One of the worst things I had to do after my mother died was erase her number from my cell phone contacts list. I removed her number like you would a band-aid that has settled on your skin – quickly and almost without looking – to reduce the pain. At twenty-five, I had a new identity I wasn’t expecting and didn’t want – I was now a motherless daughter.
This year, many years later, as Mother’s Day approaches and I start thinking about a mother’s day for the rest of us, an advertisement from Mpix, an online photo company, popped up in my email:
“She was there for your first breath and your first smile. She is a never ending source of love, strength, and support. There are millions of words that you could use to describe her, but only one will do. Forever and always, she is Mom. Mother’s Day is right around the corner and it’s time to show the extraordinary women in your life just how much they mean to you.”
Every year around this time, we are inundated with this story line. While some may seamlessly relate to it, we must acknowledge what this narrative assumes about our lives and the many people that it leaves out.
There are motherless people and people with multiple mothers, there are those with complicated and estranged relationships with their mothers, there are birth, adoptive and step mothers, there are mothers whose children have died or are missing, there are people experiencing infertility. The complexity of human relationships and diversity of stories surrounding the concept of a Mother is dynamic, filled with experiences of joy and pain, and our American culture often fails to be inclusive, to shine light on this diversity.
While I cannot relate each person’s unique story here, I hope that by saying a bit about my process that I can help others to feel more accompanied in theirs. So how do we acknowledge our unique experience on Mother’s Day (or any day for that matter) in the face of sweeping cultural assumptions about ‘Mother’? I didn’t know how at first. For the first few years after my mother died, Mother’s Day was so disorienting. I was gutted by the stranger on the sidewalk clearly talking with her mother. All I wanted to do was hide, to be invisible. I hoped I wouldn’t encounter anyone that would ask me questions about my plans with my mom that day. When they inevitably did, I would be filled with a rush of adrenaline and shame. The questions begged my admitting: I don’t have “the never ending source of love, strength and support” that everyone else seems to have.
As the years progressed I would write letters to my mother on Mother’s Day giving voice to my loss, and my experience in our relationship. I would also become more vocal with my friends and community about my story. I went from whispering, “My mother passed” to an empowered statement, “My mother died so Mother’s Day for me looks like this”. The more vocal I was about my story the less shame I experienced around not fulfilling the assumed narrative and the more full my life felt in the face of this absence. Having a community around me that listened and acknowledged my unique experience was also pivotal.
Anne Lamott shares in her book Traveling Mercies, “Grief…is a lazy Susan. One day it is heavy and underwater, and the next day it spins and stops at loud and rageful, and the next day at wounded keening, and the next day numbness, silence.” Every year on Mother’s Day is different. Grief is constantly changing shape. After all these years I never really know what to expect – grief certainly has a life of its own. What I do know, however, is that implementing ritual, receiving acknowledgement from your community for your story, and vocalizing your authentic and unique experience, are key elements in combating what can be emotionally stifling cultural assumptions about Motherhood. This year, on Mother’s Day, while I can no longer call my mother, I can reach her by honoring my story.