask her what she believes she “deserves” in her life? She has sacrificed a lot for everyone around her, as do all mothers, but maybe the deeper reasons for that are more complicated than seems obvious on the surface. If she is generally insecure about her contributions to the family’s success, or her contributions to the workforce or her marriage or friendships, then it would explain why this is so tough for her. Maybe she doesn’t want you to be her therapist, but I think a few questions about her inner world might give you some clues to this phenomenon. I’m wondering where these feelings come from. Was she maltreated as a child or young person? Has she shared with you or others the sources of her insecurity? Remember, you can’t convince her that she is an awesome mother and woman or anything, for that matter, if she doesn’t believe she is, but maybe you can get her to open up about it. It might help loosen up self-doubt’s pesky grip.
If that leads you to a dead end, I suggest kidnapping her on a random Tuesday to surprise her with a family dinner. 🙂
Best of luck to you both.