Caring Currents

Mother's Day Grief

Last updated: May 08, 2009

[Mom and me at a birthday dinner]

This Mother's Day is the first since my mother died last June, and for the past few weeks my emotions have been a combustible cocktail of sorrow, loss, and rage. The truth is, this has never been my favorite holiday, given that my relationship with my mother was a tangled and troubled one. Somewhere deep down, I think I thought it would be a relief not to have to "celebrate" it anymore.

I wasn't expecting the emotional hit I've taken over the past few weeks, as those around me prepare to acknowledge and honor the generations of women that hold their families together. When murmurs arise about choosing the perfect gift or exchanging recipes for brunch, I have to leave the room. I honestly don't know if I'll lose my temper or burst into tears, and I don't want to find out. So this goes out to all of you for whom Mother's Day brings painful feelings of sorrow, loss, anger, and guilt. Those are real feelings too.

In the past, in our family, Mother's Day was more a duty and responsibility than it was a pleasure. Over the years, our tradition was to gather the family at a local restaurant a few blocks from my mom's house, then do our best to make light conversation as we all tried not to notice mom's bleary eyes, her shaking hands, her awkward silences as she struggled to follow the conversation through a haze of hangover and memory loss. My mother was an alcoholic all her adult life, and despite a few half-hearted stabs at rehab, it was alcoholism that killed her. It wasn't a pretty story, it wasn't a pretty life, and it wasn't a pretty death. So Mother's Day, which for some is a painful but moving day of remembrance, isn't that either, at least not yet.

Here's the thing: I may not be able to say that my mom was a "good" mom -- her alcoholism and other demons prevented her from being many of the things she wanted to be, and I wanted her to be -- but she did the best she could. She tried really, really hard. Toward the end of her life, when I saw her almost daily, I was able, slowly and painfully, to move toward an understanding and acceptance of what she'd tried to achieve.

My mom wanted desperately to be a good mother. Raising us four girls was certainly her proudest achievement, something she valued far above her multiple degrees and early but impressive career. And if she taught me one thing, it was to value being a good mom, too.

In raising my own daughters, I've come to understand so much more about what it takes to be a mother, and all the things that can get in the way, despite our best intentions. Things don't always turn out the way we thought they would, the way we wanted them to. That could be the inscription on my mom's headstone, had she been buried, and who knows, it could be the inscription on mine, too. "Do as I say, not as I do," my mom used to say with a twinkle in her eye, and I think I can honestly say I've lived up to that. Somehow I "got" the values she was trying to show me, even as she tried and failed to live up to them herself. Will my legacy be that I was a "good" mother? I don't know yet; I don't even think my girls have the answer to that yet. But I've sure as hell tried.

Another tradition that developed over the years in my own house was a rushed "breakfast in bed," (usually consisting of scalding tea and burnt toast) before we zoomed out the door to pick up mom. This year there's no need to rush; for the first time we can linger. Maybe there will be time for the tea to cool, to make the toast properly. Perhaps my girls will even take me out to brunch. It'll be something new and different, a chance for us to focus on our relationship for a change. But it won't be a celebration. At least not this year.