It’s Mother’s Day today. A day I used to spend with my mum.
Until she died.
It was more than just the day itself. I enjoyed the weeks leading up to it, planning what I’d buy her, deciding what I’d cook. Mother’s Day falls during my favourite time of year, so I was always keen to find gifts that spoke of spring and new life. It was an entire celebration from when the cards and gifts came into the shops, weeks in advance, right up until Mother’s Day itself. This might be familiar to you. You might do the same thing for your mum.
Or you might not. You might not because your mum also is no longer with you; or maybe she was never part of your life; or maybe there are a million reasons why you won’t be celebrating Mother’s Day this year.
For many women of my plus-forty age, there has been a seismic shift in the meaning of Mother’s Day since they have become mothers themselves. This celebration has become a day of both giving, to their own mum, and receiving, as one of the mums who are celebrated. This version of Mother’s Day might be familiar to you.
Or maybe it’s not. Maybe, like me, you never had children; or maybe you’re desperately trying to conceive and all you can see is mothers around you; maybe you’ve lost a child or are separated from yours; maybe you have children but have lost your own mother; maybe there are a million reasons why Mother’s Day represents a drawn out source of pain for you.
The first year my mum died was the hardest of all Mother’s Days. She died on Christmas day and it felt like the Mother’s Day cards were on the shelves on 1st January, hustling for space alongside the leftover tinsel and cheeseboards.
Strangely, it’s the first year I felt the absence of being a mother myself. Perhaps until my own mum had gone, I had been happy enough celebrating the day in some way; it was enough that the celebrations were about her, I didn’t need them to be about me.
That first year, I left the country – Italy because there is nowhere else that soothes my soul like a country where you can wallow in puffed up pizza dough, gooey mozzarella and dense, deliciously chocolatey gelato. But I didn’t entirely escape the pain because I was confronted with the lead up – the advertising, the emails, the signage in stores. Just months after I’d lost my mum, Mother’s Day felt like a three-month long hammam scrub over an open, weeping sore.
Last year I was away also, Costa Rica. I didn’t give the occasion much thought – it is celebrated on a different day there. Also, in a mad scramble to repatriate myself as the world’s borders closed and the global pandemic took hold, I was trying desperately to get home; there is little space for grief when you’re confronted with a different crisis.
But this year, once again, there’s no escaping it.
This year was the first year I received an opt-out from a company I shop with, Mindful Chef. They thoughtfully sent an email allowing me to unsubscribe from all-things Mothering Sunday. And I did, I chose to remove those celebrations from my inbox. I chose not to look at bottles of pink sparkling wine and spring bouquets and all the ways to celebrate. I opted out not because I’m bitter or angry (though I’ve had my moments), I opted out because, frankly, it hurts too much.
It’s been two years since my mum died and I’ve long come to realised that some parts of that pain will never go away; and it’s that core of pain that is poked every time I see a Mother’s Day card or shop window splash, reminding me that the date is approaching.
Children, at times, is another painful subject. They were on my list but it was something, for one reason and another, I didn’t manage to do. For the most part, I’ve made my peace with it. But like grief, there’s that ever tough kernel of want that will never go away; the kernel that’s cracked when mothering Sunday rolls around each year.
But it’s not just Mothering Sunday that causes people pain.
We have myriad celebration days that we, as a society, have pulled together over the centuries. Some more rooted in history than others, some entirely commercially contrived. And for every celebration that is marked, for every Hallmark holiday that’s shoved under our collective noses, there are a great number of people who feel it as pain.
Valentine’s day can be crippling for some; and not just those who are single or broken hearted. People in relationships can dread the date if it represents an occasion that should be marked but is missed or disappoints.
Father’s Day comes with exactly the same struggles as Mother’s Day.
Christmas is a celebration that seems to last for an entire three-month season, but throws up endless worries for many about spending the ‘big day’ alone. (At what point did we decide Christmas is a ‘big’ day?) For me, Christmas Day is forever going to be a fray of emotions – a potential celebration yet the anniversary of my mum’s death. How on earth is a person supposed to successfully manage such a disparate range of emotions all in one ‘big’ day?
And don’t get me started on wedding season. Yes, I had that big day but I’ve been to weddings as a divorced person, too, and nothing highlights your failures like watching a couple reciting their promises to stay together until death do they part. Another ‘we’re going to do what you couldn’t’ moment, with cards and presents and confetti to throw. Then there are those who reach their 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond without marrying; some by choice but others who desperately want to but never get to say ‘I do’.
Graduation day, christening day, new homes, new jobs, retirements – take a look down the celebration section of any card shop and for every occasion to celebrate, on the flip side of that card lies somebody else’s pain, somebody else’s crushed hopes and broken dreams.
We have gathered these celebrations, adding to them annually. And while I can get behind the novelty suggestion that we dedicate an entire day to drinking coffee or eating pie, I can’t help feeling a bucket full of empathy for all the pain these celebrations leave in their wake.
Before you roll your eyes and accuse me of being overly sensitive, I’m not suggesting we do away with them. Mothers and fathers and grandparents should be celebrated, for the most part; new babies, weddings, jobs, house moves and graduations – all life moments we want to congratulate and praise.
But let’s not assume that’s all. What about the woman who didn’t have kids but pulled off a bad-ass career move that’s positioned her as CEO. Of her own business? What about the couple who could never afford their own home but have set up a community garden nearby, spreading happiness through so many lives? What about the people who get up and go to a job they can’t bear every single day so they can feed their kids?
These people, these lives, these moments should be celebrated, and in no small way.
These people, these lives, these moments deserve cards and flowers and a splashy shop-front sign. These people are living life, too, and like all of us, they’re doing their best. They just haven’t been designated a day or a card to celebrate.
Keep Mother’s Day and Christmas Day and Valentine’s Day. And every other celebration day. Keep them all. Add more. That’s fine.
But take time to think about all of the other miraculous achievements being pulled off by people on a regular basis.
Throw a party for the friend who made it through another tough year.
Send a gift to your loved one who’s selling crafts on Etsy as a side hustle.
Celebrate, but celebrate widely.
And even if nobody does it for you, don’t forget to celebrate yourself. Any damn day you choose.
Happy Mother’s Day, mum – wherever you are.