Bittersweet Mother’s Day

Why would I select “bittersweet” to describe Mother’s Day when Hallmark and other greeting companies have such beautiful cards and gifts for mothers, florists probably do a booming business that weekend, restaurants are busy with dinners or brunches, and some families prepare breakfast in bed for their Moms on their special day?  While the majority of people are probably celebrating in one of these or other special ways, there is a sizeable minority for whom it is a sad day, i.e., those going through infertility treatment for their longed for child, those waiting to adopt a child because infertility treatment was not their choice or did not work, and, sadly, those who have lost heir mothers, and have no-one with whom to celebrate, or such a celebration with other relatives only heightens their grief.  The author of Motherless Daughters, an older (1994) book, but nonetheless timely, noted that when she started her research, she did not expect to get very many participants.  Hope Edelman tacked up two notices and was unprepared for the dozens of responses she received.  She was also surprised to learn that older women who lost their mothers at older ages, still had unresolved feelings about it, and wanted to participate in her study, even though her original intent was to only include younger women like herself, whose mothers died at younger ages.

One in six couples experience difficulty trying to build their family and seek treatment from reproductive endocrinologists.   While there has been significant advancement in the field since Louise Brown’s birth, there is still room for improvement, as many couples are left feeling broken-hearted when treatment is not successful, or their finances run out before the longed for pregnancy or birth.   When one of these individuals are invited to share Mother’s Day celebration with other family members, it can be excruciatingly painful if the little nieces or nephews are running around, or worse yet if family members ask the individual, “when are you going to start a family?”  It is not that the individual/couple going through infertility is necessarily envious of their in-laws or siblings with children, but the timing can be difficult.  For example, they may have just learned that the cycle in which they were hoping for a successful IVF, i.e. a pregnancy, just failed; it may have been the fifth such failure!  Alternatively, the woman may have just experienced a miscarriage, perhaps not the first one.   Some of these people may be struggling to hold it together, even when it is not Mother’s Day, so you could imagine how much harder it is on Mother’s Day with all the reminders of what they do not have.  Those reminders don’t just appear on Mother’s Day or the week before.  They can typically appear at least a month in advance in store displays, on-line advertisements, etc.

How to Help

What can we do about it on Mother’s Day if these are difficult problems to solve?

I think the best that we can do is to be compassionate to the person going through it, assuming they have shared with you.  If they haven’t shared this type of info with you, perhaps it’s safe to assume they may be having trouble building their family, and try to speak about topics that do not relate to diaper changing, pre-schools, little leagues, etc.  Try to speak about work, or your favorite team, a book you read, or movie you saw, or a hike you took recently.  Refrain from asking the awful question, “When are you two going to start a family?”  Let me point out that these are just some examples; there are individual differences. How individuals/couples handle their infertility struggle or their grief can vary in terms of how secretive they are about it, how frustrated, angry, sad, or how much of a champion they want to be for others facing similar life challenges.

In Edelman’s book (p.21) she recounted how 31year old Addie, who was 19 when her mother died, created a ritual to help her get through Mother’s Day.  She began gardening and “praying for strength, life and light.”  She felt she was honoring her mother and nature, which suited her.

Of course, there are other unfortunate situations in families that may affect their Mother’s Day.  Adult children living out of town who just send the perfunctory card, or adults cut-off from their parents because of a feud or unresolved conflict.  Lastly, the mother who lost a child, no matter at what age, may have a difficult time on Mother’s Day, even if she has other children.

Why sweet?  Despite the difficult stage the couple facing infertility or pregnancy loss is in, there is hope that they will either be able to build their family in the future or they will gradually come to terms with alternative ways of leaving their personal legacy.  For those who have lost their mother, the sweetness lies in the memories they have of special moments, adventures, milestones, etc. or in the stories other friends or relatives relate about their beloved mother.  Edelman notes that motherless daughters are often quite resilient, have grit, and utilize creativity to help them heal, although their pain may remain in a more muted way and reappear at unpredictable or predictable times, like on Mother’s Day.