Getting Through Mother's Day When You Don't Have A Mom

Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
By Ruby Dutcher

I anticipated my first motherless Mother’s Day in the same way I’d anticipated my first day at Catholic school or the first time I had sex.

Sure, I was nervous, and sure, I was prepared for it to wreak some serious emotional havoc. But, the whole enterprise had been teased so thoroughly in the media that I was determined to experience the hell out of it, dammit.

The 2014 Mother’s Day blitz officially began at 8:57 a.m. on April 24, more than two weeks early, with an email from the Designer Shoe Warehouse. DSW cordially invited me to check out the sandal of the season, all while showing MOM I really knew her style! Nothing says "thanks for giving me life!" like a pair of bedazzled $29.99 Madden Girl thongs.“Sporty mom! Fashionista mom! Nature-loving mom! Every mom Covered!” 

Every mom? I wondered how store management would react if I came up to checkout with a box of ashes and some half-price flats to ask if they would be so wonderfully kind so as to set the shoes on fire for me so that my mom could wear them out.

Spotify was, by far, the worst offender. Every 10 minutes or so, David Bowie or Beyoncé would be interrupted by one or two thirty-second reminders that I should honor Mom with chocolates, flowers, or better yet, a subscription to Spotify premium. I recognize that music isn’t free and that ads are a necessary part of the unpaid experience. Still, being reminded every 10 minutes that, right, mom’s dead, makes it a lot harder to jam out to “Partition” on the eastbound M86.

Meghan O’Rourke, who has written very intelligently on being unmothered, observes that, despite her ambivalence,“the endless mentions of the holiday everywhere...have forced me to take stock, whether I want to or not.”
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Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
That’s really the issue here. I don’t have a problem with the holiday itself; I have a problem with the ads forcing me to engage with it without my consent. They remind me that I’m not in control of my own grieving process, and sometimes, that reminder pisses me off.

Related: My Stillbirth Experience Changed The Way I (Don't) Plan

So, I went into Mother’s Day 2014 ready to do a some healthy lashing-out. I woke up early and headed into my weekend job at a Manhattan-based greenmarket. As I weighed lettuce and bagged cherry tomatoes, I waited, almost excited, for a cheerful customer to remind me to give my mom a call. “Actually," I’d say, drawing myself up with the full weight of my tragedy behind me, “I can’t call my mother. She died just this year.”

The customer would gasp, apologize, and slink away, and I would have struck one righteous blow against the corporate tyranny of Mother’s Day. Except, that didn’t happen. I had a really nice day. The sun was out, the day was warm, the customers kept me busy, and the vegetables I sold tasted good. A few customers reminded me to have a happy Mothers’ Day, and I silently judged them.

One woman said, “Happy Mother’s Day! Unless your parents are dead. I don’t know your life.” I silently appreciated her.

The day was uneventful, I got paid, I went home to take a nap. In the groggy aftermath, I began to feel strange. I felt, I realized, disappointed. I’d been so ready for this day to mean something — to be somehow revelatory or cathartic — that its ordinary-ness seemed inappropriate. I have a recurring insecurity that I’m somehow doing grief wrong, and that fear began to intensify.Why am I not sad? Why am I not angry? Am I secretly some kind of sociopath?! As the anxiety crept towards panic, I thought about DSW and Spotify. Over the past two weeks these organizations had worked so hard to make Mother's Day a "thing." 
Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
They wanted it to be a thing? Fine. I'd make it a thing. I'd make it my own damn thing. I calmed myself down and sent out a group text.“Meet me at Riverside Park at 9 p.m. for a Mother's Day ritual. Bring your lovely selves.” I found out the next day that a few of my friends had blown off the text because they thought the word "ritual" implied I might sacrifice a chicken.

I’m 21 now, and let me tell you about people my age. We’re almost culturally pressured to be selfish. Most of us don’t know how to talk about death or support one another through a real crisis. Even making plans with another 20-something is a mythical feat. At the last minute one of you inevitably becomes exhausted or remembers an urgent assignment; a rain check is agreed upon, and the boulder rolls back to the bottom of the hill. In general, we suck — and that’s fine. Your twenties are for learning to not suck.

Related: How To Get Dead Loved Ones Offline

The problem arises when something bad happens — when you get sick or get attacked or watch someone die — and you look around and realize your support network consists of people who couldn’t keep a date with destiny. Walking to the park, I wasn’t expecting much. I was entirely prepared to perform my little memorial ritual on my own.

So, I was pleasantly surprised when three of my friends showed up. They stood around me in the warm semi-darkness as I sat on a ledge overlooking the park, explaining why we were here. I poured apple cider and fed everyone Tootsie Rolls. I explained that these were always present at my mom’s birthday parties. That they reminded me of her. I told a few stories. I told them her name.

There was a short silence, and then, one by one, each girl spoke about her own mother. Her own family. What it felt like to be at college. I refilled cups and passed out more candy as we talked. I haven't believed in God since I was 8, but my grandfather was an Episcopal priest, and something in my epigenetic code draws me to communion. It doesn't take much to connect the two experiences. In that park, the four of us transubstantiated the Tootsie Rolls and sanctified the cider.

I may not have felt that I was communicating with my mother — I don't actually believe I can — but sharing food and drink with these women was a communal act either way. We all sat for a minute, then packed up and headed home. We passed a pair of older dog-walkers who had doubled back past us three times, trying to figure out if we were doing anything illegal. Walking united against their suspicious glares, I felt, if not safe, at least loved.

Next: Why I Cherish My Mom's Recipe Cards Above All
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