Mother’s Day is coming. If your relationship with your mother is typically full of pain and heartache, this article is for you.
Why Mother’s Day Sucks for Adult Children of Narcissists
Every April, TV commercials begin urging us to remember our mothers on Mothers Day, the second Sunday in May. They often portray sweet, heartwarming, sentimental interactions between mothers and their children. Watching those commercials has always been difficult for me because I longed for those kinds of interactions my entire life. Sometimes I cried when I watched them, so painful was the contrast between them and the relationship that I had with my own mother.
American culture promotes motherhood as a saintly paradigm; that mother-love is instinctual, unconditional, and spontaneous; and that all women can be loving, empathetic, nurturing mothers. Believing these inaccuracies can harm an unloved child’s spirit, keeping him or her in a state of confusion and self-doubt (“cognitive dissonance.”)
An emotionally healthy mother’s love is a powerful, constant theme throughout her children’s lives and memories; her kindness, compassion, validation, and the loving bond that they share. For those of us who don’t have that kind of mom, or that kind of relationship, or those kinds of memories, we watch others who do, and we wonder what is wrong with us. We try, but we can’t figure out why we are so unlovable. Because surely if our mothers can’t love us, it must be our fault. We must be unlovable, right?
But, the fact is, for human beings, mothering is a learned behavior; there’s a spectrum of maternal behaviors, from healthy to toxic. Acknowledging this may be helpful when thinking about Mother’s Day.
If your mother is self-important, seeks admiration, believes she’s superior, lacks empathy, manipulates and uses her children, puts others down, is hypersensitive to criticism, or believes she deserves special treatment, she may be on the narcissism spectrum. If she is, you will likely experience mixed feelings about Mother’s Day. Daughters and sons of narcissistic mothers are out there and think they’re alone. You’re not alone.
In my unhealed past, I used to spend a huge amount of emotional energy just selecting a card. These days, there is awareness and sensitivity regarding family dysfunction and the fact that not all mothers are loving and kind. It’s easier now to find a more realistic card sentiment. But in the past, I had great difficulty finding a card that wasn’t over-the-top: “Happy Mothers Day to the Greatest Mother of All Time!” or “Happy Mother’s Day to the Mother of the Year!” Seriously. They all felt like lies. While I dealt with that, other adult children of narcissists dealt with questions like: “Should I even send a card?” “Should I call her?” “Should I see her?” “Should I ignore the day?” “What should I do?”
Like other adult children of narcissists at this time of year, I was triggered by memories of an unloving, emotionally detached, uninvolved, neglectful and intentionally cruel mother. I also found myself envious of anyone who had a caring, loving mother, or who looked forward to spending mothers day with her. Every year, I experienced pain and turmoil because I was deeply codependent, and living in a state of denial about my maternal relationship. Every Mother’s Day, I was forced to face the reality of it in all its stark ugliness and demoralizing humiliation. At one point, I was actually a mother myself, yet still focused on making this day all about my own mother. I wasn’t able to enjoy what the day meant for me as a mother. Eventually I realized that something needed to change so I could experience the day in a whole new, healthy way.
Confusion and Cognitive Dissonance
If you are an empathetic person, you are naturally sensitive to others’ emotional needs. Trying to understand that narcissists don’t have this ability is difficult to understand or believe.
When our need for love and connection with our mothers is not met, we often blame ourselves. As children, we never thought there was something wrong with our mothers. Instead, we began forming beliefs that we were not good enough, and that we didn’t matter.
As adults, we took those beliefs with us and we keep returning to that parent, again and again, hoping and wishing that it will be different this time. We focus on gaining her approval, validation, acceptance, and love. We jump through any hoop she offers. And, as adults, if we’re still attempting to please our narcissistic moms, we’re putting ourselves in a no-win situation. Our failure to satisfy her will trigger more pain and confusion, and a continuation of the “not-good-enough’s” and “we-don’t-matter’s.
At some point, we may begin to entertain the idea that the problem is not us, and we might suspect it could be her. We may feel guilty for having these thoughts, yet, it’s something we need to consider.
There’s a Name For It
When I decided to actively pursue healing and personal growth, a therapist presented the idea that my mother may have an undiagnosed and untreated mental illness, most likely a personality disorder. This was exciting and validating news for me because I had entertained that idea for awhile. As I came to grasp the impact that my mother’s probable mental illness had on me, I felt a gamut of conflicting emotions.
“Narcissism Awareness Grief” (NAG) is a condition coined by Dr. Christine Hammond, a Licensed Mental Health Counselor who works with exhausted women and their families. She teaches that the loss of a mother’s love, warmth, interest, and connection is a momentous one that must be consciously grieved.
Narcissism Awareness Grief acknowledges these losses and recognizes that our mothers’ narcissistic traits have negatively impacted us. We can then begin to come to terms with how they have impacted us. Through this acknowledgment, we can break through the coping mechanism of denial and start working through the six stages of grief, to finally arrive at the final phase: Acceptance. When you fully understand and accept that you cannot change or control your mother’s perception of you, the ball is truly in your court. It’s from the point of Acceptance that your life can and will change.
I remember very clearly what it was like to experience Narcissism Awareness Grief. As I slowly woke up to see the effects that my mother’s narcissistic traits had on me, I felt a mixture of shock, denial, disbelief, and a sense of overwhelming sadness. You see, when we discover that the traumatic lifestyle we’ve endured as children has an actual name, Narcissism Awareness Grief, it’s a massive relief. There’s an initial rush of validation, and we suddenly realize that we’re not alone, that we’re not crazy, and that we haven’t imagined any of it. Narcissistic trauma and abuse are real things, and we can recover from them. There is nothing—and there never was—anything inherently wrong with us, as we may have been led to believe.
Going No Contact, or Not
Many experts say when it comes to relationships with narcissists, that you have two choices: live on their terms (focusing on them, chasing after their withheld love, acceptance, and affection) or go “no contact.”
But here’s the rub: when a mother and adult child relationship fails, it’s the adult child who’s commonly believed to be responsible for the breach. Cultural opinions like these can keep an unloved daughter or son stuck in the place they’ve been since childhood—knowing that something’s wrong, blaming themselves, and wondering who will be able to love them if their own mother can’t. Going “no contact,” for me, felt like an “either/or” choice, having no flexibility, and was a “point of no return.” And it didn’t feel good.
I’ve never been a big fan of black and white thinking. I like seeing all the shades of gray. So, I created a third option for myself. I learned how to identify complex trauma symptoms, refuse the gaslighting, heal my c-ptsd symptoms, remove the drama from our relationship, set enforceable boundaries, shut down manipulation, and upgrade my communication style.
I still have a relationship with my mother, but it’s changed significantly. I no longer focus on what she does, says, or expects, and as a result, I no longer fee humiliated, unloved, invalidated, and rejected. The difference is that our relationship is on my terms now.
If you’re interested in how I did this, I wrote a book about it, called “Lemon Moms: A Guide to Understand and Survive Maternal Narcissism.”
In the meantime…
So, what can we adult children of maternal narcissists do to feel better about Mother’s Day this year?
Here are some suggestions that may help:
- Remember, it’s a day, and like most days, you can make it what you want.
- Question the card. Search for a generic Mother’s Day card, if you want to send a card at all. Giving a card that says “Best Mom in the World” is an act of denial. The first step to healing is admitting that you grew up in a dysfunctional home. NO MORE DENIAL. It takes courage not to buy that lying card.
- Eliminate expectations. You can’t be disappointed if you don’t expect anything to be different this year. Learn to drop expectations.
- Make new traditions. Do the day differently. Celebrate yourself! Do something you enjoy, whether solo, with a friend, significant other, or your children. YOU get to determine how you will spend your time on this day.
- Feel and express your feelings. Give yourself permission to feel and express whatever you’re feeling. Give yourself space to cry, be angry, feel unloved, or grieve. Acknowledge that you have reason to feel these emotions, and validate your childhood memories. Start writing it all down in a journal to get it out in a healthy way.
- Shift the focus. Practice gratitude, speak healing affirmations, or do something wonderful for someone else.
- Make an appointment. If Mother’s Day annually triggers anxiety or depression, give yourself the gift of scheduled time with a professional to start or continue the healing process.
- Seek support. Find support groups in your area or online. Talking with others who understand narcissism dynamics can help in your healing journey. And as always, don’t try to explain it to those who don’t. Other’s who don’t understand narcissism, or haven’t gone through Narcissism Awareness Grief and healed their own wounds, may unknowingly invalidate you, causing further trauma.
- Express gratitude to mothers you know who are loving and kind. Honor other women who may have given you motherly love, perhaps a grandmother, aunt, co-worker, or friend.
- If you are a mother, think about your values and work to end the legacy of one-sided love. Acknowledge and be grateful for your ability to love.
- Start working a recovery program so you don’t pass the legacy down to your children. If you are working on your recovery, good for you! Do the work!
On Mother’s Day, let’s honor the mothers who have given their children the gifts of love and nurturing. At the same time, let’s acknowledge the truths of the daughters and sons of the mothers who did not fit the upheld, saintly mother stereotype. And let’s applaud the mothers who are working a recovery program to change their family legacy of narcissistic abuse.
McBride, K. (2012, April 9). When Mother’s Day Hurts. Psychology Today. Retrieved April 21, 2021, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-legacy-distorted-love/201204/when-mother-s-day-hurts.
Hammond, C. (2019, June 29). What is narcissism awareness grief (NAG)? Retrieved August 2, 2019, from https://pro.psychcentral.com/exhausted-woman/2018/07/what-is-narissism-awareness-grief-nag/.
More tools for healing:
Start using loving detachment
Learn about the Gray Rock technique
Learn to set boundaries
Learn about dysfunctional family roles
Understand trauma bonds
Learn about codependency and maladaptive coping skills
Understand the Narcissistic Abuse Cycle
Learn to drop expectations
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About the Author
As a result of growing up in a dysfunctional home, and with the help of professional therapists and continued personal growth, Diane Metcalf developed strong coping skills and healing strategies for herself. She happily shares those with others who want to learn and grow.
Her Lemon Moms series and other books and articles are a combination of her education, knowledge, personal growth, and insight from her childhood experiences and subsequent recovery work.
Diane holds a Master of Science degree in Information Technology and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology. She’s worked in numerous fields, including domestic violence and abuse, and is an experienced advocate, speaker, and writer about family dysfunction. On The Toolbox, she writes about recovery strategies from hurtful people and painful, dysfunctional, or toxic relationships. She has authored four transformational books about healing and moving forward from narcissistic Victim Syndrome.
Visit her author’s site here: DianeMetcalf.com
Learn about the Lemon Moms series here: Lemon Moms
This website is intended for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional therapy.