Mother’s Day can be an excellent opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate the wonderful mothers in our lives. But this day can also be especially painful and isolating for those who struggle with grief, loss or infertility. For those who are dreading Mother’s Day, we’ve invited Dara Roth Edney MSW, RSW, who joined us for on Bell Let’s Talk Day, to share some practical tips for surviving Mother’s Day and hopefully, making it more tolerable.
If Mother’s Day is especially hard, this post is for you and for people who love you.
First, to know that you are not alone. Despite the overwhelmingly positive narrative of Mother’s Day that we see in commercials and advertisements, we know that this is a tough day for people experiencing infertility and loss. And it is important to remember that for many, this day is even more emotionally fraught if their own mothers have passed away, if they have conflictual or complicated relationships with their mothers or if they have one or more kids but have also lost pregnancies, infants or children. This day can catch us up in so many layers of sadness, anger, jealousy and profound grief.
So be proactive about taking care of yourself. Take the time leading up to Mother’s Day to try and anticipate what will make the day or weekend harder, and then take steps to protect yourself. For example, if you traditionally go for brunch or dinner with female members of your family to celebrate them, can you skip it this year and think of another way to honour the women you love? Can you send flowers or if it is a meal in a family home, send a beautiful dessert (store-bought!), but not go yourself? If you have a partner and the celebration is with their side of the family, can you miss it and have them go instead? Can you ask that instead of celebrating on Sunday with all the crowds, you can celebrate on Saturday? Or the weekend after, when the focus is less intense??
My advice with all holidays and social/family events is to examine your internal voice saying you “have” to attend, you “have” to participate, you “have” to go. Sometimes there can be events that we would deeply regret not attending, for example, a Mother’s Day celebration honouring your beloved 100-year old grandmother. But often, the voice telling us we “have” to, is the voice that is used to prioritizing other’s people’s comfort above our own pain and distress. So, my advice this Mother’s Day (and for the upcoming Father’s Day as well) is to prioritize your own well-being, even at the risk of disappointing others. Even if others do not understand.
I would start with what I said above, it is appropriate to take care of yourself. To think carefully about what could make this heartbreaking experience even slightly more bearable for you (and if you have a partner, for your partner), and then do that. As women, we are often socialized to think of others before ourselves. And while this can be a lovely way to live generally, it is soul-destroying when other’s people’s happiness comes at the cost of your own pain.
Once we start to believe that
we have the right to take care of ourselves, to make our own mental and emotional well-being our first priority, we can start making choices that give us the space to catch our breath and to gather the strength we need to get through the days ahead.
This is actually great advice throughout the year, on and around many child-focused holidays – Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, first day of school right after Labour Day, last day of school, end of June and beginning of July when kids head off to camp, end of July and end of August when kids come back from sleepaway camp, March break, and Christmas Break when people post happy pictures of holidays, Christmas Eve and morning, Easter, Halloween… So many dates that are sure to fill up social media feeds with endless pictures that will shatter your heart. This is a perfect example of how helpful it is to be proactive. Look at the month ahead in your calendar for dates that are likely to be child-centric. Then make a note to turn off social media the Day before and for a few days afterward. (Sign out of the apps on your devices, so you are not tempted/don’t accidentally open them. Force yourself to sign in to get in, so you don’t forget and open apps inadvertently). Make conscious choices to protect yourself.
Listen. Do not give advice. Do not offer platitudes or reasons or anecdotes. Do not tell them how easy it was for you to get pregnant or offer them your own children or tell them the negatives about pregnancy, labour or parenting. Tell them what’s truly in your heart – that you love them; that you know they are in pain and you are so sorry. Sit with them in their pain. Unless they tell you otherwise, assume they want your solace, not your “solutions”.
Ask what they want. Do they want to talk about it? Do they want to talk about anything except for this? Do they want you to check in on how they are or wait to be asked? Ask and listen and then follow their lead.
Ask if there is something you can do to be helpful and if possible, offer concrete examples of assistance you know you can follow through on. Fertility treatments are time consuming and exhausting, so for example, can you make some meals for them? Can you pick up groceries on their behalf or walk their dog? If they have a child already, can you babysit or do daycare/school drop off or pick up? Can you be an active ally at family or social events, helping to change the subject when people ask about babies, or the focus of the conversation is children?
Remember their sad anniversaries and if a named baby has been lost, the name of their baby. It is so lonely and heartbreaking to be the only one who remembers the anniversary of a miscarriage, a perinatal loss, the date a baby would have been born or would have had a birthday. It is devastating to think no one remembers your baby except for you and your partner. Remember and acknowledge.
Do not assume they do not want to attend events and leave them off the invitation list, but when an invitation is extended, give them “permission” to skip events that are likely to cause pain (baby showers, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day celebrations, birth celebrations/religious rituals, children’s birthday parties, etc).
If you are beginning to think about starting your own family, ask how they would like to receive your news when you do have news to share. Often people prefer to receive your happy news by text or email, so they have time to compose themselves and reply with happiness instead of their own tears.
Never start a sentence with “at least”. Your loved ones know what they have to be grateful for. Reminding them of this instead of comforting them for what they do not have or what they have lost, only serves to invalidate their grief and minimize their pain.
Do some research! If someone you love is going through IVF or using donor sperm or eggs or a surrogate or looking into adoption, learn about it. NOT to offer your advice but so when they talk to you, you know what they are talking about, and they do not have to use up their limited emotional energy educating you. Go online and read about people’s experiences of infertility and loss, so you better understand how your loved one is feeling. So if and when they open up to you, they are already talking to an informed and sensitive person. You can normalize their feelings and talk to them from a perspective of true understanding.
Put her needs ahead of others this weekend (assuming you are a heterosexual couple; if you are two women in a couple, protect each other as you are caring for yourselves and take these suggestions for both of you to do for the other). Protect her from family members who may not understand her pain and who expect her presence at family and social events. Start planning ahead and come up with a plan together, so it does not feel to her and others that the decision not to attend was hers alone. Make it clear that you are a team and have both decided to skip the brunch or the dinner. Come up with concrete alternative plans that focus on something she loves, that both of you can do together. Try thinking of activities that are not likely to include young families all around– for example, if the weather is nice, stay away from parks but maybe look for more challenging hiking trails outside of the city. No matter what you do, the outcome is not likely to be a happy day, but if you put her feelings ahead of others for the weekend and make her your focus, it might be less awful than it would have been otherwise. And if you have enough less awful minutes, hours or days, these can add up to remind you both that you can make it through this. And if appropriate in your family context, build a similar plan for Father’s Day.)
Holidays can be tough, but with the right support, things can be more tolerable. There are many support groups out there. Feel free to call our office for more information.