Learning to Love Mother’s Day

Essays, Featured, The Anti-Ombudsman — By on May 8, 2011 at 8:00 am

[Editor's Note:  This piece originally ran last year at Relevant online.]

I used to hate Mother’s Day.

The mylar balloons, the pink cards, the stories on everyone’s lips about their plans for taking their mom out to eat or to a movie. They all seemed to taunt me in a sing-song voice: look what we have and you don’t.

After a headlong flight from my stepfather at the age of eleven, the mother I knew disappeared, retreating somewhere deep inside. In her place, a withdrawn but angry woman rose up to take over her beloved facial features and voice.  By the time I was a teenager I had stopped caring, and stopped listening to the woman who birthed me.

When I was sixteen, the severity of her condition hit home when a social worker drove up in a yellow Volkswagen bug several times a month. But there was still no explanation as to why Mom seemed to be losing her grip on reality, why she thought her mother was trying to kill her and the neighbors were Soviet spies. But at least there was this: the tall and kind woman who met with my mother gave us hope, “In my entire career, I have never seen anyone work so hard to get better.”

But her hard work didn’t matter; the illness was just too much for her.  Fifteen years ago, after threatening my grandmother with a knife, my mother became homeless and has gone without medication for the paranoid schizophrenia that had been taking over her mind since her twenties.

I did a fine job ignoring it—it’s easy to do when there’s no hope for recovery–and when I graduated from college, I planned to just get on with my life. My mother wasn’t in the picture anywhere, except for a visit here and a visit there. I wanted to be normal, like everyone else. At least I did, until my sister convinced me we had to help somehow. That’s how I ended up in Seattle, having lunch with my mom every week, for eight years now.

A typical lunch will include odd comments, but rarely any threats.

She’ll hand over something she’s picked up off the ground: “Here, take this rock/bottlecap/pamphlet. It’ll pay your rent.” Or she’ll hand me a piece of paper covered in handwriting and symbols, little snippets that read like code. “Put this in the reader [garbage can] outside and you’ll get fresh groceries delivered to your door.”

Whenever I think, “Oh, I wish I had a mom like yours,” (and I do), I remind myself that Mom does the best she can with the flesh and blood and mind she was given. I used to have high hopes that I could save her, could help her get medicated and an apartment, but now I just let her be who she is. Because here’s the thing: Most of the delusions that tear apart her mind are about us, her children, and about keeping us safe. Nearly every day, she faces obstacles nightmares are made of, fighting against the fear and the chaos to care for us. Because that’s what a mother does.

In many ways, she is the most loving mother I know. And this Sunday, I’ll bring her flowers and a cheesy card covered in cursive writing, telling her so.


Penny Carothers is the Social Justice Editor here at Burnside and a mother herself.  In between washing diapers and trying to make her kids laugh she is working on a book chronicling her mother’s descent into mental illness, some of which you can find on her blog.  You can also find her on twitter, and in the kitchen, on a quest to bake the perfect cake.

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  • Michael D. Bobo says:

    I pray for a special Mother’s Day blessing for you. Since reading this last year I don’t see this day the same. Thank you for your transparency. May God give you peace, hope and love this day.

  • Thanks Michael. I had a truly wonderful day. I never thought of myself as the mothering type, but having young kids is the most rewarding and joyful thing I’ve ever done. Having such wonderful kids and a supportive spouse and community is one of the ways God redeems my childhood, I think. I really appreciate your comment and your prayers. Really, I do.

  • JamesW says:

    Penny, I am blessed to have a great mom, and to be married to an even greater one. But come Father’s day, I’ll be able to relate to you in some ways (mine was an alcoholic who left when I was 4, saw him maybe 15 times in my life, then he killed himself while drunk when I was an adult, but before he would have met my kids).
    At our church, before our pastor starts saying positive things about Mother’s Day, he asks anyone to stand up if, for any reason, Mother’s Day is hard for them. For some, their mom has passed on. Others may have been abused. Maybe someone is in a similar situation as yours. And some women have lost children or cannot have children.
    Whatever the reason, nobody is asked to say why they are standing. But the rest of us are asked to gather around and pray for each one. There are tears, and yes, it all seems forgotten a few minutes later when the happier Mother’s day stuff starts happening. But I am thankful that our church’s leadership recognizes that this can be a hard day for many people, for many reasons. And that makes me all the more thankful for my mom, grandmothers, and wife.

  • Penny says:

    Thank you James. It’s good to hear, and to know that there are churches out there acknowledging that this can be a hard time. It sounds like you have a doozy of a story, and I so appreciate hearing it. We can feel so alone in these things, especially because they’re so hard to share. But I think sharing them really does make a difference, often in ways we don’t even know. That’s my hope, at least.

    I’ll be thinking of you this Father’s Day. I’m pretty certain your kids will look on this day fondly and with appreciation. Thank God for redemption.

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