‘I know I don’t have to be a superhero’: Surviving Mother’s Day in the face of loss

My inbox right now is absolutely bombarded with Mother’s Day spam: charities, perfume, make-up, clothes, bottle shops, restaurants, holidays… You name it, whatever I’ve signed up to is here and whacking me hard over the head with a big, heavy, whopping Mother’s Day mallet.

I mean, she died in 1998, so it’s a bit of wasted effort on their part, but nobody has bothered asking. Until now. Sneaking through the deafening pink noise are a handful of companies offering opt-outs on Mother’s Day messages – a simple gesture that goes a long way in easing the pain for many.

It’s part of a growing movement to present the other side of Mother’s Day. No one is denying it’s a wonderful day to make mums of all shapes and sizes feel appreciated, loved and looked after. But for some, it’s a truly tough time, made worse by navigating the deluge of unprompted reminders about what has been irrevocably lost. From inboxes to supermarkets, it’s everywhere.

Research by a not-for-profit support group, found that out of 12 million Australian women, 3. 7 million have lost their mother, with 1. 2 million experiencing this loss before the age of 44.

And, of course, it’s not just daughters, it’s women who have lost children or can’t become mothers, it’s mothers stolen away by Alzheimer’s or dementia, it’s those who have a difficult relationship with their mothers, it’s sons, fathers, the loved ones all left behind.

For Kate Absolon, 42, a midwife from Newcastle, Mother’s Day is complicated in so many ways.

Her daughter Hannah was just six weeks old when Kate’s mother, Pam, was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2014.

I was trying to be really grateful for being a mother, but knew I was losing mine, she says.

Pam died in 2016 at the age of 67. Six years on, Kate says: Out of the anniversaries, birthdays or milestones with my daughters, Mother’s Day is by far the worst. I don’t even want to go down the shops. It’s everywhere: ‘Spoil your mum’. It’s an intense period of time.

Pam, Kate says, was such a beautiful mother, really intuitive of her children’s feelings and an even a better grandmother. She just absolutely adored her grandchildren – that was probably the hardest.

She says if she were to put Mother’s Day into one word, it would be jealousy.

I see families out together or people at the card section, dads walking around with kids looking at presents. My attention is really drawn to all of that sort of stuff and heightened at that time of year, she says.

Ironically, the founder of Mother’s Day, American woman Anna Jarvis, created the day in 1908 as a memorial to her own mother who had died three years earlier, but in later years tried to get it cancelled, devastated at how it had become hijacked by commercialisation.

Danielle Snelling is the co-founder of – an organisation she and Eloise Baker-Hughes set up in 2013 as a resource for women like themselves who had lost their mothers, which now has a community of 10,000.

She says discovering the origins of Mother’s Day changed the whole meaning for her.

I was like, well actually, I am entitled to this day, and I resonate with this day really well now. We share that story flat-out in the lead-up to Mother’s Day and it just changes how people feel towards the day, which is so powerful and relieving.

For Mother’s Day, MDA holds events across the country and campaigns like partnering with cafes who donate $1 for every coffee sold on the day. There’s also tools like a companies who email them marketing.

We developed that because so many women feel helpless at this time of year – there’s no control over the emails they were receiving, she says.

The letter allows people to fill out their stories and asks companies to share information about MDA and offer opt-outs on emails.

Our community just went nuts with it. They loved it. It empowered them at a time when their emotions would otherwise be at the peril of Mother’s Day emails and marketing, she says.

One company who got on board with this is Go-To Skincare. Chief marketing officer Leonie Faddy says they recognise it can be a challenging time for some.

We’ve continued to share a series of resources with our community to raise awareness and support organisations, such as Motherless Daughters Australia, who are doing incredible and important work to help people navigate this time of year, she says.

For Snelling, it’s all about raising awareness.

We don’t want to rain on the Mother’s Day parade. It’s not about that – mothers should be celebrated. But it just comes down to awareness, emotional intelligence and education – a little bit of acknowledgement goes a very, very long way.

Psychologist Jocelyn Brewer who specialises in digital wellbeing says Mother’s Day is a reminder that life and relationships aren’t the Hallmark stereotypes.

For people who might not be able to strongly rally against rosy media messaging, it can be difficult to not feel a sense of loss. It can serve as a reminder of the gap between what exists and what people might wish for or aspire to, she says.

She suggests people give themselves space from social media or find a like-minded friend who you can share the upset and frustration with, reframe your experiences and remind yourself of how staged and engineered Mother’s Day sentiments are.

Dafna Kronental is a senior psychotherapist with the Indigo Project and agrees it’s important to remember there’s an air-brushed, highly filtered version of reality out there.

Accept that it may to be a day that’s tough or filled with mixed emotions and that’s OK. It may feel good to reach out for support from loved ones, but equally you may prefer to take time out to reflect on your own. There’s honestly no ‘right’ way to be, she says.

If people feel like it, they can mark the day by honouring their mother, like looking at photos, writing a letter to them, teaching their children something that their mother’s taught them, like cooking a certain dish or craft activity, she says.

For Kate, being a mother to Hannah, eight, and Ruby, 13, helps her confront the day.

I’ve learnt that I shouldn’t steal that experience away from them, she says. They love bringing in stuff in the morning and the whole idea of gifting and having it as my day.

She says they don’t worry if she gets upset. They just know that’s part of our Mother’s Day. I used to hide it and felt like I had to put on a brave face in front of my children, when in actual fact the beautiful part is they get to share that [grief] with me and it opens up our conversation to be able to talk about [why] I am so upset because she was such a beautiful person.

It’s OK to show your vulnerability, even as a mother – we’re taught that you’re meant to be the one who holds everybody else up, she says.

For so long I felt like I had to be a superhero and I think that’s why I deal with it better now. Because I know I don’t have to be.

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