Motherless Mothers: White-Knuckling It Through Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day is almost here! Once again, this lovely time of year when children bestow upon their Moms symbols of love and gratitude, has arrived. Brunching as a family is the norm, and moms everywhere will delight in opening gifts of her favorite things. Children will do their best to show their Moms how much they mean to them, and even the motherless will smile, laugh, and feel joy in their soul for whatever gesture, both big and small, that their children cast upon them.

We Moms want to be celebrated for the hard work we do; no one can deny that. Whether we work inside the home or out, without a doubt we are the busiest on the planet, and many of us feel like we are the glue that holds the pieces of our families’ lives together most of the time. I won’t discriminate my love for the handmade gems my kids make at the kitchen table or the last-minute gifts my husband picked up just the day before. It’s the one day set aside for moms to be doted on, and I don’t know about you, but I eat up every single scrumptious morsel, basking in what society says is my day.

Consequently, while everyone, including me, revels in the affection, refills their mimosa glass, and gets that much-needed pedicure without even a single shred of guilt, I’ll spend the day dying just a little bit on the inside, sneaking away for quick, silent tears, and burying my head to quietly sob. My Mom died a year-and-a-half ago. And, if I’m being completely honest, I spend too much time wishing the entire holiday would be swallowed whole by a giant, holiday-eating, woolly mammoth.

When your Mom dies, it feels like your tether to Earth has been violently severed. Even if the death is not violent, the severing is still so harsh and cruel; it leaves a large, gaping void with a thirst that can never again be quenched. My Mom died suddenly and unexpectedly from Stage 4 cancer that no one knew had ravaged her body. Some tell me I am lucky she only suffered for two weeks; I think that’s a horrible word to use when your Mom dies.

For most of us, we’re anchored deep and our life roots are strong. We surge in the wind and veer down meandering life paths, taking comfort in the unconscious knowledge that as long as Mom is somewhere in the world, we have a home base: that secure place where we always feel accepted, loved, and known.

I have a thousand expletives for how angry, sad, and lonely it makes me now that Mom is gone. I want to be the family with three generations enjoying the day, but instead I’m white-knuckling it through lunch and forcing a smile because I’ve been unhinged from planet Earth. I am still the tether for my own children, who, with their bright, shiny, smiling faces, have so much excitement wrapped up in the day. I am their safe place to fall, their home base. They delight in my smile, my laughter, and the joy that fills me when they shower me with kisses, hugs, and whatever gift they find to be the most amazing.

I feel joy, but I also feel such deep, immeasurable sadness. I’m mad at your bubbling mimosa, and at the same time, I delight in the way it tickles my tongue and fizzes as it slides down my throat. Your family gathering makes my stomach churn and I feel the teensiest bit of loathing, and simultaneously, I feel such profound, abiding thankfulness and gratitude for the love my children and husband bestow upon me throughout the day.

The greatest pain of losing my mother, though, is not the unhinging. It is knowing that my own children will one day feel this unfathomable ache; that thought sends me to my knees. It’s not lost on me that my mother felt this way when her mother died, and almost every person in the world will one day feel this profundity of sorrow. I’m not alone in this journey, but it is fresh and new so I reserve the right to white-knuckle it with secret anguish for now, and maybe forever.

Mother’s Day has taken on a new meaning. I now know this is in fact not a holiday for me as society would have me believe, but a holiday for my children. They’ll need these memories one day because it will be all they have to hold onto. Knowing that, I celebrate it as a woman, daughter, and motherless mother, and the fortitude it takes to be an untethered tether. While in the midst of my most difficult life lesson so far, I will put one foot in front of the other with a smiling face, hoping to exude courage and strength while my insides ache and quiver with deep, profound grief and loss.

One day, my children will come full circle, and they’ll see the deeper meaning in rituals like brunch, gifts, and mimosas with Mom. They aren’t dumb, societal niceties. They’re memories that last a lifetime; my kids will need those the same way they need air.

I can see my Mom’s bright, smiling face in my memories, and it fills me with overwhelming joy and sorrow, all at once. Just as I need those memories of my mom, my kids will need their memories of me. This, and every Mother’s Day, I now know, is for them. They’ll want to see me smiling, laughing, and filled with joy, so it can fill them with joy, and they’ll have something to hold onto. In those memories, it will give them all the strength and courage they will need to make it through a motherless Mother’s Day one day, as an untethered tether.

Jennifer Slingerland Ryan knows a thing or two about kids and families. First, she knows they are joyous, exhilarating, loving and so darn fun. Second, she knows they suck your life dry and make you weep like a baby. By day she’s a psychotherapist; by night she’s a mom and wife. She claims to love therapizing couples, educating parents, reading dystopian fiction and sleeping in her free time (read: she never sleeps). Jennifer is a mom of twins, two 15 year olds. Her youngest is...a joy. Let's just stop there. Most days you can find her in her office seeing clients, doing laundry, loading or unloading the dishwasher, or catching up on the latest episode of Real Housewives of (Insert City Here), Walking Dead or This Is Us. She is a tree-hugging country girl from West Texas who reads, writes, and teaches about human development and families as a hobby and profession. You can read more from Jennifer at her therapy blog,


  1. What a beautifully written post, Jennifer. I hadn’t thought of the holiday being for the kids…and I love that. Thank you for opening my mind up to the notion of an untethered tether, what that means for me in the future, for my kids, and how I can embrace the beauty and the day this year and in future years. <3

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