Surviving The Holidays When You’re Estranged From Your Mother

Holidays without your mother are hard.

Holidays without your mother are hard.

I do not regret my decision, but my heart still aches with grief and loss, and there is no time of year that is harder to be motherless than the holidays.

When I was a little girl, the holidays were shiny and new, and deliciously uncomplicated. We sang carols, feasted on lasagna with a million teeny tiny homemade meatballs, and I waited for Santa to come with nothing but joy and anticipation. My own children live out those experiences now, and create their own innocent and perfect memories, but they are made without the help of my mother.

It’s been three years since I divorced my mother. The reasons are long and complicated, yet also short and simple. My mother is not capable of mothering anyone, and I am healthier and happier without her. I do not regret my decision, but my heart still aches with grief and loss, and there is no time of year that is harder to be motherless than the holidays.

Still, after a few years of practice, I have learned that the holidays do not have to feel like torture. I can shift my expectations and ideas, and learn to find joy in what they are today. These are five of my survival strategies for the holidays, and every day:

1. Create a New Relationship

I spent many years subconsciously seeking a mother figure in everything from friendships to spouses. While this desire for a mother figure was understandable, the problem was that I was looking for a relationship that would simply never exist. For better or worse, I will never have a healthy relationship with my mother, and there is no substitution for that. 

While mothers themselves can’t be replaced, we can replace the secure attachment we should have received from them with a loving, caring, and emotionally supportive relationship with someone else. Because the mother relationship is supposed to be unconditional in a way that other relationships simply aren’t (and, seriously, don’t try to marry a mother figure, it doesn’t end well), I have found that the best way to make myself feel mothered is with a trusted therapist. Therapy is an unconditionally caring and trusting setting, and that security is especially crucial for those of us who have been abandoned by our mothers.

2. Mother Yourself

If you, like me, have always craved a mother figure, you may have given up on mothering altogether or turned to mothering your own children instead. In either case, your own need to be mothered has not gone away, and denying it can leave you feeling empty and miserable. 

As silly as it may sound, learning to mother yourself can be life-changing. Give yourself permission to love, nurture, cherish, and even mother yourself, and follow your instincts instead of what you’ve learned from your own mother. We are all capable of turning unconditional love inward, and we are all better for learning to do so. 

3. Forgive Yourself

Everyone I have met who is estranged from their mother has a different story, but all of us share at least some degree of guilt. For months, I told myself that the estrangement was the right thing to do, but I still asked myself what the hell was wrong with me if my own mother didn’t even love me. 

While our stories may be different, none of us entered into a parental estrangement lightly. We had good reasons for our estrangements, and no matter how much criticism we may hear from family and friends, it is not our fault that our mothers aren’t capable of being the mothers we need. It takes courage to cut ties with abusive and dysfunctional people — particularly our parents — and we do not owe anyone a reason or explanation for our decisions.

4. Tune Out The Noise

While this is always helpful, it becomes particularly crucial during the holidays when everything seems to be coming up happy families. As much as we might remind ourselves that social media is a carefully-curated view of reality, it can feel like an onslaught when everyone you know is sharing happy, smiling pictures with their mothers. The same is true of the Christmas movies and holiday commercials, feel-good news stories, and even the chit-chat you hear on the street. Mothers are everywhere, and it can feel like a constant slap in the face when yours is absent from your life.

Give yourself permission to unplug, log out, and do whatever you need to do to feel healthy and well during the holidays (and any time). Your real friends will be there anyway.

5. Mourn The Mother You Wish You Had, Not Yours

Sometimes, when I’m especially upset about my mother, I will text a good friend. Every time, she reminds me that even if I reached out to my mother, she would not be able to be the mother I need. When I am racked with grief and loss, it is not my mother I am mourning, but the idea of the mother that I wish I had. 

When we forgot who our mothers are, and allow ourselves to hope that this time she will be different, we re-open old wounds and put ourselves right back inside the turmoil and chaos. It’s OK to grieve and mourn, to feel angry and desolate, and even to hate the woman who gave birth to you. But, before you pick up the phone to try just one last time, remember that the woman you’ve desperately wanted all your life simply doesn’t exist.

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