I must have been standing in front of the cards for about 20 minutes.
‘I love you mum’, read one. ‘Best mum ever’, said another. ‘Mum I’d be lost without you’ – oh no, no, no. Every sentimental line or cartoon of hedgehogs hugging makes me feel awkward and icky and shameful.
I am estranged from my mum. I send her a card out of a sense of duty and a need to keep the peace. But the loving offerings here on the card stand are all wrong for us.
I know a card could never adequately sum up any relationship between complicated human beings. Yet there is nowhere for me to go.
Too fluffy, and I risk her believing all is forgiven, when every time I think about her, hot rage swells inside me. Not sending a card will cause even more problems. Why can’t there just be a card that says ‘you are my mum’? That’s what I need here. No grand statements, just facts.
I don’t want to cancel everyone else’s fun just because my experience differs from theirs. Most mums are brilliant, doing a job for which there is no training manual in a time of utter pandemonium – they absolutely deserve a day of recognition.
But for women who can’t have children, don’t want children, have lost their mum or are estranged, it is a different experience. Every advert, balloon and stuffed bear is a reminder of what you don’t have. And that’s why lots of us have welcomed the decision of retailers to let us ‘opt out’ of marketing about Mother’s Day.
This year, Boots, Tesco, Thortful, Bloom & Wild, Waitrose, Oliver Bonas, The Body Shop and Marks & Spencer are among those who have offered opt-outs to those on their mailing lists. They’re not the first.
Whilst some brands have been using opt-out for a few years, the idea really picked up pace in 2019 when MP Matt Warman, who lost his mum in 2009, raised the issue in Parliament.
“While we, of course, want to recognise our appreciation for mothers, small changes by advertisers to allow people to opt out of related communications will make a huge difference for those who find this day deeply painful,” he said. It’s a statement that resonated with many more people than you might expect.
“I’ve got quite a big social media following,” says Victoria*, 30, “so over the last few weeks I’ve had messages from brands offering me follower discounts or gifts for Mother’s Day. My mum died two years ago. Whilst I’m happy to help my followers, it does hurt. I also find it a bit poor that the brands couldn’t do their research. I love my mum very much and I completely get why Mother’s Day is important – if she were here we’d be celebrating. But she’s not, so it’s so difficult seeing it all.
“There are things I can do to stop myself having to deal with it, like staying off social media on the day itself. But when it’s [reminders] coming into your inbox unsolicited, it’s very confronting and I’m glad there are retailers offering opt-out.”
It would be great to see the same brands take this step around Father’s Day too. But for women, the issues around Mother’s Day are, I believe, more complicated.
Our whole identity is tied up in the notion of motherhood. The message we get, even in 2021 is ‘you can be as successful as you want but if you’re not a mother… you’ve failed.’ Case in point: the hugely successful actress Jennifer Aniston. How many column inches have been written about that woman’s uterus?
We’re pitiful in the language used about these women. Women who are strong, independent, successful, and beautiful. ‘Yeah, sure’, we seem to say. ‘They’re great but – they’re not mums so… how successful are they really?’
“’Do you have children?’ has been the constant question I’ve fielded since Lockdown 1,” says Sarah* 40. “Childless women who are struggling with workload or working-from-home mental health feel like we have to caveat everything with ‘but I don’t have children.’
“I hate to say it, but the societal pressure just doesn’t exist for men. Men who are my age and successful and childless are a catch. Women who are my age and successful and childless are seen to have failed. It’s like, ‘poor woman, left on the shelf, working so hard to fill a void’.
“I’ve struggled with my identity as a childless woman, but I’m not going to pretend I’m unhappy with my life or that I feel that I’ve missed out on something because I don’t have them. I fully appreciate how tough things are right now for my friends who are mums, but I don’t think the support necessarily goes both ways.”
The one word that comes up in all the conversations I have with women who find Mother’s Day difficult is ‘stigma.’
There is stigma attached to having a bad or complicated mother-daughter relationship. I guess it goes back to the notion that ‘mother’ is the most important thing a woman can ever be. And if she has not become a mother, or behaved as the perfect model of motherhood, she has failed.
How often do we hear these stories? Not nearly as much as they’re happening, I’d bet, and social media only makes it worse. Even when we know things are tough behind closed doors, that reality isn’t what we see publicly. Thanks to the algorithms, there is no escape, and a mindless phone scroll can quickly turn into a minefield because every site is littered with ads.
Right now, because I’m writing this on my computer, I can guarantee those ads will follow me around the internet even more aggressively. They’ll be on my phone, my tablet – anywhere I’m logged in.
So yes, to know they won’t be pinging into my inbox does make the situation slightly better. Still doesn’t help me find a suitable card, though…
Full disclosure: Both the author of this article and her contributors have asked to remain anonymous due to the privacy of the issues covered.