The Mother You Didn’t Have

If you spent more than 15 minutes looking for a Mother’s Day card because reading the sentimental ones made you feel like a hypocrite, sad, or guilty, welcome to today’s blog.

Prickly plant seedhead.

Prickly plant seedhead.

If your childhood was happy and you had a mother who gave you everything you needed and no card is sweet enough, today’s blog is not for you. And most likely, you are with your mom, being happy.

Anna Jarvis, who invented American Mother’s Day in 1908 was angered by the commercialization by the early 1920s. So you are not alone if you think the holiday is a lot of hype for cards and candy. Most likely, that’s not your heartache. You never had the mother you wanted. The one who comforted you and praised you and loved you when you were unlovable and  helped without anger when you sewed the pieces of your gingham skirt together backwards. Twice.

Maybe you chose not to be a mother and everyone asks you why, or you wanted to be a mother and it didn’t happen for you and you are still pretending that’s just fine.

It’s complicated. Whether your mother was cruel or uncaring or clueless, the pain is there. If your mother is still alive, you probably won’t be able to have the big turnaround, awakening and happy ending your friends keep promising you. If your mother is dead, you may replay scenes, wondering if you had acted differently, if the results would have been different. You’ll never know, but a wild guess tells me No. Some things can’t be changed, fixed, or healed. And never by one person. Two people, a mother and her child, might be able to cobble together a relationship, but it’s hard.

The relationships between mothers and daughters is always hard. There is unwritten jealousy between age and experience and youth and naivete. There is anger in lost opportunities and unmet expectations.  For some, the fact that you were a daughter was enough of a disappointment to fill a lifetime. I ran across this quote yesterday, whose poignancy was hard to read:

“Remember that every son had a mother whose beloved son he was, and every woman had a mother whose beloved son she wasn’t. ” – Marge Piercy

But here is a truth you might want to hear right now, today, on Mother’s Day. You cannot be anyone else except the person you are today, with all your faults, experiences, hardships, joys, stumbles, successes and backslides. That is also true of your mother. No matter what happened, your awareness and work brought you to where you are today.

And starting today, you can choose to be generous and kind and patient. Maybe

The long shadow doesn't have to haunt you.

The long shadow doesn’t have to haunt you.

not with your mother, but with the women who surround you. The ones who work with you and don’t meet your expectations. The pretty ones who get promoted ahead of you.  The ones who don’t take the opportunities you wanted and they have the freedom to turn down. All those women you meet on your path during the day. You can swallow the angry remark. You can wish them well. You can choose not to judge. That is your choice now. And choosing that freedom instead of choosing retribution is worth celebrating. Today and every day.

-Quinn McDonald’s mother has been dead for almost 10 years, and the shadow still falls across the path on some days.

43 thoughts on “The Mother You Didn’t Have

  1. As I grew to know my mother better as a person I understood the reasons for her shortcomings as a parent and appreciated her strengths and wisdom. Like me she did the best she could and while some aspects it wasn’t good enough, in some, it was. With all that in mind I could work on the legacy . . . and perforce, still revisit it from time to time.

    I’ve told my own daughter something similar, that if I had another daughter I’d do some thing the same and some things differently because I’ve grown as we all do if our hearts and minds are open. I love her and did my best at the time under the circumstances . . . just like my mother.

    On Mother’s Day I thanked my daughter-in-law for being a wonderful loving mother to my granddaughters.

  2. I didn’t send a card from myself, but I did have the children make one for her, she is their grandmother and that relationship has a lot less angst and certainly more surface love.

    I have spent considerable time debating with myself the fact that if my mother can’t see me or love me (let alone like me), then what does that say about the sort of person I am. I still have those discussions with myself.

    I have mostly come to a place that it means my mother and I have issues that are unlikely to be resolved in this life time.

    I aspire to mother my children the way I wish I had been mothered and to wish my own mother well on her journey, without much engagement in her life from me. It seems to work mostly, though some days the reality of what is, is still hard to understand or bear.

    • Well said. Yes, it’s sad when a relationship isn’t there, but sometimes there is nothing that you can do by yourself. Some things have to be accepted as they are. I’m sorry for the stituation, though, it sounds like your mom is missing out on a great woman and her life.

  3. Happy Mother’s Day!

    Don’t know if it’s a gender thing, or cultural, or just luck, but I can’t think of any mother issues I ever had. She didn’t think much of Mothers Day though.

  4. The prickly plant seedhead says it all. In my blog today I thanked all the women in my life who loved and made a difference, I appreciate a great many women as mentors, not mothers. And I did send a card, one from “Both of Us” – basic and neutral, but it took my a half hour of searching and questioning why….

  5. Thank you for this column dear Quinn. I’m one of those daughters who always struggles to find the “right” card for a mother who really didn’t mother me.

  6. I prefer this Mothers’ Day from 1870
    A Proclamation by Julia Ward Howe
    I’d post a link if I knew how
    Arise then…women of this day!
    Arise, all women who have hearts!
    Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!
    Say firmly:
    “We will not have questions answered by irrelevant agencies,
    Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage,
    For caresses and applause.
    Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
    All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
    We, the women of one country,
    Will be too tender of those of another country
    To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”

    From the bosom of a devastated Earth a voice goes up with
    Our own. It says: “Disarm! Disarm!
    The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.”
    Blood does not wipe out dishonor,
    Nor violence indicate possession.
    As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil
    At the summons of war,
    Let women now leave all that may be left of home
    For a great and earnest day of counsel.
    Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
    Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
    Whereby the great human family can live in peace…
    Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
    But of God –
    In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask
    That a general congress of women without limit of nationality,
    May be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient
    And the earliest period consistent with its objects,
    To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,
    The amicable settlement of international questions,
    The great and general interests of peace.

  7. Oooohhh! I´m the ultimate mother hen. I´d go around hugging you all girls. Might not be your own mother´s love but here you go ~~~~~~~loving thoughts for all of you~~~~~~~
    PS: when I do things I know my kids don´t like I whisper to them “It could be worse, you know”

  8. Oh how this resonates with me! I thought I was the ONLY one that had issues choosing a Mother’s Day card – where are the cards that have the sentiment – “You were never there but I survived anyway”…….
    I will go visit her today with fresh cut roses from my garden, but I will not have a store bought card with sentiments that I don’t feel.
    I wish a Happy Mother’s Day to those mom’s that wanted children and made time for them.

    • You know, when I first approached a card company with divorce cards, they were shocked and told me I was a bad person. And now they are common. I think there is a place for a line of non-committal cards, and I love the idea of a fancy, floral card with “You were never there but I survived anyway.”

  9. Funny, we both got the same quote (from Van at QOTD?) And the 15 minutes to pick out a card… that is how I knew that my marriage was over… it no longer seemed right to pick out the mushy gooey cards I had to go for the funny ones! Perceptive of you …

  10. Quinn – such a powerful post and Happy Mother’s Day to you! I love hearing about your relationship with Ian. You learned many lessons from your own Mom…maybe what NOT to do with Ian.

    • And I’m sure I was not the mother he dreamed about, either. I think a lot of mothers try to be the mother they wished they had instead of figuring out what their kids need. I was (well, am) a workaholic and often was not at events and too tired to do fun things, but we had a decent roof over our heads and good food on the table. And an unending supply of books. And I am proud of the person my son made me into and who is he today–despite of it all!

    • That will have to be someone else’s post to write, although I’m sure there is another side. I can honestly say I never hated my mother, but I was sure frustrated, confused, angry, disappointed and hopeless as I tried everything I knew to gain her approval and love.

  11. I’m with you, Jo. I have such mixed feelings when I look back on my childhood. There are moments of happy and sort of ‘normal’ all mixed up in a self conscious, swirling soup of chaos and dysfunction. I decided in my early twenties that I was going to live my life differently, and tried my best to create a stable, happy life for myself and my girls. I decided early on that I wouldn’t use my childhood as an excuse for my mistakes, but I’ve come to realize that our upbringing can have such an influence on how we experience the world. I’ve made some mistakes, and consequently, my life isn’t all that I want it to be, but like Quinn, I think I am a better person for the struggle, and hold on to the vision I keep in my heart. I remain grateful for all the blessings I do have in my life, and keep moving forward one step at a time. Love and bright blessings to all of you.

    • What a powerful statement Pattie, “I decided early on that I wouldn’t use my childhood as an excuse for my mistakes…”

      Life is never all that we want it to be (those that say it is are lying to themselves) but we have the choice to focus on the positive aspects or the negative. It sounds like you are making the choice to focus on the best parts of life and keep moving forward with gratitude. Good for you!

    • We all make mistakes, and none of us may be the mothers our children want. When we do our best, we are doing what we can. I love “I decided in my early twneties that I was going to live my life differently,” that’s a huge key. That decision.

  12. I always wanted a daughter, likely due to the relationship I had with my mother. Fortunately, my only child was born a girl. I don’t understand when people voice the opinion that girls are more difficult to raise. While our relationship has it’s ups and downs, it is pretty darn fine.

    P.S. Commercial Mother’s Day cards bite, even if you had a good relationship with your mom.

    • My husband gave me the best Mother’s Day card ever. On the front is a photo of a mackerel-striped cat (brown tabby). It is surrounded by a pink, glittery frame. I feared the worst. On the inside, in pink calligraphy are the words, “You are in my chair.” We have a brown tabby, and I have to get him off my chair every morning. It was perfect.

  13. My mother died in April. I actually thought she would outlive me, as she hung on until she was 97. My mind is a merry-go-round of mixed emotions and repressed feelings. It’s hard. It’s going to take awhile before I can do something for myself without feeling guilty. I used to call it “Catholic girl’s guilt” until so many of my (female) friends from either similar or diverse backgrounds began to share familiar thoughts. I know I loved my mother. But I didn’t like her. I think she felt the same about me.

  14. I’ve just sent this on to my 2 sisters – how true that Marge Piercy is in our case!!! (we have 1 brother!)

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