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My love-hate relationship with Mother’s Day

Christine Carter, director, Greater Good Parents | May 9, 2013

I hate to admit this, but I’ve come to feel entitled to breakfast in bed on Mother’s Day (complete with gifts and a clean kitchen afterwards), a family hike (no whining, everyone remembers their water bottles and packs their own snack, remembering one for me), and a little downtime with a good book before dinner.

But truth be told, I rarely get all, if any, of these Mother’s Day treats. I know this shouldn’t surprise me, and it shouldn’t irritate me… but it kinda does, or it has in the past. It’s a horrible confession for someone like me to make, but I’m rarely as cranky as I can be on Mother’s Day.

author's mom

My mom, benefiting from item #10.

I know I’m not the only one feeling blue on on the second Sunday in May. In fact, I’m bracing myself for a series of phone calls from disgruntled friends again this year. “All I wanted was to picnic on the beach with the kids,” one friend lamented last year. Her often-charming but rarely-helpful-with-the-kids husband couldn’t get it together—the waves were looking good, and he thought he’d sneak a quick surf into the schedule, right when he should have been securing picnic supplies. Her kids, two of whom were old enough to take the day into their own hands, didn’t rally either. She felt abandoned, and taken for granted.

I know how she felt. One year my kids didn’t do anything for me but make very, um, hasty, cards on scrap paper, an effort so effortless it brought tears to my eyes.

Not the happy kind of tears.

The problem isn’t the kids, though. It is my focus on myself and what I’m entitled to. Even though I really do believe that we moms deserve a day to be treated like goddesses — at least one day! — I don’t think it sets us up for the happiest of Mother’s Days when we expect this to happen.

Although we think that indulging ourselves is going to make us happy, it generally doesn’t: Studies show that we’re happier after spending money on others than after spending on ourselves—yet when people are asked, they expect the opposite will be true.

I see this play out on Mother’s Day (for myself, and some of my friends). After we spend so much time caring for those around us—our kids, our partners, our parents—we think that a quick ticket to a happy Mother’s Day will come from being pampered. But we’re inevitably disappointed when we find that focusing on ourselves is not always, or even usually, a sure route to happiness.

The solution to this sticky-wicket is deceptively simple: We can set ourselves up to be happy on Mother’s Day — to feel gratitude and awe and deep love instead of frustration and disappointment—by simply helping other people. People who help others tend to be less stressed, more joyful, and healthier; less stress, more joy, and greater health all sound good to me this Mother’s Day.

So this year, even though I often long for a break from caring for others, I will make Mother’s Day all about other people. (I know that this strategy isn’t for everyone; those of you suffering from caregiver or compassion fatigue won’t want to try this from home.)

We’ll celebrate the grandmothers in our family, of course, with a big brunch or a fun family dinner (or both, for both sides of the family). But for months, I’ve been wanting to try what this guy does for his birthday: spend a day or two doing dozens of little good deeds — and bring my kids along for the ride.

We’re finally going to do it—for Mother’s Day instead of my birthday — as a way to honor my own mother, Sylvia. She just turned 70 and is as beautiful and vibrant as ever. We’d like to help one person for each year that she has been a mother (41 years). Since her mother, my Oma, passed away this year (at the amazing age of 104!) we’d also like to honor her by helping at least one person for each year Oma was a mother (71 years). Silly math, but we’re aiming to do kind acts for 112 or more people.

We started our “kindness scavenger hunt” this weekend, but to be honest, we didn’t get as far with it as I’d hoped. Personally, I could have powered through the whole list, but my kids fatigued after checking just a few things off the list. We agreed we’d do some more on Mother’s Day, and each week thereafter, until we think we’ve helped more than a hundred people.

Here’s our “Kindness Scavenger Hunt” list:

1. Pick the lemons from our elderly neighbor’s tree, make lemonade, and deliver it to her.
2. Bring food to the food bank.
3. Do a loving-kindness meditation for all those that we love and are concerned about — and also for those that bother us.
4. Leave flowers for a widow who is grieving the man she was married to for 59 years.
5. Give vegetables from our garden to neighbors.
6. Pick up trash in our local park.
7. Stop for everyone looking to cross the street or merge.
8. Make a larger-than-comfortable donation to Tipping Point, a group that is striving to eradicate poverty in our area.
9. Fill a thred up bag full of like-new clothing to benefit Teach for America.
10. Give out extra hugs to the grandmothers in our lives, who really appreciate them.
11. Write a thank-you note to the kids’ preschool teacher: one of those “other mothers” that really made a difference in their lives.
12. Make and deliver “care-kits” to as many homeless people in Berkeley as we can, and give the extras to our friends and family to distribute in their travels.
13. Send someone a book I think they will enjoy, totally randomly.
14. Send all the pregnant women I know some of my favorite parenting books.
15. Write a letter our beat cop thanking him for all he does for our neighborhood.
16. Help a friend with some work on Sunday morning (instead of sleeping in).
17. Visit people at the old age home where my father-in-law used to live (and bring the dog, who despite also being quite old, tends to light up their day).
18. Babysit for the neighbors that have little kids, so that they can have a date-night.
19. Deliver Challahs to temple congregants who are grieving or ill.
20. Serve dinner to homeless and hungry people in San Francisco’s tenderloin neighborhood (Glide Memorial allows kids to volunteer).

What do you think we should add to our list? Please add your suggestions as a comment.
Happy Mother’s Day, all. Cheers to all the work you and the mothers you love are doing to raise happiness.
© 2013 Christine Carter, Ph.D.

Cross-posted from Christine Carter’s blog, Raising Happiness (tag line: Science for Joyful Kids and Happier Parents).

Comments to “My love-hate relationship with Mother’s Day

  1. I love the idea of this list, especially as the items on it and number of persons served by it will require more attention far past Mother’s Day.

    I’m a mother without a living child, and my suggestion for your list would be donating seeds (forget-me-nots) and aloe plants to a local compassionate friends group for women like myself. The blooms and plants would give one something physical to nuture while we sometimes mourn our loss.

    Happy Mother’s Day to you.

  2. I can totally relate to what you are saying. I feel as though I work so hard to make sure holidays and birthdays are special for my kids, but when it comes to my birthday or Mother’s Day I am usually disappointed by the lack of effort. I like your idea of focusing on others. Maybe that will help me think less about my own disappointment.

  3. Dear Christine,
    Love your thoughts – keep ’em coming!
    As a Mum celebrating her first Mother’s Day
    as a Grand-Mum – with my daughter, deliciously
    adorable grandson, step son, step-inlaws, in-laws,
    etc etc (my grandson’s first birthday is ON Mother’s
    Day this year!) – I completely agree with you. I cherish those
    adorable cards my kids made me when they were young and
    the flowers they brought me when they were older – but have
    to add – love your idea of giving to others – the best gift of all.
    Thank you!

  4. I think this is awesome. Expecting other people to make your life magical (even just for one day) is rarely a good idea. I love your kindness scavenger hunt!

  5. Mothers day is a “holiday” created by greeting card companies to sell cards. Like every other greeting card company holiday (Valentines Day comes to mind) many, many people end up feeling hurt because their expectations of the day does not meet up with the reality of the day.

    It’s nice you have a list. Enjoy going through and doing all those things. Perhaps it’s time for us all to ignore greeting card holidays and tell the people you love them and appreciate your mothers or fathers on a more regular basis.

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