For most people, Mother’s Day is a day to thank and honor the woman who raised them. In a healthy parent and child relationship, Mother’s Day should be a day of celebration and pleasant time together as a family.
Unfortunately, that isn’t the case for everyone. For many, Mother’s Day is a painful day. For adults who were abused as children — or who suffer from ongoing emotional and psychological abuse from their parents — Mother’s Day is a reminder of their family’s dysfunction.
Abuse may take many forms (spiritual, emotional, psychological, physical, or sexual), and can be ongoing throughout childhood and into adulthood. In many cases, the source of the abuse may be untreated mental illness or a personality disorder. The Scriptures say we must “Honor our Mother,” but how can we do that if our mother isn’t a safe person for us to be around?
Forgiveness vs. Forgetfulness
First, let’s recognize the difference between forgiveness and forgetfulness. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and that it is a process. Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting the pain of the abuse. It doesn’t mean no longer feeling anger or hurt, but it does mean not wishing hurt on another person.
Most importantly, forgiveness doesn’t mean leniency. Forgiveness doesn’t mean re-establishing contact with an abusive mother. It doesn’t mean allowing a dysfunctional mother to disrespect the healthy boundaries you have established.
Forgiveness is hard work and working on healing from a relationship with an abusive or dysfunctional mother will bring out very strong feelings. Feeling those feelings does not mean that you are being unforgiving. On the contrary, working on your healing in therapy and with the support of loved ones can help you to be capable of forgiveness.
Honoring with Boundaries
But what about honoring your mother? Isn’t enforcing boundaries or low/no contact disrespectful of your mother?
On the contrary, boundaries and even restricting contact with an abusive or dysfunctional mother may be the only way to truly honor her. To love someone is to desire their ultimate good. In the case of someone who is abusing another person, the abuse will often continue as long as contact continues unrestricted. Denying someone the opportunity to abuse is actually a loving thing to do. In addition to protecting yourself, you also deprive your mother of the chance to abuse you. In some cases, strong boundaries or little or no contact is the only way for the cycle of dysfunction or abuse to cease.
I like to think of it this way — if my mother were healthy enough to want what was best for me, she would want me to be safe and secure. She wouldn’t want me to experience abuse. She isn’t healthy enough to want that for me. But in establishing a firm boundary in my relationship with her (in my case, no contact for the time being) I am honoring the wishes she would have for me, if she were a healthy mother.
In other words, I am enforcing a boundary not out of revenge, but because I love her. I am not giving her the opportunity to abuse me and am choosing to pursue freedom from an abusive relationship. In doing both, I hope to honor her, and what she would want if she were able to.
What Does God Ask of Us?
In the course of his public teaching, Jesus told his disciples that they weren’t worthy of following him unless they “hated” their mother, father, sister, brother, etc. Of course, he didn’t mean “hate” the way that we colloquially use it. He meant that we must order our love in such a way that our love for him and his will comes before all other loves.
Abuse is not God’s will for any of our lives. Abuse is a result of living in a fallen world.
Likewise, God desires health and healing in our relationships. He wants us to break the cycle of abuse in our families. Sometimes, the only way to achieve that is through little or no contact. It is common for abusive parents to use scripture to justify their abuse (which is a form of spiritual abuse) but God does not want parents to abuse their children. Choosing to no longer accept abuse does not make you a disrespectful or disobedient son or daughter. In fact, it makes you a truly loving one, seeking to establish peace in your family.
Of course, this doesn’t take away from the pain of separation. Even though I know that my mother was abusive to me throughout my life, I still miss her. These feelings are not uncommon, but they also don’t mean that I have made the wrong decision by establishing boundaries.
How to Handle Mother’s Day
One of the hardest days for me is Mother’s Day. On the one hand, I miss my mother deeply — especially as I continue in my path to healing and become more aware of the pain that must have led her to become abusive. On the other hand, I remember how much pain she caused me and I am relieved to no longer have to face that pain.
Yet, I sometimes feel especially sad or guilty on Mother’s Day, when mothers are blessed and praised everywhere from Mass to greeting cards. My experience of having a mother isn’t what is described, and Mother’s Day makes that more apparent than ever.
One thing that I do to honor my mother on Mother’s Day is to pray for her. I may offer a rosary for her on that day, or pray for her at Mass. I can pray for her without having contact with her, and that act can be just as loving as sending a card.
I am also a mother, so I also try to honor my mother on Mother’s Day by being a good mother to my own children. By breaking the cycle of abuse, I am redeeming my family — making a healthy legacy where there was previously abuse and dysfunction.
Finally, I can entrust my mother to Mary, asking that Mary pray for her healing. Part of forgiveness means wanting the good for my mother, and so I pray for her spiritual and emotional healing (even if I never experience the benefits of it).
Be gentle with yourself this Mother’s Day and know that God truly desires your healing.