May 10 is Mother’s Day in the United States. But what happens when your mother is abusive? In 2002, I decided that I was no longer going to be abused. I ceased contact with my abusive parents and haven’t spoken to them since. The most I did was write a few letters to make it clear that I had no interest in having a relationship with them.
My father has shown no interest in contacting me, but my mother has been trying to get me to contact her for the last 13 years. She refuses to believe that I’m serious. I expect she fantasizes that we’ll someday have a tearful meeting where I’ll fall into her arms full of regrets and pleading for her forgiveness, which, of course, she’ll immediately give because she’s the all-sacrificing, all-loving mother. Or something like that.
I’m at peace with my decision. My mother emotionally and sexually abused me. She’s still abusive. She thinks I’m punishing her for the past. As any abuse survivor who’s gone no contact will tell you, it’s not about the past. It’s about the present and the future. I chose not to accept the abuse any longer because if I was in contact with her today, I’d still be abused.
But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a difficult decision. Even abusers have their good points, and I can remember some good times. My mother could be nurturing and loving. She could be funny. She could be generous. And even when a mother is hurtful and manipulative, she’s still one of two most important people in your life, and that’s hard to let go of.
In the past, there were times when I questioned my decision. There were even times I wished she was around. I used to have fantasies that we had a healthy relationship where she treated me with respect. I’m over those now because I’ve faced the reality of who she is.
But when I hear about her having a health problem, for instance, or having to deal with my abusive father, it makes me sad. When I see a picture of her unhappy, and recent pictures of her always show her unhappy, I feel sad. When she sends me one of her toxic letters, a part of me wants to read it just to hear her voice in my head again.
I’m one of many abuse survivors who’s chosen to cease contact with my abusive mother. Mother’s Day is a difficult holiday for most of us. Despite the knowledge that we chose peace of mind over obligation, we can’t cut out the memories, both good and bad, of one of the most important people in our lives.
Mother’s Day ads and cards sell a picture of domestic bliss that just doesn’t exist for many of us. They don’t talk about the mother who sells her children’s toys to buy drugs. They don’t talk about the mother who’s so wrapped up in her own problems that she ignores her children’s needs. They don’t talk about the controlling, manipulative mother.
That’s the reality many of us grew up with and would still have to endure if we were in contact with our mothers. We mourn the irrelevance of these Mother’s Day fantasies to our lives every May. It hurts. We wonder why we couldn’t get the mother who could look beyond her own problems and nurture us when we needed it. Why we couldn’t get the mother who treats us with love and respect. Why we couldn’t get the mother who doesn’t try to manipulate and control us.
Some tell us that we could end the pain by forgiving our mothers. No one, after all, is perfect. Abusers abuse because they’re in pain. But compassion and forgiveness won’t make the Mother’s Day fantasies come true. Nor will they make the abuse in the present go away. I believe in understanding our abusers’ pain because it expands our ability to empathize. It raises us above our abusers. But at the same time, I believe in protecting ourselves from current and future pain.
I think there is a way to heal some of the pain of Mother’s Day for those of us who have made the decision not to let our abusive mothers come into our lives. First, we can tell ourselves that Mother’s Day is for those who have loving mothers and be happy for them. Mother’s Day should be a time to celebrate loving, kind mothers.
When you’ve grown up with an abusive mother, it can be hard to believe that truly loving, kind mothers exist. I can remember the first time this fact hit me. I was participating in a writing workshop at the local library. There were people there of all ages sitting in a circle. We were given a writing prompt and had an hour to write about it. Then we went around the circle reading our work. There were several mothers there with their children.
I was shocked to hear the kids reading intimate things with their mothers sitting right next to them. I watched the mothers. They were clearly proud of what their children had created. They treated them like human beings, not things to be used to meet their needs. Wow, I thought, kind, respectful mothers actually exist!
The second way to heal some of our pain is to celebrate those of us who don’t follow in our mother’s footsteps. There’s a group on Facebook run by abuse survivor Susannah Birch called Women Without Mothers Club. It’s for women whose mothers have died or who aren’t in contact with their mothers. One woman posted about her discomfort with Mother’s Day ads. Another woman responded that Mother’s Day is a chance for her to validate that she’s nothing like her abusive mother and is a loving mother to her children.
This is something to celebrate! I remember talking once to a woman who was a single mother to two young boys. Her mother was abusive, constantly taunting her because she looked like her African American father and not her white mother. She made her feel like she was unattractive, stupid, and worthless. This woman told me that you can’t really understand how hard it is to be an abuse survivor and not abuse your own children until you have kids of your own. I believe her!
I imagine abuse survivors who are mothers constantly have to wrestle with their past. When they’re stressed or have to deal with some conflict with their kids, it takes many of them a lot of effort not to fall back on the abusive behaviors their abusive mothers modeled. Some don’t succeed and go on to abuse their children as they were abused. Some succeed sometimes and don’t succeed at others. But there are plenty of abuse survivors who resist the demons of the past and grow up to be the loving, kind mothers they never had. Mother’s Day is a day for all abuse survivors to celebrate them.
Mother’s Day for abuse survivors who aren’t in contact with their mothers is never an easy time. We see through the fantasy ads and greeting cards. We mourn the loss of something every child deserves–a kind, loving mother. Not a sacrificial mother. Not a perfect mother. Not a self-denying mother. We don’t expect that. We just wanted a kind, loving mother. Instead, we got an abuser. But as long as there are kind, loving mothers out there, and as long as there are abuse survivors who refuse to become abusers themselves, Mother’s Day is worth celebrating.