It happens every year at this time; postings all over Facebook as people celebrate the gift their mother or father is or was to them, the many tributes and proclamations of deep appreciation for all that a beloved parent contributed to that person’s life. These are heartfelt, beautiful messages of love and gratitude.
However, not everyone looks back at a parent and is filled with loving memories and deep appreciation. In fact, seeing all these messages can be painful if your experience was one of pain, abuse, rejection or abandonment. I think of all the people who have high ACE scores (Adverse Childhood Experiences). Many of the categories of the ACEs research deal with issues around poor, neglectful or abusive parenting. So, it’s possible there are many people who might find it difficult to celebrate a mother or father who caused pain and loss in childhood on these days designated to honor them.
It can be hard to go into card stores or gift shops and see all the glowing messages, plaques and gifts to honor how wonderful a mother or father has been. For some of us the pain is almost palpable. It is a reminder that we did not receive the love and security it appears almost everyone else experienced. We can logically know that it’s impossible everyone is filled with amazing, dedicated mothers and fathers. But seeing all these messages can drive home the pain that comes from recognizing that you did not receive what every child is entitled to receive: unconditional love, emotional as well as physical safety, the sense you are cherished just for who you are, that you have purpose and value and the right to be embraced by your family.
Both my parents did the best they could and came from homes where they experienced severe childhood adversity that left them emotionally wounded and less able to parent in the ways I know they wished they could have parented me and my siblings. While my mother was never able to recognize how her parenting perpetrated legacies of abuse from generations past, my dad was able to learn and grow as he got older. He eventually was able to see the many destructive behaviors and messages of his parents and grandparents that prevented him from being as nurturing as he later wished he could have been.
I still remember him being riveted as he read Monica McGoldrick’s poignant classic, You Can Go Home Again, which describes family histories of famous individuals, showing how many of these celebrities had much pain and loss in their family trees that resulted in the perpetuation of sadness, anger, insecurity, and loneliness and the many other outcomes when families have brokenness passed on from generation to generation.
My dad was in his late 80s when he read this book. I was so proud of him for being willing to look back at his life and the lives of his ancestors to recognize legacies of wounding that was perpetuated from generation to generation. He would read a chapter and then sit with me and tell me about his life, his memories, stories he had heard from generations before that helped us both make sense of why he believed the things he believed and why he parented the way he parented.
As a result of him becoming aware and processing much of his own childhood pain, we were able to eventually develop a beautiful, warm, loving and transparent relationship that allowed me to go into a card store and buy a sentimental card with messages of love and gratitude on Father’s Day.
My story has at least a partial happy ending and therefore Father’s Day is not a holiday that I find to be painful, as opposed to how I experience Mother’s Day. On the other hand, I can celebrate Mother’s Day as I look at my own children and how I believe when they send me those sentimental cards and messages of love, that they are genuine because I worked so hard to not pass down to them some of the destructive legacies I received. I certainly wasn’t perfect—there are no perfect parents – but I did educate myself and made a concerted effort to intentionally parent in healthier ways than my parents were able to parent me and my siblings.
I like to think that my grandchildren are having similar lives where they can celebrate Mother’s Day and Father’s Day with sincere love and appreciation in part because I helped break some of the transgenerational legacies.
If you find these holidays to be painful, please know you are not alone, and your pain should be honored. I hope that knowing that you feel less than thrilled about these holidays gives you at least some credit for the sadness you can experience when these holidays roll around.
Invitation for Reflection
- Are you less than thrilled when Mother’s Day or Father’s Day is here, and you are expected to do the mandatory celebration by sending sentimental gifts and cards?
- If so, what are some of the things you can do to acknowledge your pain and loss?
- Think about ways you can give yourself credit for interrupting destructive family legacies so that your children and grandchildren can sincerely celebrate Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.
Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute