The feelings of grief are messy, not fitting inside the box we want to shove them down into and instead rearing their head at the times we thought we were finally okay. Be it through illness, a strained relationship, consciously estranging or simply never quite fitting the mould, Mother’s Day and other family-oriented calendar dates can be some of the most challenging in the year for those who are missing a relationship with a mother figure. Be it for mothers in waiting, the daughters who never knew maternal love or those that find it easier to gloss over the word ‘mum’ altogether, we see you.
Best friends and total opposites in many ways Emma Hopkinson (minimalist) and Robyn Donaldson (maximalist) know these feelings all too well. The pair first bonded when Robyn’s nan (who raised her) was going through cancer at the same time as Emma’s mum, creating a common thread of ongoing grief and a friendship and understanding that to this day is unrivalled.
We were saying how it made us feel really sad inside, because it reminded us, in full floral lettering, that our Mums weren’t around. But there was also a weirdness about that, because we very much agreed that celebrating great Mums was a good thing for lots of people, so we ended up feeling kind of secretly sad and guilty about it. Robyn & Emma
“One day in February 2019, the two of us were sitting in a café, talking about how our inboxes, social feeds and local shops were already filling up with Mother’s Day emails and gift guides and TREAT YOUR MUM messages,” says Robyn. “We were saying how it made us feel really sad inside, because it reminded us, in full floral lettering, that our Mums weren’t around. But there was also a weirdness about that, because we very much agreed that celebrating great Mums was a good thing for lots of people, so we ended up feeling kind of secretly sad and guilty about it. And if you’ve ever felt that way, it’s not very comfortable and can make you want to hide in your wardrobe until Mother’s Day has passed by. But we thought that if we – two people with wildly opposite approaches to emotions – were both feeling like that, it was likely that other people would be too, so we mentioned it on our respective Instagram stories and the response we had was overwhelming. People got in touch to share their stories and show solidarity, to send love and – most of all – to say thank you for talking about it at all.”
Enter: ‘Other’s Day’– a way for people dealing with loss, grief or pain to acknowledge their feelings and find connection in knowing they’re not alone in this struggle.
We created Other’s Day as a safe space for anybody who couldn’t enjoy Mother’s and Father’s Day to come and just be not ok. Whatever their reasons – grief, estrangement, miscarriage and infertility issues, looked-after children – you name it. Robyn and Emma
“We created Other’s Day as a safe space for anybody who couldn’t enjoy Mother’s and Father’s Day to come and just be not ok. Whatever their reasons – grief, estrangement, miscarriage and infertility issues, looked-after children – you name it. We wanted to give everybody a place to share their experiences with people who got it. To celebrate the people they were missing, or shout out the people who’d mothered them in the absence of an actual parent. It was genuinely amazing and heartwarming to see what a show of support the world gave, and that’s how Other’s Day was born.” Both Robyn and Emma have experienced loss in differing ways but, despite this, estrangement is a common thread within both of their experiences, making occasions like Mother’s and Father’s Day even more complex…
Estrangement: the fact of no longer being on friendly terms or part of a social group.
- the fact of no longer being on friendly terms or part of a social group.
“the artist’s paintings from this period reflect his growing estrangement from his family”
There are a whole host of reasons as to why family relationships break down, why someone is pushed to their breaking point or decides to choose their peace over maintaining a relationship that doesn’t serve them for the sake of appearances. But estrangement, or any kind of strained family relationship, can be especially hard when calendar dates such as Mother’s Day roll around and offer a harsh reminder that you’re living a different experience to your friends or what’s considered the norm. In reality, however, estrangement isn’t uncommon within the U.K. with a study conducted by charity Stand Alone finding that 19% of people surveyed stated that either they themselves or another family member were no longer in contact, indicating that around 1 in 5 UK families will be touched by family estrangement and its consequences- around 12 million family members in total.
It’s sad that my mum has made that relationship impossible to maintain but the fact I’ve stepped away and am without feelings of angst and guilt 24/7 is a very freeing thing.Robyn
“I think for me the most surprising part of my estrangement is that it gets easier, that you don’t ache for that person in the same way over time. I ache for a mother but not my mother. Which is weird,” says Robyn. ” In much the same way as my grief became manageable over time, my estrangement became more manageable too. And the distance made me weirdly more forgiving of my mum – being able to look at her at a distance – without all the drama that comes with being proximate. I let go of a lot of anger because I had the space to and now it’s just peaceful. It’s sad that my mum has made that relationship impossible to maintain but the fact I’ve stepped away and am without feelings of angst and guilt 24/7 is a very freeing thing. Also, other people’s reactions to estrangement can be wild. The absolute insistence that a relationship to a close relative or parent must be maintained at any cost – physical or mental – is always a shocking point of view to hear and one that often isn’t open to debate.
“My mum is a very volatile person who I think I can safely diagnose as a narcissist, even with absolutely zero medical training. You know those lists? She’s a 10/10. If there was a textbook, she might be on the cover. Don’t get me wrong – circumstances haven’t been kind to her and there are definitely environmental reasons that contribute to how she is. She had me at 19 and was instantly regretful that everything she’d hoped to achieve was taken away on my arrival. Add to that substance abuse issues and a series of disastrous relationships with men and what you’re left with is a woman who’s bitterly disappointed with how things turned out. But that frustration resulted in her being mentally and physically abusive towards me since I was very little. We lived with my dad since I was nine but my mum’s compulsion to hurt me just never stopped. Not when I was a teen and was big enough to fight back. Not in my 20s when I was creating a life of my own. And not in my 30s when I began to set boundaries and limitations on ways she could control me. So I stepped away – much like I quit cigarettes – one day at a time.”
Emma’s experience of estrangement, although different, brings up many of the same feelings, and is exactly why Other’s Day has forged such a strong community- the feelings of grief and loss, no matter how isolating, are often universal:
I think the most surprising thing for me has been that sometimes it isn’t a decision that you make, but a situation that you remove yourself from. Emma
“My own estrangement is from my step-Dad, and was directly related to my Mum dying, so is a full bag of complicated. I wouldn’t even have recognised myself as estranged until a year ago, and it’s been 10 years since she died and he was no longer in my life. For me, that estrangement felt like a hot mess of guilt and denial and confusion, because in order for me to admit that it was a thing, I had to work through all the layers of grief that I’d been trying not to deal with. See, I told you it was complicated. So I think the most surprising thing for me has been that sometimes it isn’t a decision that you make, but a situation that you remove yourself from. An emotional entanglement you understand isn’t healthy for you anymore. I actually wrote a whole blog piece about this last year, should anybody want to read more.”
Estrangement can feel messy and conflicting and evoke a guilt that’s hard to squash, and despite in many cases being necessary, making a decision to distance from a family member still has a stigma of being selfish, say Emma and Robyn. “When people step away from a relationship, it is often a last resort after years and years of trying to make that situation safe. They’ve probably actively explained to that person how they were damaging and asked them to stop. And they haven’t. Estrangement is an act of self-love but not at the expense of your love for that person, it’s just acknowledging that they cannot be a part of your life without being a danger to your welfare. I say to anyone struggling to understand or support an estranged person, replace mother or father with a partner. If you said ‘my partner has been repeatedly hitting me’ or ‘my partner tells me I’m ugly/worthless/stupid etc’ would you tell that person to stay. I think more tolerant, supportive and understanding conversations are needed about estrangement to make it feel less taboo and help people understand they have options.”
Whilst Mother’s Day might traditionally be a time to celebrate those that stereotypically fit the role of ‘Mum’, it can also be used as a celebration of the friends and other family members who raised us, physically and emotionally, and who taught us unconditional love, albeit it untraditionally.
An upbeat celebration might not feel apt, and that’s okay, but consider this your permission slip to acknowledge and toast to the people in your life who no matter what have your back and feel joy in seeing you thrive. If glossing over the 27th March, in general, feels more appropriate, that’s okay too. There’s no rule book to follow in how to honour your feelings authentically, but know that you’re allowed to change your mind, want company and then decide on a quiet day or simply enjoy a takeaway for every meal of the day whilst binge-watching the new season of Bridgerton. If there was ever a time for ‘you do you’, it’s now.
“For introverts like me, it’s going to be about finding time and space to feel the feelings.” Says Emma. “On days I know I will be sad, I tend to cancel my social plans and take the day for myself, doing gentle things that give me room to have any emotion that comes up. It could be taking your journal and running a long, hot bath. It could be heading out for a big walk in nature. It could even be just sitting at home and giving yourself space to have a big cry. The main thing is to just be gentle with yourself and let what happens, happen.”
In contrast, as an extrovert, Robyn advises seeking out friends who get it. “Distract yourself if that’s helpful with big jolly brunches or lounging with pals… anything that brings you comfort. Ask for help. Look at it directly or avoid it wantonly. Be led by what you need to make that day bearable.”
If you’re grieving the loss of a mother that has passed away
If social media feels heavy, take today as an opportunity for a digital detox and remove yourself from the Mother’s Day discourse and celebratory posts. You are not selfish for taking time completely for yourself and leaning into any distractions that feel necessary to get through the day. Need ideas? What’s Your Grief has listed 64 acts of self-care perfect for days when grief feels all-consuming, with activities such as spring cleaning, making a new Spotify playlist, going to the cinema or digging into a new book all offering a welcome slice of distraction.
If it feels like you’d like to hold space to focus on your mum’s memory, why not visit a spot that was meaningful to her or where you spent time together, or visit her grave and have a chinwag. If speaking aloud feels difficult, you could write a letter and update her on what’s happening in your life at the moment and sit with any feelings that come up – happy, sad and everything in between. Watch a film she loved, cook a meal that was her favourite or belt out her favourite song in the shower. Celebrate all that made your mum herself, and know that she’s smiling along with you.
If you’re estranged from your mother
Even in tumultuous relationships love can still be a common theme, making days like Mother’s Day even more complicated thanks to the host of conflicting emotions it can bring to the surface. As Robyn and Emma said, lean into what feels good and don’t be afraid to ask for help and company. It can feel isolating and scary to be ‘going it alone’, but there are no doubt countless other people in your life that care for and love you and want to make the day as easy as possible- don’t be afraid to make the most of their compassion!
Emma and Robyn’s book It’s Your Loss is a walk through the moments, feelings and barriers you might encounter in your grief journey. From understanding what kind of griever you are to forging your new path in life, it aims to start a conversation you’ll want to keep having.
“Can I say ‘more vagina jokes than you’d anticipate from a loss book?” Robyn Laughs. “No, it’s something we wrote that we’d want to be thrust into our hands when we were going through loss in those first few hellish months and years. Or at any point really. It’s like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for grief. It doesn’t lead you through step-by-step so much as yell supportive and reassuring things at you along your own unique path in order to make you feel less alone in one of the loneliest states you can be.”
“We just try to give you an idea of what to expect from our entirely opposite standpoints: Emma’s being to sit very quietly, probably in a bath and think about it for a long time and Robyn’s being to rent a one-man-band outfit and go on a walking tour from Land’s End to John O’Groats performing a three-hour concert of the nature of her pain on every stop on the journey. And because we’re both pretty standard women with pretty standard experiences of loss we’ve got incredible writers and thinkers contributions on their experiences -from Catherine Cho on loss of time with her new baby after postpartum psychosis, to Alicia Stubbersfield on loss of a breast following breast cancer to Kae Tempest of the loss of her relationship.”
If you’re experiencing the loss of a child/misscariage
It’s your call: now could be the time to engage in the most non-Mother’s-Day outing you can think of, or instead make an occasion of honouring your child’s life in a more obvious way. Lean on the people who love you, even if you feel like they don’t ‘get it’. After loss it can feel difficult to know your identity as a parent, but as a mother who has experienced loss at any stage, know that your experience is valid.
Podcasts like Bereavement Room and Grief Cast are wonderful sources of support, or if you prefer reading you could try The Year of Magical Thinking, Ask Me His Name, and Robyn and Emma’s book It’s Your Loss. The Miscarriage Association also have a wealth of information about caring for your mental health following loss, including coping with loneliness, accessing counselling as well as advice for those supporting someone experiencing bereavement.
If you’re a mother in waiting
For the mothers in waiting, the heartache can feel even more visceral on days like today. Remember that even if your arms are empty, this is your Mother’s Day too. Your mother’s heart is celebrated irregardless, and today is the perfect opportunity to let go of guilt, pamper yourself, have dessert for dinner and simply *be*. Live your day without expectation and let the feelings, whatever they may be, ride in and out. Sending hugs.