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It’s hard to be a mom without a mother at any time of the year, but it’s particularly hard during the holidays. My mother died 10 years ago, but we were estranged for a long time before her death. As I go about decorating, baking and creating a memorable Christmas for my children, sometimes the sadness still sneaks up on me. It’s not the ghost of Christmas past that haunts me, it’s the ghost of the mother I don’t have—and never had.
I know other moms like me, who are both motherless and unmothered, and while I’m sorry they experience the same sense of grief that I do during the holidays, it’s comforting to know I’m not alone. We know we’re supposed to be happy, and in many ways we are happy to be able to be the kind of mother we wish we’d had. Yet, the grief of not having our own mother resurfaces every year like a fruitcake no one wants. We struggle to create a happy holiday when our memories are far from joyful.
How we cope depends on our circumstances and not all of us are at the same point in the healing process. My mother’s death was a form of closure for me. I no longer had to wonder if things would get better, like so many other moms are wondering right now.
For years, I couldn’t listen to “Silver Bells” because it was my mother’s favorite Christmas song and it hurt too much to hear it. I couldn’t look at pictures from my childhood and I still avoid them at this time of year, because—while I’m better than I’ve ever been—I’m still not over it. You don’t really get over not having a mom to love and nurture you, you just find a way to survive it.
I don’t think the longing and bitterness will ever go away and I’m still coming to terms with that. I cope by keeping my focus on the present. I immerse myself in my experiences now, today, with my husband and children in a happy and loving home that is nothing like the family and home I grew up with.
I’ve made sure to create traditions that are uniquely our own that don’t remind me of my childhood. There are treats I bake and holiday rituals we share that I never experienced with my own mother. I tell myself this is the reward for having survived a dysfunctional childhood and having a mother who didn’t know how to express her love. I’ve come a long way and I’m proud of that.
There was a time when I felt guilty for being happy and I would have said I didn’t think my mother loved me at all. Now I believe her love was a twisted and broken thing I couldn’t change. I couldn’t fix her or our relationship, but I can work on me and my relationships with my children. When the sadness creeps in (as it inevitably does, despite my best intentions), I let myself feel the sense of loss. It may be a day or two before I can recenter myself in the here and now, but I’ve learned that the path to self-care is often crooked.
I know there are moms who are counting the days until they can pack away the Christmas decorations and move on to a new and hopefully less painful year. There are many years when I’ve felt like that and have become almost manic in my need to create the “perfect” Christmas rather than let the past steal one more moment of joy from me. It’s exhausting, trying to make up for the things I didn’t have. So, now I try to enjoy the happy moments without running from the sadness.
I can’t erase my past but I can create a happier now. I can’t give myself the childhood I wish I’d had or the mother I so desperately needed, but I can be the kind of mother my children need and give them all the happy holiday memories they—and I—deserve. This holiday season, I will be gentle with myself and with the memory of my mother.
This is my Christmas gift to myself: peace.
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