When Mother’s Day Is Hard to Celebrate

Person with long, shoulder-length hair walks out of wide forest tunnel into afternoon sunlightMother’s Day is observed on the second Sunday in May. Greeting card stores and flower shops go to great lengths to remind customers that many people have, or have had, mothers to celebrate. This is a time to send tokens of gratitude to self-sacrificing moms or to honor those who have passed. It’s the one day a year set aside specifically to cherish the mothers who nurtured us, provided for us, taught us, and played with us.

But what about the mothers who don’t have, or never had, much to give?

Children (including adult children) who were raised or abandoned by mothers with mental health issues may have mixed or negative sentiments. They may remember being embarrassed by their mother’s inappropriate behavior in public or around friends. They may wince at painful memories of their mom self-medicating her psychiatric symptoms with drugs or alcohol. They may have tried to forget Mommy Dearest hiding her bizarre thoughts or behaviors behind a cult affiliation or an extreme religious organization. Their mother may have ended up on the streets or spent time in a correctional facility. No matter how the mental health issues played out, her children paid a price.

As a therapist, I hear many stories from people who survived difficult childhoods. Many had the misfortune of being born to mothers with chronic depression, personality disorders, or unrelenting anxiety. Children whose mothers had schizophrenia, bipolar, schizoaffective disorder, or other diagnoses may remember caring for their mothers rather than the other way around. Adult children who experienced the chaos of an emotionally imbalanced mother often fear they will inherit the condition or act in harmful ways with their own children. Being afraid of becoming one’s mother is the antithesis of what many people celebrate in May.

If you spent part or all of your childhood with a mother who struggled with psychological issues, you’re not alone. Be compassionate toward yourself.

The wounds left by a mother with a personality condition such as narcissism or borderline personality may heal slowly. Even after adults have worked hard to individuate from a toxic mother, they may encounter triggers that bring back difficult emotions.


Adult children whose mother had a psychiatric issue often feel sad and may grieve the loss of a nurturing, emotionally safe childhood.

Adult children who experienced the chaos of an emotionally imbalanced mother often fear they will inherit the condition or act in harmful ways with their own children. Being afraid of becoming one’s mother is the antithesis of what many people celebrate in May.


When someone has been deprived of a caring, attentive mother and they see other families where the mom is connected and engaged with her children, anger can surface.


Parents who survived a poor relationship with their mother may fear they will not find positive ways to express love to their own kids.


When a child has been repeatedly hurt by a mother who was preoccupied with her own mental state, they may carry grudges and resentments for years.


All humans are born with the need to be loved, nurtured, and protected. If a child’s needs went unmet, they may carry a deep longing to be unconditionally loved and cared for.


Children who repeatedly experience the fallout of a mother’s breakdown (she went off her medication, self-medicated with drugs, attempted suicide, disappeared for days or weeks, didn’t get out of bed, was physically abusive, was hospitalized, etc.) develop ways to protect themselves. In adulthood, these emotional protections are often interpreted by partners as isolating or distancing.

What to Do If Mother’s Day Is Difficult

If you’re struggling with how to celebrate a less-than-perfect mom this Mother’s Day, here are some tips:

  1. Remember you did the best you could in an exceptionally difficult environment (and believe it or not, so did your mother).
  2. Celebrate the courage and self-esteem you managed to develop even though your mother was unreliable in her nurturance and maternal affection.
  3. Applaud the caring “mom” you have developed within you. Treat yourself like a loving parent would, with praise, loving guidance, and a lot of humor. Your inner child will thank you.
  4. Give a gift of gratitude to someone else who provided loving acceptance and guidance to you as a child or teen.
  5. If you decide to contact your mother, do, say, or write only what is comfortable for you, and only what you can do without feeling resentment.
  6. Forgive yourself for anything you may be holding over yourself. Drop any “shoulds,” “ought-tos,” or “could-haves”—they won’t help anything. Remember you’re doing the best you know how to do. Every day is a chance to learn.
  7. Look into meeting with a therapist who can help you work through difficult memories and experiences.

If you had a childhood that was devoid of a stable, caring mother, celebrate your strength and commitment to your own serenity and well-being. No one can take away your self-acceptance. No one knows you better than you. No one can compliment you better than the positive things you say to yourself. If no one else, celebrate you!

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  • Leave a Comment
  • Donna B. MSW

    May 12th, 2018 at 1:07 PM

    I’d like to write a touching mother’s day poem, instead I have my truth. I didn’t even cry when she died. A wounded woman, I understand more and more, 7 years later. She is my teacher, the most important, who set my holy foundation as all mother’s do. The bull shit solid one is a myth! Now, I honor her, containing my experience of who she was to me. Two holy cloths.

  • Dana B.

    May 14th, 2018 at 4:04 PM

    I so needed to read this. I forgive you Mom. <3

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