The concept of Mother’s Day is noble, to celebrate your mom and acknowledge all of the love and hard work she puts into motherhood. However, not every relationship is the same, and knowing how to celebrate Mother’s Day when you have a toxic mom isn’t exactly intuitive. How are you supposed to spend the day appreciating your mom when all the holiday brings for you are painful memories or hurt?
Around 9% of adult children will find themselves wishing a happy Mother’s Day to a toxic mom this year (or not celebrating with them at all) because they have an estranged relationship for one reason or another, per a 2021 study in the Journal of Marriage and Family. In fact, even if you have a great relationship with your mom, there’s still a good chance you know someone who’s estranged from their own, but they just haven’t told you. In a Family Relations report, Kristina M. Scharp Ph.D., researcher and associate professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington, notes that adult children who have difficult relationships with their parents rarely share that information with the people around them because they feel judged.
If you have found yourself in a position where you’re trying to celebrate Mother’s Day with a toxic mom, it’s important to make sure you take care of yourself, first and foremost. If you think it’s the right time to reconnect with her, then that’s great, but don’t feel pressured into it if you’re not ready. “The word ‘obligation’ sums it up,” marriage and family therapist, Jenny Limm, MFT, M.Ed., tells Romper in an email. “If you don’t want to reach out [to your mom on Mother’s Day] you don’t have to.” Alternatively, if you do want to reach out to her, but aren’t sure how to do it, it’s important to fully process the situation and take your time so that when you connect, you can do it in a way that is helpful to the relationship instead of further damaging it.
Reflecting on and reassessing your relationship with a toxic parent
As Mother’s Day approaches, you may naturally start thinking about your relationship (or lack thereof) with your mother, and this can be a good thing. “[Taking] the time to reflect a little bit” on the relationship allows you to start to sit with and process your feelings instead of just getting angry, Kathryn Smerling, Ph.D., LCSW, tells Romper. When you’re reflecting, try to do it mindfully so that you’re focusing on things that can actually help you manage your feelings rather than ramp them up and make you feel worse.
As you reflect, you may find that “things you thought were irreparable, now may not seem so important,” says Smerling, and maybe you’re ready to entertain the idea of reaching out to your mom on Mother’s Day. If you’re at this point, take as much time as you need to make sure that reconnecting is what’s best for you. “First, take a deep breath and ask yourself what you’re in need of: connection, love, respect, compassion?,” suggests Limm. “The next step is to ask yourself if you believe your mom has the capacity to give you what you need.”
If the answer to this question is yes, “know what your intention is” before moving further forward, advises Smerling. Are you hoping to start rebuilding the relationship or is communication via text all you’re looking for right now? Remember, you can open up communication with your mom without diving right in. If “it’s time to make a gesture,” you can send your mom “a card, flowers, [or even just an] emoji” to start repairing the relationship, Smerling says.
Deciding to attempt to build or rebuild a relationship with a toxic person is a big deal, and you’ll likely need to set some boundaries to protect yourself. It might feel intimidating to go into this situation with demands of boundaries, but Limm points out that it’s about what you need to feel safe and comfortable. “Most people are uncomfortable setting boundaries because they feel uncomfortable knowing/anticipating the other person to be displeased, disappointed, angry, or upset with them,” explains Limm, “[but] we need to get over this overwhelming sense of emotional responsibility for others.”
To discuss your boundaries in an effective way, Limm suggests doing it when you’re both in the right emotional state, so Mother’s Day may not be the best choice since there are a lot of emotional attachments to the holiday. “Intuitively [you] may want to lash out” if you approach this conversation when you’re emotionally charged, says Limm, and using “fighting words” isn’t going to move the conversation forward. Instead, she suggests “communicating [your needs] in a way that [your mom] will be able to receive” the information, even if you know she will ultimately disagree with your requests. This is going to set you up for an effective conversation rather than one field by hurt, resentment, or anger.
Don’t be surprised if “your mom responds in a ‘toxic’ manner,” says Limm, by guilt-tripping or using manipulative language. If this happens, “don’t argue with [her because] she’s “entitled to how she feels,” advises Limm. Instead, she suggests asking your mom to “talk about this when [you’re] both calmer.”
Healing: celebrating and prioritizing your mental and emotional health
Maybe you have no interest in connecting with your mom this Mother’s Day, and that’s okay. To make the day a little easier, though, Limm suggests taking a break from social media for the day and celebrating other meaningful people in your life. “Identify people in your life who have been nurturing, kind, compassionate, [and] emotionally available to you,” Limm says, “Reach out to them and wish them a happy Mother’s Day because it’s not about the title of being a mother that’s important, it’s the ‘mothering’ that needs to be celebrated.”
Don’t forget to acknowledge your own hard work in all of this, too. “Spend the day nurturing yourself…[celebrate] how you’ve survived and taken such great care of yourself, despite having a toxic mother,” says Limm. Spend the day indulging in all of the self-care acts you love like getting a massage, coloring while listening to your favorite podcast, or feeling the warmth of the sun on your face. Treat this day as a celebration of how far you’ve come and your determination to keep toxicity out of your life.
Summary of what not to do
Again, it’s extremely important to protect yourself when you’re trying to manage Mother’s Day with a difficult relationship. As you consider how you want to move forward with celebrating the holiday (or not celebrating it), here are a few things to try not to do:
- Don’t apologize for having boundaries or feel like you need to compromise them for the sake of the holiday
- Don’t fight or ignore your feelings, and don’t let your mom (or anyone else) shame you for them
- Don’t spend the day on social media because you’ll be flooded with images of moms and children who appear to have healthy relationships, which could be triggering
- Avoid going to popular Mother’s Day spots in your area, like well-known restaurants or certain events
- Don’t allow anyone to pressure you into doing something you’re not comfortable with, whether it’s your mom or someone who is encouraging you to mend the relationship even though you’re not ready
Navigating Mother’s Day with a toxic mom, and deciding whether or not to celebrate with her can be incredibly difficult. Whatever it is that you decide to do, just remember to be gentle with yourself and take the process as slowly as you need to. Your mental health matters just as much on Mother’s Day as it does every other day of the year.
Kathryn Smerling, Ph.D., LCSW, family therapist
Jenny Limm, MFT, ME, marriage and family therapist
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