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Expert Advice

How to spend Mother’s Day on your own terms

Some people have a picture-perfect Mother’s Day, complete with bouquets of flowers, breakfast in bed, and a joyful family celebration. But that’s not what Mother’s Day looks like for everyone. Maybe you’ve lost your mom and are grieving her absence. Maybe you don’t have a great relationship with your mom and would prefer to avoid contact. Maybe you long to be a mother and are struggling to conceive, or you’ve lost a child and find the holiday an unbearable reminder.

If Mother’s Day is painful for you, you’re not alone—and you have the right to spend it however you want, and to take care of yourself in the process. Use these strategies to find strength this Mother’s Day—and consider sharing them with loved ones so they can help support you.

You have the right to:

Read the tips

Choose how you want to spend the day

Even the most understanding friends and family may expect you to be cheerful on Mother’s Day. Talk to them ahead of time so they know how you’re feeling and what you’re up for this year. Let them know that you may change your mind about participating in festivities, even at the last minute. Tell them if you’d prefer to play it by ear. Research shows that we’re not actually that great at predicting how we’ll feel in the future, so leave yourself room for flexibility.1

That may mean saying no to the social pressure to celebrate—as well as the guilt and shame that can come with it. Those negative feelings can be especially powerful for mothers and daughters who struggle to connect. According to Tamara Afifi, a professor of interpersonal health communication at the University of California, Santa Barbara, there’s an expectation in our society that mothers and daughters should be close. “When you don’t have that kind of relationship with your mom or your daughter—and you see others who do—that can be really hard,” she says.

Her advice: let go of the guilt by remembering that

  • Not every family relationship has to be close
  • Not everyone knows how to feel, show, or express love
  • Not every strained relationship can be fixed by trying harder


Do only what feels right

If you don’t feel like marking the day in a certain way, don’t. If you want to honor traditions in your own way, go for it. Maybe you can’t or don’t want to spend the day with your mother but you still want to make her signature quiche or visit her favorite park. If it makes you feel happy or comforted, that’s reason enough to do it. Or if you want a complete change of pace, start a new tradition. Think about activities you’ve always wanted to do, places you’ve always wanted to visit, or special meals you’ve always wanted to make. New traditions give us something to look forward to.


Let people help

Even the simplest tasks—like buying a Mother’s Day card—can feel daunting at times. Ask for and accept help with any of them. People who care about you will be happy to do something to lighten your load. Sometimes they just need a few ideas to get started.”


Feel however you feel

Mother’s Day can be filled with memories and traditions that cause unexpected and shifting emotions. There’s no one right way to be. People who tell you how you “should” feel or act may mean well, but they may not know what’s best for you. Dr. Afifi suggests, “Find connections with people you choose, with people who show you the kind of love you deserve.” Surround yourself with others who accept you as you are—and try to limit your time with those who don’t. If you’re being hard on yourself, try to go easy. Notice when you tell yourself how you “should” feel. Try to replace those thoughts with acceptance of your feelings as they come.


Talk about it—or don’t

The question of whether and when to open up can be complicated. People who know that you’re struggling may ask how you’re doing. With some friends and family, you can tell them how you’re really feeling without ruining their day. But not everyone will handle honesty well. In some moments, it may be easier to deflect the question than choose between opening up and giving a sugarcoated response. Consider making a list of topics of conversation you can dive into easily if you want to change the subject. (“What’s on your reading list?” “Seen any good movies recently?”)


Take care of yourself

Be gentle with yourself. Research shows that self-care can make it easier to cope with stress, especially during challenging times. Eat well, stay active, try to sleep, and give yourself the opportunity to relax when you need it.2


Hold on to hope

This particular day may not be the same as it was before. It may never be quite that way again. But it won’t necessarily always be this hard. You don’t know what the next year has in store for you, and you won’t always feel how you do right now. Watch for signs of the mental trap of permanence—believing that things will never get better. If you find yourself falling into it, try replacing words like “always” with “sometimes” to remind yourself that the future doesn’t have to be like the past.3


  1. Timothy D. Wilson and Daniel T. Gilbert, “Affective Forecasting: Knowing What to Want,” Current Directions in Psychological Science 14 (2005): 131–34; Daniel T. Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness (New York: Knopf, 2006).
  2. Mayo Clinic Staff, “Stress, depression and the holidays: Tips for coping,” September 16, 2017,
  3. Steven F. Maier and Martin E. P. Seligman, “Learned Helplessness at Fifty: Insights from Neuroscience,” Psychological Review 123 (2016): 349–67; Martin E. P. Seligman, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life (New York: Pocket Books, 1991).