Mother’s Day Is Bittersweet When You’re a Mom Without a Mom

If I’m honest, nowadays I both dread Mother’s Day and look forward to it in equal measure. It never used to be that way.

I’ve got so many memories of Mother’s Day from when I was a child. I remember it from way back as being on a par with Valentine’s Day and Easter in the annual “fun day” stakes, too young as I was to associate those with their actual meanings — for me, just as it is with my children now, all of them were about making cards and presents for Mom. Picking flowers; drying and pressing their petals to make a card. Artful paint splotches with careful yet indecipherable declarations of love. Little crafty creations with ‘Mommy’ in rainbow colors emblazoned across the bottom. My first cross stitch creation at school (we’ve still got it; she framed it and displayed it in the living room for years). Me proudly presenting my artworks; her smile, equally proud in receiving them.

As a teenager, it was flowers or chocolates and a favorite movie. When I was older, we’d go for drives in the countryside, stopping at a favorite pub or café for lunch or having dinner in a fancy restaurant. It was a day to look forward to, celebrate, and cherish.

On the days I couldn’t be home, I’d always phone, send flowers and a card. She was never “out of sight, out of mind” — there was an invisible cord between us. She was my north star.

These days, I enjoy seeing the same joy in my own children’s faces when they create offerings for me; the same pride at handing me a token of their appreciation. How precious those moments feel. Yet at the same time, behind my smile, I hold back a looming tide of sadness. For now I am a mommy myself, but my own dear mom is no more.

The first Mother’s Day without her passed without me noticing; whether in ignorance or due to a psychological block, it was no longer on my radar. It got so I never thought about it at all, my radar firmly tuned out, it no longer relevant now that she was gone. In my professional environment, no one mentioned Mother’s Day. In my childfree days, friends didn’t tend to either.

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Time passed; I met my partner, we had a child. So one year, when our baby was a few months old and my partner handed me a card with ‘Mommy’ on it, I looked at it uncomprehendingly, ran out of the room, and burst into tears. He couldn’t understand what was wrong; he wanted to surprise me; he wanted us to celebrate my first Mother’s Day as a mom. It hadn’t even occurred to me that I should celebrate it for myself; to me, the day had always been about my mom, and this was a big, fat, unwanted reminder that she was gone.

The year after, I was more prepared; more entrenched in a community of parents and play groups for whom such days with their abundant opportunities for celebratory activities cannot pass by unnoticed. And besides, I wanted my child to have the same enjoyment I’d had on this day when I was little. Because even though Mother’s Day is about moms, it’s so special to little kids, too. So I smiled as we messily created together, covered in paint, glitter, googly eyes, and glue. And I knew that from then on, every Mother’s Day I would be divided in two. On one side, the daughter still mourning her mom; on the other, the mom creating special memories with her own child.

I realized if I was going to accept Mother’s Day back into my life, I needed a way to bridge the fine line between cherishing the experience with my own children and navigating the crushing reminder of loss. I needed a way of experiencing Mother’s Day as a daughter, of celebrating Mom even though she was no longer here.

So I made my own ritual. I collected all my favorite photographs of her, getting up early on Mother’s Day, arranging them on the table and lighting a candle. I just sat there quietly and let the memories come. Afterwards, I felt more able to celebrate the day with my young family for myself.

When my children were old enough to join me, I let them. We talk about her, how she would have loved to spend this day with them, what things she cherished most, what they would like to have given her. Sometimes we make a card for her together. It’s become an opportunity to share who she was with them, and for them to feel connected to the grandma they’ll never know. In doing so, it lightens my sorrow; for while I accept the inevitable sadness the day brings, her memory is now shared with the grandchildren she would have loved.

Mother’s Day is about a long line of mamas: not only the ones that are still here, but also those that now reside only in our hearts. There’s plenty of room to celebrate both.

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