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The Guardian - US

This Mother’s Day, I’m choosing my friends instead

‘My maternal surrogates have brought a wisdom and depth to our friendship that were hard to find elsewhere.’
‘My maternal surrogates have brought a wisdom and depth to our friendship that were hard to find elsewhere.’ Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA

I logged into my social media feed on a cold, midwestern spring morning and was greeted with a post by a major magazine. It was a link to 30 Mother’s Day songs that, the article claimed, “will tug at her heart strings”.

Being a daughter who has, despite supreme effort, only managed to tug at her own mother’s heart strings in all the wrong ways, I decided against reading it. The last thing I needed was another gushing reminder of the relationship that evolution and society say I’m supposed to have, but do not.

I’m 41 years old, and my mother and I haven’t breathed a single word to each other in more than three years. The reasons for our estrangement are complicated, and far from uncommon – but most certainly taboo.

My mother and I always had a confusing relationship. While there were certainly good times between us, there was also an unpredictable undercurrent of toxicity, dysfunction and rage weaving through our life together. She had made considerable sacrifices for me, but as I entered adulthood it became clear that my boundaries – mostly the need to be my own person unencumbered by unsolicited opinions, parental guilt trips and other forms of emotional manipulation – were incompatible with what my mother wanted from me: full and speedy compliance with whatever she demanded.

I learned the hard way that I had zero capacity to make her happy, and therapy gave me permission to stop imagining that it was my job to do so.

Many people are at a loss for how to respond when I admit to having put my own mother in a permanent timeout for the sake of my sanity. Responses ran the gamut, from “but you only get one mother” to “I couldn’t imagine not speaking to my mother” and “you’re lucky. My mother’s dead. What I would give to be able to hear her voice again.”

Many went as far as to suggest that the responsibility for my relationship with my mother rested squarely on my shoulders, as if I were strictly to blame for the dynamic between us.

Before my years in therapy, Mother’s Day mania used to heighten my insecurities. The multibillion-dollar hype surrounding this holiday has a dark side for those of us with difficult relationships to loved ones, and the onslaught of Perfect Mother marketing often feels noxious to the large number of adult children working through traumatic relationships with their maternal caregivers.

And yes – there are a lot of us around. A study on mother-daughter estrangement conducted by researchers at Ohio State University recently found that 52% of the mothers surveyed were estranged from a daughter. Forty-five per cent reported estrangement from a son. Research conducted by sociologist Karl Pillemer found that 25% of people are actively estranged from a family member at any given time.

Given the statistics, you’d think that society would catch up and back off – or at least make some space for the rest of us. Still, trying to avoid Mother’s Day during the weeks-long rush of aggressive ad campaigning is like trying to avoid air.

•••

To find a way to coexist among those who celebrate their mothers, I found myself spending more time with my older female friends, some of whom are nearly twice my age. Looking back, I believe this was a subconscious effort: without anywhere else to turn, I began to honor the motherly figures in my friendships for the important roles they played in my life.

My strongest maternal relationships are now with women who are not related to me and who haven’t watched me grow up – but they care for me and my wellbeing as if I were their daughter. Best of all, they’ve never projected their beliefs on to me about what my relationship with my mother should be. They’ve brought a wisdom and depth to our friendship that were hard to find elsewhere.

In the years since my estrangement I moved cross-country; I’ve changed jobs and advanced my career; I’ve gotten married; I’ve realized a lifelong dream by securing a book deal with a children’s book publisher. I’ve become an aunt four times over and adopted a rescue cat.

No matter how large or small the event, my maternal surrogates have celebrated all of them.

Cynthia, a grandmother and my former neighbor, threw me three going-away parties upon learning that I’d be moving from our upper midwestern town in Wisconsin to marry my fiance, who lived several states and one time zone away. An amazing baker, Cynthia made me a forest-themed cake complete with a ceramic chipmunk topper. The decorative critter sits on my mantel in my new home.

Kim, a widow I met when I first moved to Wisconsin, introduced me to her family. We’d take long walks and, in her southern drawl, she’d regale me with stories about growing up in New Orleans. We saw each other often, sharing our deepest feelings over homemade appetizers and glasses of wine.

Both Kim and Cynthia offered warm meals when I was too busy, sick or tired to keep up. They lent wisdom and encouraging words during difficult times, and when I lived nearby I’d often arrive home to find flowers and baked goods on my doorstep, just because.

Since my move we have stayed in touch, especially through the pandemic. They continue to play a maternal role in my life and we send each other cards and lengthy texts with updates about our lives, much like I imagine many mothers and daughters do. Their care has made all the difference to my mental health.

When I’d otherwise be wallowing in self-pity and dread for the upcoming Mother’s Day weekend, I’m reminded of Kim, Cynthia and other women dear to me who provided comfort when my relationship with my mother imploded.

They assured me that I was worthy of maternal love no matter how I’d been made to feel by others. It is through these women that I’ve learned that mothers can take different forms – matching DNA not required.