Mother’s Day can be a challenging holiday for those who have a complicated relationship with motherhood. I am not talking about women who were neglected, abandoned, or abused. I am talking about women like myself who would describe our relationship with our mothers as generally “good” and loving, but not quite as rosy as the idealized mother-daughter relationship portrayed by the media on Mother’s Day.

In our culture, we tend to either idolize or villainize mothers. We put mothers on a pedestal and expect them to live up to our image of perfection, and then are disappointed when they fail.

We expect mothers to be unconditionally loving, nurturing, and supportive at all times. We expect them to juggle work and family, and never let us see their struggles. We expect them to defer their own dreams so they can give us their undivided love.

For many of us, there is a gap between our real relationship with our mother and the romanticized ideal.  

Our cultural expectations of daughters are also passed down through the generations. In many families, daughters are expected to be the perfect “good girl,” following all the rules and not causing any trouble. They play “mommy’s little helper” while their brothers go out to play sports.

Good daughters are taught to be quiet and to hide their feelings so as not to make anyone uncomfortable. They are expected to carry the emotional weight of caring for their mothers’ feelings, becoming her confidante and best friend.

These cultural expectations cause many women to feel shame, grief, and anger when their mother-daughter relationships do not measure up — a burden Bethany Webster describes as the “mother wound.”

I would like to propose a different vision of motherhood. One in which we see mothers as complex human beings with their own dreams and desires.

Mothers who love us while also loving themselves. Mothers who make choices that help them develop their full potential while encouraging us to do the same. Mothers who see us for who we really are and honor our individuality. Mothers who are our guides and role models, not our best friends.

Many of our mothers grew up in a time when such a vision was not possible. They did their best to live up to the expectation of perfect motherhood and passed that same conditioning on to us. It is up to our generation to break the ancestral cycle and create a new vision where all women are free to be who they truly are.

Mother’s Day is Big Business in the US

Standing in the greeting card aisle at my local Harris Teeter Supermarket, I have already read and rejected at least 30 of the 100’s of Mother’s Day cards on display.

I am looking for the perfect verse to voice my gratitude for the fact that my mother is still alive and healthy and living in her own home at 89. But the truth is, like many women, my relationship with my mother is complicated. I know I am lucky to have her still with me but giving her a syrupy sweet card would feel like a betrayal of what she really means to me.

I know some women who can honestly say that their mother is their “best friend” or “greatest role model,” but for many of us that is not true. For us, celebrating Mother’s Day is as tricky as navigating the cultural expectations we have for women in modern US society.

According to the National Retail Federation, Mother’s Day spending is expected to total a record $28.1 billion this year, up $1.4 billion from 2020. This year consumers plan to spend an average of $220.48 on Mother’s Day items, the highest in the survey’s history.

The most popular gifts for Moms are cards, flowers, and special outings like a fancy dinner or trip to the beach. But clothing and jewelry, books and CDs, electronics and housewares are also popular gifts.

Most women I know would not turn down a little pampering, but in our hearts we wish that we could spread the love around to the other 364 days a year. What if mom didn’t need a day off because she didn’t feel overworked and stressed out from juggling home and family? What if she had time to follow her own dreams instead of supporting ours? 

What would our lives look like if we did not put mothers on a pedestal, or villainize them when they could not live up to our lofty expectations? What would happen if our culture ended the reign of patriarchal values that have created this illusion?

For one thing, the card aisle at your local gift store would have to take on a whole new look.

Mother’s Day Cards Are A Reflection Of Cultural Values

The sheer number and variety of Mother’s Day cards on the shelf is astonishing. There are special cards from daughters to mothers, from sons to mothers, and from husbands to wives. Cards to grandmothers, stepmothers, godmothers, and special aunties. Cards to sisters, sisters-in-law, and mothers-to-be.

But they all share one central premise – they idealize motherhood as the perfect picture of unconditional love, nurturing, and caretaking that we expect of mothers in our society.

Many cards from daughters to mothers express the longing for our mothers to be our best friends…

Being a good mom isn’t always easy. Being a good friend isn’t always easy, either. But somehow you’ve always managed to be both of those to me at exactly the right times. Happy Mother’s Day to my wonderful mother friend.

Other cards emphasize mom’s role as the rock of the family…

For a Wonderful Mother

Whenever I need you, you’re always there…

Thanks and Happy Mother’s Day.

Some cards use humor to glorify mom’s caretaking role…

It’s Mother’s Day and you’ve earned a quiet, relaxing, unstressful day.

You may not get it – but you sure deserve it! Enjoy!

Let’s see…hours of screaming labor,

About a million poopy diapers,

Thousands of loads of laundry,

Years and years of sleepless nights…

And you get a Mother’s Day card.

Sounds Fair!

Some cards from husbands emphasize a mother’s generosity and unconditional love…

For an amazing woman

you live a generous life

believe in goodness

see with your heart

you radiate love

happy mother’s day

While others attempt humor to convey the truth that mothers are responsible for taking care of their husbands as well as the kids… 

For my wife on mother’s day

How can I find the words to tell you what you mean to me?

Without your help I can’t even find my socks!

Men often recognize that their wives deserve some pampering for all they do, but they don’t really know how to offer back the same kind of nurturing they are used to receiving. That puts the burden back on Mom to create a nurturing holiday for herself…

You’re always so busy taking care of the family that it seems you hardly have any time to do something really nice for yourself.

So this mother’s day, hope you take some time to relax, pamper yourself, and do something special just for you!

Even generic Mother’s Day cards portray moms as a fountain of unconditional love, support, and wisdom…

Moms fill the world with sunshine. Their love is taller than a mountain, wider than an ocean, and deep as any valley. Their strength supports, their wisdom inspires, and their commitment shapes their entire family. Happy Mother’s Day to …

But perhaps the saddest message of all is the glorification of mothers’ sacrificial role in the family and in society…

She lives the poetry she cannot write.

These idealized messages put tremendous pressure on women to live up to society’s expectations. Mothers feel stressed if they are not the perfect embodiment of sacrificial love. Daughters feel guilt and shame if their relationship with their mother does not measure up to the stereotype.

Both mothers and daughters feel compelled by societal pressure to deny that their relationship is not perfect, even if it is fraught with disappointment and failed expectations on both sides.

Creating a Meaningful Mother’s Day Tradition

We can do better than the Hallmark holiday we have grown to expect. We can look at our mothers as real, complicated, messy individuals who have their own dreams and desires. We can write our own Mother’s Day message to convey our love and appreciation of her unique quirkiness. We can honor the day in a way that is meaningful to both our mothers and ourselves, honoring our authentic relationship.

For most of my adult life, I have spent Mother’s Day trying to create a wonderful experience for my mother. I have carried the emotional weight of being the daughter who knows and anticipates her mother’s desires and does whatever it takes to make her happy. For many years, this has been an enjoyable tradition for my mother, but an unfulfilling one for me. At the end of the day, I felt unseen and unappreciated just as I had as a child.

This year, I decided to do things differently. I sent a nice card and some fancy perfume that I knew my mother wanted and would not buy for herself. I spent an hour on the phone having a conversation that acknowledged who she is and what she cares about. But I did not drive for 13 hours to spend the day with her, dressing up in fancy clothes to take her to church and out to brunch. I did not take her to Stanley Park to see the flowers in bloom and listen to the chimes.

I let other family members carry the emotional weight, while I spent most of the day mothering myself. I had coffee and bagels while reading the NYT on my screened-in porch. I took a ride with my partner and had an ice cream cone on the beach. I created a new tradition to honor myself as a woman, a daughter, and a spouse. In doing so, I was honoring the part of my mother who wants me to be a happy, healthy, thriving individual. This is what Bethany Webster calls “dismantling the patriarchy within.”

It’s my belief that part of stepping into our full divine feminine power is to step into the role of the Inner Mother for ourselves. This doesn’t mean we don’t acknowledge our mothers, it’s just means that we take over the PRIMARY responsibility for loving and affirming ourselves and most importantly, filling the gaps of what our mothers couldn’t give us. It’s such an empowering process.

Bethany Webster

I have grown to love my mother for who she is, not for who I wished she would be. I have grown to love her big personality, her unique quirks and messy imperfection. In doing so, I have freed myself to lose my perfectionism and be the quiet, thoughtful girl who loves to read and share stories. I have given myself permission to be true to myself and not to my mother’s vision of the perfect daughter.

I am very different from my mother, but I have learned so much from her. She passed on her kindness and ingenuity. She could make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. I learned from her that money is no barrier to creating beauty in your life. I am grateful that she is still alive and healthy and enjoying life at the ripe age of 89.

Above all, I am grateful that she has allowed me to break free of the cultural expectations that have defined both of our lives. She did not know how to do things any differently, but I know she is happy to see me living life on my own terms. That is the greatest gift of all.