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.
American culture promotes motherhood as a saintly maternal paradigm; that mother love is instinctive, unconditional, and spontaneous; and that all women can love, empathize, and nurture. These myths and inaccuracies are detrimental; they harm unloved children’s spirits, keeping them in a state of self-doubt (“cognitive dissonance.”)
When a mother and adult child relationship fails, it’s the adult child who’s commonly held responsible. Cultural opinions like these can keep an unloved daughter or son in the place they’ve been stuck since childhood—knowing that something’s wrong and blaming themselves. And wondering who will be able to love them if their own mother can’t.
Mothering is a learned behavior in human beings, and there’s a spectrum of maternal behaviors, from healthy to toxic. Acknowledging this may be helpful when we think about Mother’s Day.
Daughters and sons of narcissistic mothers are out there and they think they’re alone.
Suppose 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. In that case, she may be on the narcissism spectrum, and you will likely experience mixed feelings about Mother’s Day.
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 sentiment. But years ago, I had 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, others dealt with decisions like: “Should I even send a card?” “Should I call her?” “Should I see her?” “Should I ignore the day?” “What should I do?”
The thing is, if we’re still attempting to please our narcissistic moms, then we’re in a no-win situation. Whatever we do will not be good enough. Like others in this situation, I was triggered by memories of an unloving and emotionally detached mother. I also found myself envious of anyone who had a caring, loving mother. Every year, I went through pain and turmoil because I was in a state of denial about my maternal relationship. On Mother’s Day, I was forced to face its stark ugliness and demoralizing humiliation. I was actually a mother myself, yet I was 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. I realized that something needed to change so I could enjoy the day in a whole new, healthy way.
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.” I’ve never been a big fan of black and white thinking; I prefer to see all the shades of gray. So I created a third option: 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.
An emotionally healthy mother’s love is a powerful, constant theme throughout our memories; her kindness, compassion, validation, and the loving bond that we share. For those of us who don’t have that kind of mom or those kinds of memories, we watch others who do. We wonder what is wrong with us, and 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?
Confusion and Cognitive Dissonance
When we were children, we sensed that something was wrong but couldn’t figure out what it was. This state of confusion was a constant for us. When our need for love and connection with our mothers was not met, we blamed ourselves. We began forming beliefs that we were not good enough, and that we didn’t matter. In later life, we took these beliefs with us into our adult relationships. But as adults with plenty more life experience and a broader, fresher perspective, we began to recognize that the problem is not us! There is nothing—and there never was—anything inherently wrong with us, as we may have been led to believe.
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. As children of narcissists, 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. When nothing changes, it triggers more pain and confusion and a continuation of the “not-good-enough’s” and “we-don’t-matter’s.”
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 a long time. As I came to grasp the impact that my mother’s probable mental illness had on me, I felt a gamut of emotions.
There’s a Name For It
“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 loss that must be consciously grieved.
Narcissism Awareness Grief acknowledges these losses and also recognizes that our mothers’ narcissistic traits have negatively impacted us. We 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.
So, in the meantime, what can we adult children of maternal narcissists do to feel better about Mother’s Day?
Remember, it’s a day, and like most days, you can make it what you want. Here are some suggestions that can help:
- 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.
- 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. Write 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 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, 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 also acknowledge the truths of the daughters and sons of mothers who did not fit the upheld, saintly mother stereotype. 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
More resources for healing from childhood trauma, abuse or neglect:
Books by Diane Metcalf-Lemon Moms: A Guide to Understand and Survive Maternal Narcissism, the Lemon Moms Companion Workbook, and Lemon Moms: Life Altering Affirmations, Change Your Self-talk, Change YourSELF. Available on Amazon and wherever books are sold. (Kindle, paperback, audiobook.)
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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 has developed strong coping skills and healing strategies. She happily shares those insights with others who want to learn and recover.
Her books and articles are the results of her education, knowledge, and personal insight regarding her own abusive experiences and subsequent recovery work. She is no longer a practicing Social Worker, Counselor, Program Manager or Advocate, nor is she or has she ever been a licensed psychologist.
Diane is an experienced advocate, speaker, and writer on the topics of domestic violence, abuse, and family dysfunction. Currently, she writes about toxic relationships and recovery tools. Diane holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and has worked in numerous fields, including domestic violence and abuse. She also holds a Master of Science degree in Information Technology.
Currently, Diane runs her own website design company, Image and Aspect, and writes articles and tutorials for Tips and Snips, her inspirational blog for creative people. She continues to learn and write about Emotional Healing.
This website is intended for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional therapy.