As a therapist, and a mother, daughter, friend, neighbor and sister-in-law, I’ve supported countless girls and women through the emotional rollercoaster that Mother’s Day often brings. While we were all brought into the world by a woman, she’s not always the one we call mom. Some children are lucky to have one or more caring women in their lives who are regarded as a mother, or a mother figure. But everyone is not so fortunate; some children grow into adulthood never having experienced this type of maternal bond.
Growing up, one of my closest friends lost her mother to cancer when we were in 7th grade. Since then, I’ve always looked at Mother’s Day through a different lens. Intuitively I knew at that time that this holiday would be hard for her each and every year for the rest of her life. In graduate school and through my training and experience over the past 15+ years I’ve learned about the importance of the mother-daughter bond and the many ways that this bond can be impacted through developmental and situational life traumas.
Now, I spend my days in my private practice working with women who are on both sides of the motherhood journey—those who are yearning to be mothers, struggling with infertility, and those who have become mothers and are making their way through the transition to motherhood, often coping with symptoms of depression, anxiety and post traumatic stress. I also see women who are caught somewhere in-between on their motherhood journey, those who have lost their babies. Unfortunately no one is exempt from the myriad of emotions that may be stirred up by this second Sunday in May.
MOTHER’S DAY CAN BE PAINFUL
There are many reasons why this day might be hard for you. Not having a mother, or losing a mother can trigger emotions of loss and sadness as the day approaches. Even new moms who are navigating their way through this first year of motherhood aren’t excluded from this conversation. If you’re struggling with a postpartum mood or anxiety disorder, shame and guilt may be overriding any feelings of joy you’d hoped to experience.
Becoming a mother also makes us acutely aware of the ways in which we were or weren’t mothered. These experiences and memories can stir up a well of feelings. The anticipation of the holiday can spark feelings of overwhelm, grief and loss. Similar emotions may arise for those who are still struggling to create a baby, or bring one into their lives and hearts.
The anticipation of Mother’s Day can be more difficult than the actual day for some. I have found that making a plan is one of the best ways to prepare for the day and to help make the day meaningful to you notwithstanding the pain you also feel.
I encourage my clients to focus on activities that feel nourishing—curling up with a good book, walking on the beach, eating yummy food, making a recipe that touches the soul like only the smells and tastes of certain foods can do. Taking care of ourselves is the first step.
You may be wondering how to cope with family responsibilities, the obligatory Mother’s Day brunch at Aunt Suzy’s or the BBQ dinner at your step-mother’s. For some, the idea of forgoing a family obligation just isn’t an option. And that’s OK. But I encourage you to check-in with yourself and weigh the pros and cons carefully. You matter. If you decide you must go, consider if you’re able to arrive late and leave early. This is often a great solution if declining the invitation might cause too much family drama. Try to add something to your day that feels supportive, so you don’t go to bed feeling depleted emotionally and physically, which is so often the end result when emotions are thoroughly taxed.
CREATE YOUR OWN TRADITION
Whether you’re adding on to an existing event or starting from scratch, consider making your own traditions. If you’re not sure what that might look like, keep reading. I’ve included a few ideas to help get you thinking and planning for a day that’s special to you. Hopefully one of these ideas will inspire you.
GO FOR A HIKE. Spring is the perfect time of the year in most areas of the U.S. to get outside, soak up the sunshine and breathe in some fresh air. Not only is a walk outside great for the body but also for the mind. Physical exercise has been shown to release endorphins (feel-good hormones), which naturally trigger positive feelings helping to reduce levels of depression and anxiety. The great thing about hiking is that you can do it alone, with a partner and even bring the kids, regardless of their age. And please don’t be put off by the word “hike”. A stroll in nature can be just as good for the body and the mind.
GARDEN. Another great activity to do alone or with others. If your garden has been neglected, weeding can be more gratifying than one might think. Try to embrace the tedious task as a practice of mindfulness, staying present as you loosen each stubborn weed from the grip of mother earth. Allow yourself to sense the soil in your hands, the sun on your back, the sweat trickling down your face. If you’re ready for planting, head to the nursery and find the vegetables, or flowers that catch your eye. Decide if you will plant from seed or not. Imagine the bounty that will grow from your hard labor and attention over the coming weeks and months and how the colors, smells and sounds of the garden will fill you, and perhaps your belly.
GET A MASSAGE. The benefits of massage are too great to enumerate here. The physical benefits associated with pain management go without saying. In addition, massage promotes relaxation and stress relief, which directly impact mood. Research shows that touch triggers a cascade of chemical responses, including a decrease in stress hormones, and an increase in serotonin and dopamine levels. The shift in these bio-chemicals has been proven to improve mood and decrease symptoms of depression.
EAT WELL. Make a point to feed yourself well. We’ve heard the saying too often- you are what you eat. Often feelings of stress and sadness are greeted with foods that are laden with sugar, salt or fat. Bad fat. These foods do little to nourish the body, or our mental well-being. But there are choices you can make that will actually help to boost your mood. Start by choosing meals for the day that incorporate a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. Avoid processed foods as much as possible. Prioritize foods that boost your dopamine and naturally boost your mood like animal proteins, almonds, avocados, bananas, chocolate, green tea, watermelon, yogurt, leafy greens and legumes. Choose non caffeinated tea in lieu of coffee, which can increase symptoms of depression and anxiety.
SLEEP! I’d be remiss not to mention sleep. Indulging in an afternoon nap or heading to bed on the early side can be a great add on to any tradition in the making. We live in such a busy society, and sleep is often the first thing to go. But not enough sleep can cause irritability, anger, stress and low motivation. So allow yourself to take it slow today and catch up on any sleep you may have missed this week.
I’d love to know how your day went and whether this article was personally helpful. And let us know what worked—or didn’t for you. If you found this Mother’s Day particularly difficult, consider reaching out for support from a trained therapist. If you are in the San Diego area, send me a message or give me a call at 619.780.3277 to see if we’re a good fit for therapy. Psychology Today is another great resource for finding a therapist near you.