The Mother’s Day Stories We Never Hear

It’s that time of the year again.

Portraits of quaint moments between mothers and their children in jewelry commercials on TV, advertisements for festive floral arrangements popping up across the Internet, drugstore entryways blocked by bunches of heart-shaped balloons emblazoned with messages of love for “Mom” — the calls for displays of filial devotion are everywhere.

For those who want to celebrate the maternal figures in their lives, it can be a joyous time, an excuse to gather around a brunch table, perhaps, and pop some bubbly. For others, Mother’s Day is an essentially neutral affair, a day marked by the nagging anxiety to get a card in the mail or make a phone call in time.

But what about those children for whom the second Sunday of every May is a triggering reminder of a damaged relationship? Of abuse? Of a staggering loss? Of a bond that never was?

What stories can we not see or hear over the din of our society mandating expressions of motherly gratitude?

Here are some of the voices drowned out by Hallmark.

“My Mother The Stranger,” By Garnet Henderson

Garnet Henderson. CREDIT: David J Swift

“You look exactly like your mother,” said a woman, gripping my arm and staring at me intensely. I scanned her freckled face. I didn’t know her. I knew very few of the people who pulled me into unwanted hugs and soliloquized on the tragedy of my situation that day.

I was 20 years old, and desperately trying to escape the crowds at my father’s memorial service. Initially, I felt touched by the mob of people who showed up to remember him at an event devoid of “God stuff” and ending in a party, exactly like he wanted. But that feeling soured over the course of the day as people accosted me, sobbed on my shoulder, and worst of all, asked after my mother.

“Really?” I asked, hearing the defensive edge in my voice. “I always thought I looked a lot more like my dad.”

“How is your mom?” pressed the stranger. “Is she here?”

Part of me wanted to rage at that woman, and part of me felt almost sorry for her for asking a question so inappropriate. How could I explain to her that my first face-to-face meeting with my mother had taken place that week, only days after my father died, and that she showed up with a lawyer in tow? That she answered my sister’s request to continue living in our childhood home with our stepmother, where she felt safe and supported, with a lawsuit? That I appealed to her for compassion, reminding her that she had lost her own father at nearly the same age, and that she looked back at me with eyes devoid of feeling?

When I think of my mother, I think of red wine in coffee cups first thing in the morning. I think of all the afternoons and evenings she spent semi-conscious on the couch or in her bed, waking periodically to mumble something at me. I think of all the times I ran home with exciting news, only to receive a slurred and unenthusiastic reply. I think of the happy faces she put on for the outside world, transforming into a mother I hardly knew.

I think of the night she got so drunk that she fell and broke her nose. I helped my dad lift her into the car so he could drive her to the hospital. Later that week, looking sickly in a hospital gown and headed off to rehab, she promised me things would be different. She made the same promise — drunk, slurring her words, and rocking me on her lap — when she fell off the wagon on a family vacation the following year. Worse still was the hateful, vicious person she became when she did get sober.

People love to lecture me about the mother-child bond. It’s so strong, they say, that nothing can break it. My mother and I may not be “getting along” now, but surely someday we’ll “figure it out.” But the last time I looked into my mother’s eyes, when she sat across the table from me with her lawyer, I didn’t see any shred of the mother I remember from my early childhood, before the alcohol and the rage.

I saw a stranger.

“Protecting My Unmothered Self On Mother’s Day,” By Bee Swope

B. Nicole Headshot

Last year, I browsed the Hallmark aisles, carefully opening every Mother’s Day card in search of the perfect words to honor the woman who birthed me. My criteria: not too soft, not too adoring, yet not funny enough to make her think it would be a good time to strike up a conversation. Really I was looking for a card to say, “Look, world! I gave her a Mother’s Day card. I’m not the worst person alive. I did it. Are you happy now? Can this day end yet?”

The truth is, my mom did make me feel like I was the worst person alive; I was always walking the wrong way, saying the wrong thing, crying at the wrong time. Hell . . . every time I got upset was the wrong time — unless, of course, I was crying for her and feeling her emotions.

My mother is not the picture of the all-knowing, all-loving magical figure Mother’s Day always wants me to celebrate. And yet, for most of my life, I thought I had no choice but to take a deep breath and fake it for the mandatory 24 hours of “Moms are the most amazing people alive.” I couldn’t understand why I felt so little desire to dote on her — but I definitely could hear the world screaming, “HONOR YOUR MOTHER!”

These calls came despite all the pain I faced at her hand: She kicked me as I was curled up on the ground, she left me alone for hours at a time when I wasn’t even old enough to go to the bathroom by myself. She called me names unfit for an enemy, and she bulldozed over every emotion I ever felt. Yet, every May, I’m surrounded by this immense pressure to thank her for everything she’s done. I’m reminded that it doesn’t really matter how much I was hurt by what she did; she’s my mother. “Honor your mother.”

How is someone supposed to move through a day celebrating someone who filled their life with manipulation, gaslighting, and abuse? How do we move through the messages of honoring and loving the mother, when our only reference is trauma, flashbacks, and nightmares? When are we free to break from the constant cycle of fear, obligation, and guilt?

I decided, not long ago, to close the chapter of my silence, the chapter of giving power to her abuse and control. So this year, I’m not browsing the greeting cards. I’m not sending a gift out of guilt and obligation. I won’t be texting, I won’t be calling. I’ll be in my own safe space, shielded from the overwhelming calls for filial devotion.

I’m going to defy everything I’ve ever known about this day and honor the one person who can love me unconditionally and tend to the trauma of being unmothered: myself.

“Surviving Mother’s Day Without A Mother,” By Elena Zhang

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The last Mother’s Day I spent with my mom was two years ago, when she was at home, bedridden, under hospice care. This was about eight months after she received the cancer diagnosis, and one month before she died. Her suffering made those months seem long, but her death made time vanish in a heartbeat. It was all over far too quickly.

That morning, my brother, sister, and I drove to the local grocery store, just like we had done every year as young children. We wandered through the flower department, mulling over which bouquet was the most perfect, the most beautiful. Which one had exactly the right combination of colors, the right number of roses, daisies, and tulips, to reflect our love for her?

We placed the bright and bold bouquets on a small table by her bedside, a momentary injection of color into that perpetually dark and gloomy bedroom. We stood by the display while a chorus of “Happy Mother’s Day” escaped our lips, but our smiles were betrayed by the desperation in our eyes, hoping that these flowers could say what we could not.

By that time, though, delirium had clouded her mind, and we were unsure if she could see the flowers at all. Soon after, the nurse told us that we should take the flowers away because they were sucking the moisture out of the room. We shut the door so mom could get some sleep, and placed the flowers on the dining room table. And for the rest of the day, each time I passed by those lonely flowers, the slow creep of failure and helplessness lodged inside of me; I haven’t been able to shake those feelings to this day.

Sometimes, especially on days like Mother’s Day, I wonder if I have been too self-indulgent in my grief. Everybody dies, after all — all mothers must die eventually. But then I’ll overhear a woman in her forties, calling her mother on a Friday afternoon, casually talking about dropping by for dinner, and I’ll know: Losing your mother in your early twenties is not right. It’s not right that she’ll never get to meet her grandchildren. It’s not right that she’ll never see her daughter graduate from medical school. It’s not right that she’ll never see her son start college.

It’s not right, and it’s not alright.

Before she died, I would have flowers delivered to the house every year for Mother’s Day. And every year, my mom would call me and say that she knew the flowers were from me before she even opened the card.

I still buy her flowers. And I know she still knows they’re from me, even without looking at the card.

“I Won’t Call Her On Mother’s Day — And I Don’t Feel Bad About It,” By Angie Aker

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There was the time I dialed my home phone number from a strange office. I was six; it was the first day of school. My mother had neglected to tell me that the bus went to two schools and that I should get off at the second stop. When I couldn’t find my classroom, I went to the office to ask where Mrs. Olson’s class was. The secretary was confused until she realized I was at the wrong school. My mother never answered the phone. The secretary kindly drove me to the correct school.

There were the times I called all the bars in our town, using the Yellow Pages. It would be late, and I was home alone, scared. When the bartenders picked up, I had to shout and repeat myself so they could hear. When I finally found the right bar, my mom would be annoyed and ridicule me for being so nervous: “I’ll come home when I’m ready,” she’d tell me, as her friends laughed in the background.

There was the time I couldn’t use a phone at all for fear that she’d overhear. She’d just roughed me up. I was 12. I said I was going outside for awhile, but I walked directly to the police station. An officer looked at my marks and bruises and walked me back to my house. He questioned my mom, but she lied. We went to counseling once after that, but we didn’t talk about her abuse. Instead the focus was how I could be a better kid.

There was the time just before freshman year when I had to call my friend and have her ask her mom if I could live with them. After stashing me away at my aunt’s house for three months because she “deserved a summer off,” my mom had said she wasn’t ready to have the burden of a kid: “If you want to keep going to school with your friends, you better figure something out.”

Then there was the time I made a call on a winter night from a payphone in an unfamiliar city. My mother had been screaming at me, calling me names and grabbing my hair at my grandfather’s country house. I’d set off by foot for the 16-mile walk to my aunts’ apartments. A few miles in, a stranger offered me a ride. Though I was scared and knew I shouldn’t have taken him up on it, I also knew I couldn’t walk the whole way. I was lucky he didn’t harm me. He dropped me off in front of my aunt’s apartment building and drove off. That’s when I learned my aunt had moved. So I walked to the nearest payphone and tried calling my other aunt repeatedly. I finally reached her, waiting at that corner for her to pick me up, getting honked at and catcalled. It was terrifying. I was 16.

Now I’m done making shitty phone calls. I’m not calling my mother on Mother’s Day — or any other day. I feel no guilt; I’m not angry. I have nothing for her, and there’s nothing from her that I want. I have peace.

There is simply no reason to pick up the phone.

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