How to Cope When Mother's Day Is Hard

Arm yourself with strategies for surviving that second Sunday in May.

As social media has evolved, so has the way we celebrate Mother's Day: it's transformed from a private day into a far more public display. Newsfeeds fill up with people bragging about their best moms ever (with photographic evidence). But for some, the day is a difficult reminder of grief or pain—especially when faced with these constant reminders that everyone else seems to have won the mom lottery. If Mother's Day is tough for you, you're definitely not alone. Whether you're estranged from your mom, have a difficult relationship with her, or she's passed away, here are a few ways to navigate the day.

If You’re Estranged From Your Mother…

If you're not in contact with your mom, it's probably for good reason. It's completely fine if you're not ready to reconnect even though it's Mother's Day. "Often doing something for somebody else is the best antidote to grieving the mother you didn't get," says Melody Bacon, Ph.D., chair of the Marital and Family Therapy Programs at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. Spend the day with a woman who is like your surrogate mother, maybe an aunt or older friend. If you have kids, practice gratitude for the opportunity to be a mom. Or visit an assisted-living home and brighten the day of someone else's mom who may be unable to celebrate with her children.

If you're feeling less certain about the estrangement, you could take a different tack. "If you want contact, Mother's Day would be an opportunity to reach out," says Lois Braverman, president and CEO of the Ackerman Institute for the Family. Here's Bacon's suggestion: try establishing a response based in values instead of emotions. What does this mean? Think about paying your taxes. You may not agree with how much you owe, but you believe you should contribute to society. When deciding on a value baseline, for instance, try thinking about what kind of daughter you want to be (not what kind of mother you wish you had). For instance, you could start with a text or a card, which doesn't require reciprocation.

Braverman agrees that a text or card is a good place to start—and she says it doesn't have to be elaborate. She recommends a simple message like, "Happy Mother's Day" or "Thinking of you on this day." Initiating contact can be hard, especially if you haven't exchanged so much as a text message with your mom in years. "Call up some positive memory of your mother that bypasses the incident, or series of incidents, that led to the estrangement," she says.

If You Have a Complicated Relationship With Your Mother…

Lots of women have a run-of-the-mill complicated relationship with Mom. "Despite the commercialism of Mother's Day, it's an opportunity to connect," says Braverman. However you decide to interact with your mom, try to make it positive today. Avoid topics or questions that may lead to conflict and stick to happy memories, she says. Many moms know how to push your buttons, but you have a choice in how you react. For instance, if your mother says you're wearing too much makeup, you can respond with irritation or say, "We think about that differently. I am comfortable with how I look," Braverman says. And remember, you can always decide not to answer a loaded question by saying, "Let's talk about that another time," or politely change the subject and deflect by asking her an innocuous question.

Even if you know you want to spend Mother's Day with your mom in theory, sometimes it can be emotionally taxing in reality. Try focusing on one time when Mom didn't drive you bonkers, Bacon suggests. Ask yourself: What was different about that time? What was different about you? How did you respond? As a result, how did you feel? You may remember a time where you reacted less and, in turn, you found Mom less annoying or it led to less friction. "If you can get yourself back to where you were in that scene and you could fluff it off, that could help you have a better Mother's Day," she says.

If Your Mother Has Passed Away…

Days like Mother's Day, which are designed to be celebratory occasions, can quickly turn painful in the absence of a loved one. "It's like you're revisiting your grief," says Bacon. She suggests writing Mom a letter as a testament to her importance. "Telling her what you want her to know is a way to feel connected," she says. "Death doesn't end a relationship, it just changes it." You can even take letter-writing a step further, the way one of Bacon's clients does: bury the note in the backyard and plant Mom's favorite flower over it.

Mother's Day tends to stir up many memories, for better or worse, about your mom. If you had a positive relationship with Mom, think of the best way to honor her, suggests Braverman. Try to focus on a positive activity, if you can: reminisce about her with some family members or friends who knew her too, or show your respects by visiting the cemetery and reading a poem or lighting a candle at home.

Even if you had a difficult relationship with your mom, Mother's Day doesn't have to be negative. "Mother's Day can be a time to open your heart to forgiveness and free yourself of the burden of carrying so many difficulties in the past," says Braverman. How you frame things can make a huge difference. Changing what you emphasize in your mind can alter how you feel. "Your own self-talk, the story you tell yourself, can significantly influence the outcome," she adds.

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