SALT LAKE CITY — As a midwife, Sara Vranes makes her living helping other women have babies. And while she loves welcoming those new lives and the joy they bring to their parents, she admits her work brings a little twinge of sadness sometimes. It's not jealousy or bitterness. At 32, she just wants a baby herself. And each Mother's Day that rolls around leaves her with a sense of loss.
She's not alone in being less than joyful on Mother's Day. The year that Heather Monahan divorced, Mother’s Day arrived with a thud. Her son was a year old, so she didn’t get breakfast in bed or a delightful crayon drawing framed in popsicle sticks, or even an “I love you, Mommy.” When kids are really little, it’s up to adults to provide the trappings of the day. She had no one to do that.
Paige Arnof-Fenn hasn't walked down the card aisle at the drugstore in May for seven years, not since the day her mom died the same weekend as her birthday and Mother's Day.
For many, Mother’s Day is a great time to gather and shower a beloved woman with tokens of appreciation — to the tune of about 133 million greeting cards and scads of flowers. The National Retail Federation said Americans will spend about $23.6 billion this year on Mother’s Day, one of America's biggest gift-giving holidays.
But it’s not a day of joy for all women, including some mothers. Dr. Susan Noonan, a physician and certified mental health peer specialist in Boston, lists many reasons women say this greeting-card holiday doesn’t light them up: Some mothers and their children are estranged. Some mothers have outlived a child. Some women are desperate to have children but have not been able to, for a number of possible reasons. Some women have children who cause them great stress or even sorrow. The holiday can be tough on moms who’ve divorced — especially right after the relationship fractured. It’s also a rough day for children of all ages if their mother has died. Those situations, she says, all carry grief.
If you’re a mom who’d rather sleep through Mother's Day or you know someone who fits those descriptions, read on. There are strategies for finding joy on what for some has been a painful day.
"The goal is not to avoid it or feel like you have to tippy-toe. Call it out as what it is," says Lisa Bahar, a marriage and family therapist in Newport Beach, California, who says friends can help those who suffer, often just by reaching out.
A different kind of day
Mother’s Day was born of a daughter’s response to her mother’s prayer. As a child, Anna Jarvis heard her mom pray for a day commemorating mothers, after teaching a Sunday School class about mothers in the Bible. After her mom died in 1905, Jarvis led efforts to establish such a day. “Mother’s Day” became official in 1914.
Historians say Jarvis pictured a quiet, reverential holiday that would bring children and their mothers together; she disliked its evolution into a preprinted-cards-and-candy sales event, which she rallied against. She’d have hated that it is now second only to Christmas as a gifting event.
But she’d have loved that more than 100 years later, children are still giving their moms a little extra love and accolades on this day.
No count exists of how many women fill a mother role in America, but the number is huge. The Census Bureau says there are 43.5 million mothers between the ages of 15 and 50. That number doesn’t include older mothers and stepmothers and foster mothers and aunts and grandmothers and other surrogates who mother children, either.
For some of them — and for others, too — the day is challenging, including parents with a child who is troubled or sick or severely disabled, Noonan says.
“It can be challenging if you experience depression in general, or it can trigger a depressed mood,” she says of all those challenges. “There’s a lot of pressure put on people because of media images, everything portrayed to be perfect. You make the perfect dinner, arrange the perfect day, or try to live up to traditions. … Those are artificial images and you can’t meet those. It’s pressure we put on ourselves.”
And on each other.
Olivia Moore Brower, 38, of Taylorsville, Utah, is happy to be the mom to six kids ages 6 to 18 and to welcome a niece who lives with them, too. But she thinks women often feel inadequate as they compare themselves to other moms. "I don't love the over-idealization of what mothers should be," she says. "Then there's the guilt over feeling that way because at least you get to be a mom, and many others can't for various reasons. I had an amazing mom and I don't feel like I can live up to her. I have amazing kids and I love being a mom, it's just that on Mother's Day it's easy to take inventory of all the things I wish I was."
Others struggle because the day reminds them of personal disappointments or loss.
Gabrielle Davis, the founder of "Lupus Sistas," battles lupus and kidney disease and as a result, hasn't been able to conceive, so Mother’s Day makes her feel sad. Davis, a patient advocate, was 27 when she was first diagnosed and the disease has only gotten worse. She'd just married and the diagnosis wiped out their plans to start a family quickly. She put it off, hoping her kidneys would improve, but they got worse. “In hindsight, I wish I’d gotten pregnant early,” she says.
Because she’s in prime mothering age, she’s often handed a flower or told "Happy Mother’s Day" at church or other celebrations, year after year. She knows the greeting is sincere, but it's bittersweet.
Sherry Gavanditti of Beachwood, Ohio, also struggles on Mother's Day. Her mom was murdered when she was 10. Now 54, she works at a nursing home and "I have many dear, dear female 'mother figures' who give me great joy and much love. Still, Mother's Day is and always has been hard for the three of us kids, even now that we are all grown. On that day, we call each other to say 'I love you' and 'we'll always have each other' and we know that our mother loved us unconditionally."
For Vranes, the midwife, Mother's Day is a milestone that stands out as she marks the passage of time.
"Each year is another where I do not have a baby. I feel that yearning and that desire so strongly," she says, but adds she doesn't want to venture into motherhood without a partner and she hasn't found the right guy. "I am happy for women who trust me to care for them and help them on their journey toward motherhood. But I wish it would be for me."
For Monahan, a 42-year-old media expert and career coach in Miami, Florida, the passage of time has helped since that Mother's Day with a 1-year-old baby. "Now I have a 9-year-old who does things. And I think the more space between the divorce and Mother’s Day, the better I became at enjoying it and planning for it,” she says.
She also changed her perspective and found a way to embrace the day. "After my first Mother’s Day alone, I decided I’m not going to put myself through that again. I planned ahead.”
The suggestion she guarantees will chase the blues away? “Doing something to help someone in a worse situation than you have yourself always makes you feel better and helps put things in perspective.” She suggests volunteering at a shelter for women with children.
She also recommends being sociable. Everyone knows Mother's Day is coming, so “use this time to reach out to other single friends, or girlfriends or even friends who have family and find out what they are doing. There’s nothing wrong with getting a bunch of single moms together and throwing a little party.”
Davis hopes to eventually adopt, but for now, she mothers in other ways, working with youth in her church. Counseling has helped her cope with both illness and her change of plans. “It’s OK to hurt, to be sad about it,” she says. “Reach out to someone. The problem is when you stay there and play those negative thoughts over and over.”
While there's no right or wrong way to experience a holiday, Stephanie O'Leary, a clinical psychologist and author of "Parenting in the Real World," says to be honest with yourself about what you need on Mother's Day, even if it's to let the day pass without fanfare.
Noonan recommends finding activities and people that bring pleasure. And she, too, suggests looking beyond yourself. Spending time with your own mom or other women who have nurtured you is a lovely way to pass the day, she notes.
Sheri McGregor, the author of "Done With The Crying: Help and Healing for Mothers of Estranged Adult Children," is estranged from one of her adult kids. She says 1 in 10 families includes an estranged adult. Her advice includes remembering it's just one day and keeping expectations realistic. Plan to minimize what bothers you and do enjoyable activities, she says.
She also sends cards to women who played a mother role in her life. Other do's include taking a hike or planting flowers, doting on pets and being honest about wants or needs for the day.
For those who are estranged, Noonan suggests considering mending the rift.
Noonan tells parents with a troubled child or one who's ill to be kind to themselves. "Remind yourself that you are doing your best, and try to focus on (your child's) good qualities, strengths, and achievements. … While you may need to set boundaries with a troubled teen, there’s still an opportunity to involve him or her in family activities where he will feel loved and included."
Brita Long, 29 and married, does not have children, so Mother's Day was always about her mother, Lee Haugen Long. She died two years ago, and her daughter, who lives in Cumming, Georgia, has found some comfort and joy in blogging about her mom. Several experts consulted for this story say writing is a great relief for people who struggle with this or any holiday.
Folks usually know what situations trigger their strong emotional response, says Jasmine Menser-Lust, a licensed clinical professional counselor in Oak Brook, Illinois. She says to pay attention to how you're feeling, but "while isolation may be the knee-jerk reaction, try to stay connected with those who truly support you."
Isolation amplifies negative feelings, she says. Anyone in crisis can call a 24/7 National Crisis Hotline at 1-800-273-8255, she adds. Trained crisis workers can provide "in-the-moment" support.
Gavanditti lives far from her mother's grave, but on Mother's Day, she makes it a point to visit a woman's grave — "someone else's mother, perhaps" — and remember her time with her mom, who she remembers as kind and brave and "relentless in caring for us."
To honor her mom's memory, Gavanditti does different things each year. She's spoken at domestic abuse shelters, for example, and written about her mother's life and the abuse she endured. She tells her daughters about her mom, listens to songs her mother loved and "above all, I stand up for women's rights."
While women can help themselves, there's a lot that others can do, too. Menser-Lust says not to assume that a woman is a mother, advice she particularly offers those in customer service positions. She suggests companies train their employees to connect with consumers as they would on a normal business day.
For those who don't know what to say when a close friend struggles, Menser-Lust says that's OK. Just be there with an offer of genuine support.
Start new traditions to honor someone who is no longer there by setting an empty place at the table or saying kind words of remembrance during dinner, says Adina Silvestri of Life Cycles Counseling in Richmond, Virginia.
Arnof-Fenn, whose mother Terri died near Mother's Day, now spends the day with others who lost their mom. The Cambridge, Massachusetts, woman and her husband spent a memorable holiday in New York not long ago with another couple. All of their mothers had passed away, so "we got concert tickets and a reservation to a hot restaurant where we toasted our moms and really splurged. It was fun, not depressing!"
Gavanditti sees her mother in her children and their interactions with their children. "I know that loving my daughters and teaching them strength, courage, compassion, forgiveness and self-respect is the best way of all that can I honor my mom on Mother's Day and all days. Every Mother's Day, I take a deep breath and say a prayer for her soul and I hear her voice in my head saying she loves me. I smile and I continue on, knowing I must pay homage to her legacy by being the best mom I can be."