The pain of Mother’s Day — not what you think

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By Caitlin Kelly

Tomorrow in North America, the annual paeans to great mothers begins again.

It doesn’t resonate the same way for others, like me.

I wrote about this once in detail, here, and it spurred one of my most valued friendships, since that person and I finally saw the effect of having really difficult mothers on our lives and life choices.

It does change you.

It’s also deeply taboo to not like your mother — and it’s extremely painful to have your mother not like you, especially if you’re their only child.

So, at the request of an editor, I wrote this essay about how my mother and I became estranged, and still were when she died this February, in a nursing home very far away from me.

I hadn’t seen her or spoken to her in a decade.

I did love my mother, even as I was fed up with how she chose to squander every gift life can offer: physical beauty, Mensa level intelligence, curiosity, open-mindedness, inherited wealth, deep and abiding friendships.

Between her bipolar illness and alcoholism, her behavior was often erratic and selfish. It deeply hurt and really scared me, as my visits to her were usually alone, with no one to turn to for moral support or help. I had no siblings to commiserate with — or strategize.

I couldn’t turn to one of her friends. She was someone who eschewed close relationships unless with very old friends, most of whom lived in other countries. She didn’t know her neighbors, so neither did I. When she attended church, she never went to coffee hour and,  when I forced her to on one of my annual visits (selfishly desperate for someone else to know her), she was furious with me.

When she left my father, and she was 30, she had plenty of suitors, and one was very kind to me — oddly, decades later, that man’s daughter, living in England, contacted me (or vice versa) and we renewed a friendship we’d had at 12 in Toronto.

So I miss the best of her, as it was lovely.

But I don’t miss the worst.

Here’s some of the essay:


I hadn’t seen her in years nor tried to re-connect. I knew better, even though others repeatedly urged me to, including my father, 50 years divorced from her but lately back in touch.

“You’ll regret it!”

“What if she dies?”

“Just go!”

“You never know…”

But they didn’t know the full story.

Every year I sent her a Christmas card filled with the past year’s news, but never received a reply, not even in 2018, the year of my early-stage breast cancer, surgery and radiation. When she had had a mastectomy decades before, I’d flown from New York to Vancouver to get her back home and re-settled.

A few years ago, she told my best friend, a local who went to visit, to tell me to stay away.

How does one end up so estranged?

More easily than you’d think.

I hope you’ll read the rest — and if you, or someone you know, is also estranged from a parent, this may comfort them.

It’s an oddly secret society.

26 thoughts on “The pain of Mother’s Day — not what you think

    1. I know how that happens…it can really split a family. My late stepmother and I argued just a few months before her death — 13 years ago. Her son is about to become father to twins and he has refused to have anything to do with me since then out of some loyalty to his late mother (who could be very very tough on me.)

      such a mess.

      1. That sounds awful. Yes, these type of situations are so messy and sad.

        As my mother aptly says, it’s no wonder there are wars in the world if families can’t even get along. Fighting and conflict seem to be part of the human condition, sadly.

  1. I’ve been using this time at home to sort and organize old photographs. One of the shoeboxes contained photos I had sent my (now deceased) father. Also inside was our son’s birth announcement in which I had written.. “I would have called, but I don’t know your number.”

    And that about summed it up.

  2. Martina Newhook

    It’s sometimes painful but necessary to stay away from one’s mother. My relationship with my mother isn’t as fraught as yours. We are still somewhat connected, but distant both geographically and emotionally. It’s partly in thinking about that relationship and the ones I have with other family members that during my covid confinement, I launched a new blog. One of my first posts is about my mother and food.
    Be well Caitlin!! I am grateful to be energized by life and curious as hell as I enter my middle years and beyond. I sense that you are too. All of the losses and the suffering make everything else more valuable.

  3. I remember this piece! It so struck me at the time. It’s brave and an unflinching look at what so many would rather gloss over. Thanks for sharing your journey so others know they’re not alone.

  4. I am sorry to hear of the lack of balance and reciprocal communication with your mother. May you continue to find peace with other supportive motherly women and mentors that can heal the empty emotions from having a parent that did not hold up her end of the bargain.

  5. i am so sorry for this, and have shared the exact feelings. when my mother passed away, i was filled with such unsettled emotions. i must say, this is a beautiful picture of both of you.

  6. Jan Jasper

    Caitlyn, your writings here about your mother have been very insightful and deeply moving.
    I may be in a minority – I had a very close relationship with my mother, for which I am extremely grateful. She’s been gone a few years now and I miss her terribly.

    1. Thanks…It’s really hard when you’re very close with a mother. For me, it’s describing the moon — just something I didn’t experience.

      She and I did have some fun times and, for a while, enjoyed a good relationship after her brain surgery in 2003. But the alcohol wrecked it again.

  7. Jan Jasper

    Caitlin, I remember that, so many times here, you talked about your difficult decision to cease your attempts to stay in touch with your mother. It made perfect sense to me and seemed the only healthy thing you could do. Yet, amazingly, you had a (very) small number of detractors here who kept at you to reach out to your mom – even though was clear you’d only be rebuffed and hurt again. So I applaud your having the strength to follow your own path.

    1. My father is still upset with me for not doing this and kept offering to pay my way out there to go see her. I had to keep explaining that his experience of her (they split when I was 7) and mine, were entirely different and he needed to respect that. He never saw the worst that I did.

      1. jan Jasper

        Well, since they split when you were 7 it’s quite obvious – at least to a person who has some insight – that your experience of your mom was different from his. I am frequently amazed at how common it is for people to not listen and to just project their own stuff onto others. I have waning patience for this and its probably the reason I have many acquaintances but few friends.

      2. Same as me…

        He’s also just not someone with a lot of interest in my POV. Whenever his 2nd wife had something negative to share about me or their son, their POV won.

        I often got the feeling I should have quietly disappeared when he married wife 2 and started his whole new family. Not a pleasant experience to be asked, year after year, “So what are you doing for Christmas” or finding out, several times, about the trips they made w my 2 adult half siblings to pleasant places for the holiday — while me and my husband were never even invited.

        I have little patience with sentimental goo over “family.” I just don’t get it.

  8. Another powerful and honest piece. I’m glad that you have weathered this and can share your experience so eloquently. It really does help others know they are not alone or at fault in having wanted family connections they did not grow up with.

    1. Thanks, Ginny.

      I wanted the story to do this — to comfort others who are too afraid to talk about it publicly (as I was for a long long time) which only makes it worse.

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