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The complexity of Mother’s Day when childhood trauma is at play

Why is mother's day difficult for so many? photo of A depressed mother making mac and cheese for dinner.

Mother’s Day can be difficult, especially for those from a childhood trauma background. Learn about the history of Mother’s Day and find support for navigating the day’s emotional complexities.

Why is mother's day difficult for so many? photo of A depressed mother making mac and cheese for dinner.

The complexity of Mother’s Day when childhood trauma is at play

Mother’s Day may feel complex in the most psychologically robust of households.

“Shoot! We forgot to make brunch reservations.”

“Oh my gosh, CVS is closed. Where do we get her flowers now?”

“Does she, like, want breakfast on a tray or something?”

But really, these are like Kindergarten-level complexities compared to the complexity those of us from childhood trauma backgrounds contend with regarding our own mothers and celebrating them, and also (sometimes) now being mothers ourselves.

That’s like black-belt level complexity on this national holiday. 

In this little essay, we’ll explore the origins of the holiday, the complexity of the day when we come from childhood trauma backgrounds, the complexity of the day when we ourselves are now mothers, and how to cope and manage with all this complexity.

Do you come from a childhood trauma background?

Take this 5-minute quiz to find out (and more importantly, what to do about it if you do.)

The well-intended but triggering origins of Mother’s Day.

Because I love history, I wanted to start the essay off by sharing with you a little information on the genesis of this nationally-recognized holiday.

Mother’s Day originated in the early 20th century in the United States, primarily due to the efforts of Anna Jarvis, who intended to memorialize her mother and advocate for a day to honor all mothers. 

Although initially met with resistance (what does that tell you about how society values mothers?), it eventually gained popular approval and became an annual celebration. 

The holiday, when recognized, was meant to honor the mother-child relationship and reflect traditional American values, especially during the Progressive era and World War I when it served to boost morale and express national loyalty, celebrating traditional roles within the family and society.

While Anna’s intent to celebrate her mother may have been well intended, the DNA of this day is painful for me as a trauma therapist both because the “traditional role” of mothering is shaped by the oppressive social force of Patriarchy and the result of this force is that it’s profoundly negatively impacted many mothers’ mental health, leading to their own inability to care well for their children, sometimes translating into childhood trauma experiences.

(Side note: between being a trauma therapist and lifelong feminist, you can imagine how fun I am at cocktail parties…)

Mother’s Day can be triggering when we were the recipient of poor maternal mental health. 

Now, of course, even as I hold the lens and context for why and how the oppressive social force of the Patriarch has negatively impacted maternal mental and therefore contributed to childhood trauma experiences, I’m not condoning, excusing or permitting the actions (or inactions) of mothers that may have led to childhood trauma experiences for their young.

I believe in holding the both/and of this: the pain of personal experience coupled with understanding of the broader dynamics.

So with that said, I want to honor and acknowledge that for those of us who experienced childhood trauma whether directly or indirectly related to the mental health states of our mothers, the second Sunday of May can be especially painful and triggering when it cyclically rolls around.

I’ve written before here, here, here, here, and here with ideas about how to care for yourself on this day (including extending permission to formally opt out of celebrating), the criticality of remothering ourselves as part of our childhood trauma recovery journey, and the invitation to imagine that remothering can and should extend to many and multiple “mothering figures” in our lives.

And again let me repeat: you can understand why and how your mother’s mental health was poor, how her personal, professional, and financial power was undermined by contextual, intergenerational societal forces AND you can still feel deep pain, anger, anguish, resentment, and longing for a different mother and different childhood experiences.

Mother’s Day can also feel complex as we now embody the role of mother coming from a trauma background.

And then, for a sub-segment of us, we may not only identify with coming from a childhood trauma background, but we may now be mothers ourselves and acutely aware of the impossibility of showing up as a perfectly attuned, perfectly regulated, ever-constant emotionally available parent (that most of us imagine would lead to a non-traumatic childhood experience).

Still though, we’re attempting to raise little humans and create a healthy family when we ourselves don’t necessarily come from one.

And yet, between our own unprocessed trauma (that we’re valiantly trying to acknowledge and work through), plus contending with those same lingering oppressive social forces (you cannot tell me the Patriarchy is not still alive and well, slightly diminished, yes, but still poison in the air we breathe), it is so. darn. Hard.

On most days but especially on Mother’s Day, we may be triggered, not only by the reality of our own childhood trauma experiences and what we did or did not receive from our mothers, but also by what we perceive as our own failures as mothers.

If this is you (and for sure it’s me), I cannot overstate how important it is to hold that compassionate duality we talked about before: understanding of the context in which we’re trying to do this impossible task and recognition and validation of all our feels.

Enlisting support to process the complexity.

There is no real thesis statement to today’s essay. 

Complex issues can’t be tidied up into bento box solutions.

Complex issues can only be held with appreciation for their complexity, patience as we untangle them, and a willingness to enlist a higher level of care when and if we need.

So to that end, if you find yourself triggered by Mother’s Day, whether it’s because of your own childhood trauma experiences or because you fear you’re creating trauma for your own children now, please don’t suffer alone.

Reach out for professional support. You’ll feel less lonely, more supported, and be able to work through the triggers and fears and even expand your capacity for parenting. It would be an honor to support you.

Now I’d love to hear from you in the comments below:

Does Mother’s Day feel triggering for you because of your own childhood trauma experiences and/or your role as a mother now doing the world’s hardest job? What helps you cope with this day when it rolls around once a year?

If you feel so inclined, please leave a message so our community of 30,000 blog readers can benefit from your share and wisdom.

And if you’re still not sure if this content applies to you, if you’re still not sure if you come from a childhood trauma history and may have developed any adaptations as a result, I would invite you to take my signature quiz – “Do I come from a childhood trauma background?” 

It’s a 5-minute, 25-question quiz I created that can be incredibly illuminating and will point you in the direction of a wide variety of resources that can be of further help to you.

Plus, when you take the quiz, you’ll be added to my mailing list where you’ll receive twice-a-month letters from me sharing original, high-quality essays (with accompanying YouTube videos and audios you can stream) devoted to the topic of childhood trauma recovery and where I share more about me as a person, my life, and how I’m deep along on my own childhood trauma recovery journey.

My newsletters are the only place where I share intimate glimpses into my life (including photos), the resources that are supporting me, the things I’ve discovered that delight me, words that are uplifting me, the practices that nourish me, etc. 

So please be sure to sign up for my mailing list whether or not you want to take the quiz as it’s the best way to be in touch with me and hear all the things I only share with my newsletter subscribers.

So thank you. 

And until next time, please take such good care of yourself. You’re so worth it.

Warmly, Annie

References Section

  1. Wikipedia contributors. Anna Jarvis. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anna_Jarvis#:~:text=On%20May%2010%2C%2019…. Accessed April 23, 2024.
  2. Jones K. Mother’s Day: The Creation, Promotion and Meaning of a New Holiday in the Progressive Era. In: Cott N, ed. Volume 17/2 Social and Moral Reform. Berlin, Boston: K. G. Saur; 1994:503-524. https://doi.org/10.1515/9783110971095.503.
  3. Fischer L. The Reproduction of Mothering. In: Unknown title. 2012:236-247. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118327821.CH11.
  4. Rached M, Hankir A, Zaman R. Emotional Abuse in Women and Girls Mediated by Patriarchal Upbringing and Its Impact on Sexism and Mental Health: A Narrative Review. Psychiatria Danubina. 2021;33(Suppl 11):137-144.



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  1. Michelle says

    I am in a difficult estrangement with my mother. Although, they all must feel difficult. And this is also my first Mother’s Day with my beautiful daughter. There are so many competing feelings around this. Reading this article is comforting to know I’m not alone with this complex processing.
    Thank you, Annie. Your writings have helped me find the support I need to move towards healing. I know I’m going to be a great mother to my children because of it. There is so much hope for a bright future, even though the past is dark and messy.

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