When Mother’s Day isn’t rosy: How to cope with a toxic mom on Mother’s Day

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Mother’s Day festivities can be complex for families with strained relationships. | Sun-Times file photo

Mother’s Day is approaching, which for many means showering mom with gifts or flowers this Sunday. Maybe a brunch is on the agenda, or even a phone call just to say “I love you.”

But what if you and mom aren’t on the best of terms? What if she’s mean to you — the furthest thing from June Cleaver? And what if, perhaps, your mom refused to go to her own mother’s funeral, so now you’re not even on speaking terms? (Ok,I’ll admit it, that last one is totally about me.)

“The fact that someone is labeled ‘mother’ because of biology doesn’t necessarily mean that they will be a mother in the psychological and emotional sense of the word, “ says Susan Forward, psychiatrist and author of several books about relationships including “Mother’s Who Can’t Love: A Healing Guide For Daughters” (Harper Collins). “This whole thing about maternal instinct — some people have it, some people don’t, and some people can learn it if they genuinely want to.“

Forward says lots of mothers who fall short are usually pretty damaged people themselves; but just because they had a rough road doesn’t make it OK for them to repeat the pattern.

“I can be very sympathetic to a child who was mistreated by their mom, but I’m not at all sympathetic to an adult who doesn’t do something about it,” Forward says. “Babies try and adults do. If you have a toxic mother and you are a parent yourself, get therapy, go into a 12-step program, but do something to help you change your behavior, because that’s the core to changing your life.”

Here are some tips to coping with a toxic mother this Mother’s Day:

Get over the guilt.

“The biggest issue I see with patients who refuse to avoid a toxic mother is the guilt,” Forward says. “The guilt, either self-inflicted or from family, will diminish over time. But what will not diminish is the erosion of your well being if you don’t stand your ground and keep up the boundaries. People know, when they have a toxic parent, that their life is less stressful when they are not around that parent. Healthy behavior very often makes us feel awful at first because it’s unfamiliar and it’s new. But the payoff is worth it.”

Get the anger out of your system.

“When you stuff the anger and pretend everything is alright, that’s the personality that is going to explode,” Forward says. “Anger that doesn’t get released in a healthy, mature and appropriate way turns into depression and physical ailments like ulcers, headaches, backaches, you name it. I think talking with a therapist is important but I  also encourage cognitive therapy exercises, which can be something as simple as punching a pillow, or going to the gym and hitting the punching bag. You get exhausted and then you feel clean, honest, and the weight is off your shoulders.”

Choose your tribe.

“The people we expect to be the most tender, nurturing and safe, which to me is one of the important things in a relationship is that you feel safe in it, often wind up being the most poisonous for us and it’s very sad,” Forward says. “It takes a lot of hard work to heal that wound but it can be healed. It is not the end of the world or the end of your emotional wellbeing. There are good mothers for us everywhere and they don’t have to be the same gender, or biologically related. Validation is the single most important thing that people yearn for. Find the person who makes you feel safe and validated, and ask them to be that mother energy for you.”

Remember: Your mom’s toxic behavior doesn’t define you.

“So many women have said to me, ‘I’m really afraid to have a child because I don’t want to be like my mother was with me,’ and I always tell them that the very fact that you would say that tells me that it won’t happen,” Forward says. “Victims don’t do anything about it. They wallow and look for sympathy and pity. Healthy people are always pro-active. They take action. They do something.”

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