When Mother’s Day can be dishonest: What about the mothers who hurt us?

Give your kids the gift of honesty and open communication lines

Mother’s Day
'Angry Mother' by Jean-Baptiste Greuze (artist) French, 1725-1805

UNPOPULAR opinion ahead, and no, I am not demonizing my mother just because she has passed away and is unable to defend herself. Then again, if she were still around and lucid, she would probably be hard-pressed to accept that she did anything wrong.

The fact is, in my damaged opinion, Mother’s Day can be such a dishonest, idealized celebration. I steered clear of it this year, because I can’t abide by the saccharine expression of undying love for perfect mothers who gave up everything for their kids, were never cranky, and gave “unconditional love”—in quotes, because I don’t think such a love exists, at least not among human beings.

Of course, there are the sweetest mothers, and I know many of them—but they are not “on” 100 percent of the time. And if you tell me your mother was perfect, that your relationship was never clouded by arguments or misunderstandings, and that she never tried to push her way even if it was against what you already knew was best for you, then I suspect you’re lying.

It took me some time to accept that my mother was emotionally immature. She was what psychologist Lindsay Gibson, author of Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents (yes, there’s a book), called a “passive parent”—one who refused to face or acknowledge anything that was difficult. I know, because when I began suffering from depression and was getting very emotional, her immediate reaction was to tell me to be quiet, lest someone hear me. When my first psychiatrist called her to tell her it was a real illness, her reaction was, “Don’t believe that, Gary. Arte lang yan.” So eventually, I stopped discussing things with her or my family, and found solace in friends.

Don’t get me wrong; I loved my mother very much, and I still do and always will

Don’t get me wrong; I loved my mother very much, and I still do and always will. She was a model of elegance and grace even when she was grieving (a double-edged sword, I now think). We had many, many good times, and the better ones came when she finally accepted that I was an adult, and that I prioritized what I wanted for myself over what she did.

I also understood where she was coming from, and this was validated by her sisters, my aunts: She was spoiled by her father, her husband, and later, her sons. Her default style of argument was the cold shoulder, which drove my father crazy. It also drove me nuts, because I’m like my father—I like to talk, thresh things out. It just wasn’t my mother’s style. It was easy to understand later in adulthood, but it did much damage to my young adult self, because I had lost my own father at 18 and was left with a parent who, unfortunately, didn’t know how to help me cope.

Also, because my mother was very traditional and believed women had to be subservient to men and just didn’t do certain things, it must have frustrated her no end that her only daughter was not interested at all in following in her footsteps, and had a completely different view of womanhood. She resented that I didn’t want to become a flight attendant, because doing so would have entitled her to free travel, never mind if I was all thumbs and would probably have spilled the food on the passengers! She gave all kinds of allowances and excuses for her sons when they did stupid things, but said I should be willing to help them when they were down on their luck, because I was lucky—no, I did not deserve what I worked my butt off for, I was just lucky. So, yes—one brother practically threw his life away by doing drugs, and when he acted out, she insisted on my understanding because I got “lucky.”

I accepted that maybe she, too, was not encouraged to show her emotions as a child, that wartime created a sense of scarcity and turned her into a mild hoarder who liked to keep things for herself. Maybe she never got hugs, because she was never generous with her hugs when I was in a bad place, so eventually, I never tried to hug her, or did so always in jest. Maybe she was just really shy and, in spite of being a school teacher, didn’t have the emotional or intellectual capacity to understand complex situations. I remember having come from chemotherapy when I was fighting breast cancer and lying weak in bed—I transferred to a different room in our house to be by myself, as I shared a big room with her—when she walked in and asked if I could get up and buy a cake for my aunt’s birthday. “Do I look like I can buy a cake?” I asked. “Well, I was just asking,” she snapped—and the cold shoulder followed. So you will forgive me for making certain assumptions.

I do remember the good parts very well, especially when we traveled. Mama was funny, and could be charming when she wanted to be. Everybody thought she was always a sweet, kind woman—she was to many people, and I didn’t really bother to correct their perception. I took her to dinner and plays and shows whenever I could, until she was too weak. The sad fact was, the only way I could keep myself sane and healthy was to spend considerable time away from her in her later years, on my own, and live my own life. I wasn’t being selfish, I believe, because my psychiatrist confirmed this—and believe it or not, so did my spiritual director, a Cenacle sister. It’s not fair to treat your mother like a child, they told me, and that did a lot to assuage my good girl guilt.

I believe that as parents, we will be doing ourselves, and our children, a favor by being honest

So what’s the point of my throwing a wrench into these Mother’s Day celebrations? I believe people who deify their moms probably never had to live with them long-term. I believe that as parents, we will be doing ourselves, and our children, a favor by being honest, not pretending to be all-knowing, allowing our kids to see that we are human, too, and more important, being  willing to acknowledge our shortcomings. If you’re afraid they will disrespect you, then earn their respect—make good decisions despite your neuroses and frailties, and respect your kids, as well. When your child starts having a mind of his or her own, “Because I said so” just doesn’t cut it.

Like I said, I love my mother, and although I’m still dealing with the effects of her emotional distance, I was able to draw on that love and God’s grace to be her main caregiver for the last few years of her life—an intense situation that did almost drive me over the edge. Consistent to the end, she would tell me it was my responsibility anyway, not my brothers’. I have told my siblings, in no uncertain terms, that they don’t know what it’s like to take care of an ageing parent until they wash his or her butt and change their diapers. This came to mind when ironically, I had to remind my two remaining siblings to please visit our mother’s grave because it was Mother’s Day. A man thing, you say? Well, that’s what my mother would have said.

I’ve generally learned to let all this go, but I do shake my head still when I occasionally remember the tough parts. I’m still working on them; I’m sure if you heard my Mom’s side, she would tell you she was proud of me, but had wished I was more obedient, more stable, and more like a girl. I also realized why I was never keen on having my own family; I think I am too volatile to handle the emotional pressure of caring for other people in such an intimate way. I know I do not have the emotional resilience and fortitude to be a parent—and if you’re one of those people who will say it’s my God-given obligation to bring kids into this world, then well, f—k you.

I suppose that’s what I needed to see amid all this commercialized celebrating: honesty. I’m not saying people should tell the world about their parents’ neuroses; just live in cognizance of your own, and what it can do to the people you are raising. I don’t think a truly ideal relationship with our parents is possible.

It’s too late to ask the older generations to change, but if you’re a parent now, please. Maybe I’m not the best person to dispense advice about this, but give your kids the gift of honesty and open communication lines. Tell them the truth if you think you can’t handle it. And if you can’t give them a hug, point them to someone who can.

About author


She is a writer, editor, breast cancer and depression survivor, environmental advocate, dog mother to three asPins, Iyengar yoga instructor and BTS Army Tita. She edits part-time for a broadsheet, but is headed towards a full-time vocation as an online English writing coach and grammar nazi.

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