7 Ways To Survive Mother's Day With A Toxic Mother
More than a year ago, I stopped talking to my mother for what I hope will be the final time; so for me, this Sunday will be like any other Sunday. But in the years leading up to our estrangement, I spent plenty of toxic Mother's Days with my toxic mother, enjoying passive-aggressive silences over lattes, mother-daughter shopping sprees that almost immediately devolved into critiques of my love of "slutty blouses," or brunches that were slightly less fun than getting a Pap smear from a drunk panda. Don't get me wrong — our dynamic was roughly as toxic as a strychnine-colada all year round. But the day dedicated to worshipful love of moms was always hard for both of us; my mom felt belittled and hurt because I wouldn't lavish her with the praise and affection she thought all other mothers were receiving, and I felt cheapened and nauseated by the thought of a long afternoon spent pretending that my mother was my protector, my best friend, or any of the other crap it says in those cards.
In fact, this tension led to the first definitive rip in our relationship: about seven years ago, I woke up on Mother's Day morning, and realized that I couldn't go through with it. I could not force my body to put on clothes, walk down the stairs, go to the train station, and dedicate the next six to 10 hours to acting like being around my mother ever made me feel anything other than awful. So...I just didn't go. I didn't straight-up ghost her — I left her a voicemail saying I wouldn't be making it, though no details about why — but when she called back 20 or so times over the next few hours, I didn't answer. We didn't talk for three years after that.
I'm not saying this is the way to do it — quite the contrary, in fact. If you know that Mother's Day is a time that tests your strength — either because you have a hard time spending the day around your toxic mother, or because you've stopped speaking with her and feel saddened by the entire holiday — you need a plan that will minimize the headaches and suffering that this day can bring you. The seven tips below from my own two decades of mind-bendingly awful Mother's Days — both with and without my mom. Read on and remember — whether you're trying to maintain a relationship with your toxic mother, or you've decided to put distance and space between the two of you, your main priority on this day is taking care of yourself.
If You're With Your Mom
1. Try To Create A Set Time When You'll Leave
Setting time-related boundaries is important every time you hang out with a toxic parent — as Bustle's J.R. Thorpe wrote, "Limits of all kinds are very important with toxic parents...Don't leave the possibilities of your interaction open-ended; there have to be set beginnings and ends." But it is especially important on Mother's Day. Many toxic mothers view Mother's Day as a kind of emotional Nickelodeon Super Toy Run — on this day, there are no limits to what they can demand. And since Mother's Day is on a Sunday, these unchecked demands can have major consequences — like finding yourself driving home at midnight, even though you have to be at work at 8 on Monday morning.
So do anything you can to put a time constraint on the day's activities. If you can book a restaurant meal in a part of town where there is nothing else to do, that's ideal; it will be more difficult to get sucked into a "spontaneous" additional activity after your meal is over.
If that's not an option, try to create a time constraint in any other way. An option that worked for me in the past was taking a bus, instead of driving, and buying an advance ticket back home, so that there was a set time that I had to leave. If this isn't applicable, you can try any other way to impose a time constraint that will both make it harder for her to guilt you into staying late, and easier for you to stick to your guns — schedule a doctor's appointment on Monday morning, for instance.
And if you have to and you're comfortable with it: lie! Think of it like a bad date that you need to end for the sake of everyone's sanity. Get a friend to call and pose as your roommate who lost their keys, say your dog needs to be taken on a walk, say that you have suddenly developed an extremely potent case of explosive diarrhea — whatever it takes to get you out of there.
2. Celebrate In Public
The gold standard is spending the day at a movie or play, of course, but if you can't swing that, try to get your mother to a crowded restaurant, cafe, or shop, where there will be more at stake for her if she gets angry or picks a fight. This doesn't apply to all toxic mothers, of course — some are more than happy to start the same fights at a fancy bistro that they would around their kitchen table — but many toxic parents are willing to behave a bit in public. It won't change the subtext of the day, but it will minimize opportunities for yelling, snark, and rude comments. And since survival is the name of the game on toxic Mother's Day, that's enough.
3. Know What You Are Not Willing To Say Or Do
My biggest issue when I celebrated Mother's Day with my mom was that she wanted to pretend that the other 364 fight-and-tear-filled days of our relationship that year hadn't happened. She wanted to be praised the way she saw mothers on TV being praised — which made me feel dirty, because all that "you were there when I needed you, you supported me unconditionally" stuff just didn't apply to our relationship.
I spent a lot of time worrying about this each Mother's Day, but almost no time preparing — and I'd like to urge you to do the exact opposite. Think back on past Mother's Days, and hone in on the parts that were most difficult for you. Was it the disdainful discussion of your personal life? The monologue about how everyone else's kids are doing something actually nice for their mother? The uncomfortable demands for affection? Write it all down, and then get your game face on on Saturday. Think up some reactions to these common mom-strous situations that will create the least stress and pain for you. Can you, say, divert her attention by taking her to a paint-your-own-mug class, where there won't be time for an angry soliloquy? You can ask trusted friends for help thinking this one over — as the saying says, it takes a village to help an adult child get through one super-sh*tty Mother's Day.
4. Have A Reward Planned For Yourself
Hey, you completed a Herculean feat today — you got through Mother's Day with only some emotional agony! You deserve a treat. Plan out a specific reward in advance that you will give yourself at the end of the night, which you will enjoy with zero self-judgment — uninterrupted reading time with an awesome new book, hours of watching some weird comedy show from the '80s that none of your friends like, cooking some kind of delicious but incredibly complicated snack that you don't usually make time for. When I was seeing my mother on Mother's Day, I'd plan a very specific item of clothing that I'd allow myself to buy online when the interaction was done, and focusing on it would help get me through the day.
And remember that this reward isn't performance-dependent — you still get to enjoy it even if you rolled your eyes, went silent for a minute, or hit the end of your rope and ended up screaming "I CAN'T TAKE THIS ANY MORE!" in the middle of an extremely crowded International House of Pancakes. The reward isn't about doing a good job pleasing your mother; it exists to remind you that you can love and take care of yourself, no matter what happened that day.
If You're Not With Your Mom
5. Skip Places Where People Will Be Celebrating
My mother and I have broken off contact a few times, and we have never celebrated a single Mother's Day together since that fateful voicemail in '09. Because of this, the mere existence of Mother's Day stresses me out a bit less than it used to. But in the years right after I first stopped talking to her, I found that popping into a bakery crowded with beaming moms being fed croissants by their adoring offspring had me weeping in minutes.
If you feel like you might be in this kind of tender place yourself, you may want to take a pass on any Mother's Day trips to brunch spots, sit-down restaurants, parks where people might go for a post-meal stroll, department stores, farmer's markets, or family-friendly films where the crowd will likely be...well, families. Avoiding these danger zones won't ensure that you'll experience a day free of interactions with supposed "happy families," but in my experience, it will minimize it.
This doesn't mean you should shut yourself away all weekend, of course — I personally like to hit the gym, see super-goofy comedies or horror movies, or eat at restaurants that aren't coded as "places to bring your mom" (like a pizza slice or hot wings joint).
And though it isn't a physical space, I personally make it a rule to dodge Facebook for Mother's Day weekend — the loving posts and memes about motherhood make me feel uneasy. If you (like me) have some issues with internet-related self-control, you can add apps to your computer that make you unable to look at certain sites for certain time periods.
6. Stay Busy
Idle hands are the devil's plaything — especially when it's Mother's Day, and the "devil" in question is the lady who birthed you. Having a full schedule keeps me from getting sappy, sad, or thinking "I am an awful, miserable child/ What must my extended family be saying about me right now/ I'm sure a quick phone call wouldn't kill me..."
Don't feel like you have to fill the day with work — you get a day off, just like everyone else! But try to stay in motion to whatever degree doesn't stress you out. Schedule a coffee or dinner date with a sympathetic friend. See a movie. Draw in your sketchbook. Get rid of all the clothes that you're over, but usually feel too busy and exhausted to pull out of your closet. Just don't spend all day moping. You deserve more than that.
7. Spend Time With Allies
One of the hardest things about spending Mother's Day alone is being really alone. When all your friends leave to go celebrate, it can be easy to feel like you made the wrong choice, or that you really are as unlikeable as dear old Mom told you you were. That's why it is the time to call upon your allies — a group of friends and acquaintances who you know have your back when it comes to your problems with your family. Search for the people in your life who are physically free to spend time with you on Mother's Day, or can provide online/ text-based emotional support, and reach out.
This doesn't mean you can only hang out with other people with toxic moms — I've also spent Mother's Day with friends whose mothers have passed away, who were raised without their moms, or who live far away from their mom and limit their festivities to a quick early-morning phone call. But spending the day with another refugee from Planet Trash-Mom can be particularly soothing.
No matter how you end up spending the day, remember: you didn't do anything to deserve this. You're not a bad person, an ingrate, or any of the nasty things people say about children who have problems with their parents. You're just a person with a problem, and you deserve to do everything in your power to solve it.
Images: Netflix/ Fox; Giphy