Monday, May 10, 2010

On Being a Mom by Default

As happens every year, Mother’s Day has come. And by the time this is actually posted, it will likely have gone as well. This year I am not overly concerned about it (it happened last year too) as I was on the phone late with my own mom, which seems to have something to do with what Mother’s Day is all about.

Except when the mother of your child has died.

As many widowed single fathers have come to realize, Mother’s Day takes on a whole new meaning when your wife and the mother of your child/ren is no longer here to be celebrated. Its primary purpose seems to be to bring that in-your-face reminder that she’s not here and seemingly everyone else’s mother is.

Mother’s Day began for us about a month ago with the inevitable discussion with my daughter’s teacher about how I wanted her to handle Mother’s Day crafts and activities. I gave her the same answer I have given her daycare teachers in previous years - allow her to participate in the same capacity as the other students and let her choose the recipient of whatever she makes – and that is exactly what she did.

Mother’s Day must be a huge event at my daughter’s school. It seems like every day for the last week she was involved in the making of some craft or writing assignment or the like, which was compounded by the activities in her separately-run after-school program. She was vague about some of the details, which of course lead me to believe that I might be on the recipients' list again this year.

The last few years she has taken all of the Mother’s Day hubbub in stride. But this year her grief has been more visible. I’m not certain how much of this is a reaction to the intensified grieving period I can’t seem to shake (which I wrote about in my last post and is on-going) and how much is a reaction to her own feelings of sorrow. I know that both are factors. And I know that I can’t change either one for her.

So over the past few weeks she has made more comments about missing Mommy and Mother’s Day approaching. Sometimes she has wanted to talk, though all conversations regarding this topic lately have been brief, and sometimes she has simply wanted to make her comment and move on to another topic. I try to follow her lead when she initiates these conversations/ comments, but sometimes it’s hard not to draw her out more when she clams up. It’s something I have to respect in her though, as I am prone to doing precisely the same thing, so I know she will talk about it when she’s ready.

Which leads me to the saga of the Mother’s Day Tea. The culmination of the weeks’ Mother’s Day events was the aforementioned tea. My daughter had asked if I could come, but I explained that I couldn’t due to the scheduling, and reminded her that I will be taking an entire day off to accompany her on a field trip in a couple weeks. She appeared to be okay with that decision and I wasn’t worried about it as there has been very little parent participation in her classroom this year, so I knew that few students would have someone attend and she wouldn’t be left out.

Guess I missed the “Mother’s Day is the Most Celebrated Holiday at our School” memo.

When I picked my daughter up that afternoon she brought up the tea and the fact that she almost cried during it. I assumed the reason had something to do with seeing some of the other kids with their moms and grandmas (we live 800 miles from both of her grandmas, so they couldn’t attend either). I assumed wrong. She was upset because she thought I would come and surprise her even after our discussion about my not attending. She recovered quickly and told me about the rest of the day, but not before reporting that almost every other student had an adult relative attend. If my daughter exaggerated often, I would not have felt bad. But her observations are usually on the mark, so this was part two of her unintentional one-two punch. For those of you reading who have never seen your child disappointed by you, for whatever reason, brace yourselves. It was one of my hardest moments as a parent, to date.

But Mother’s Day itself was mostly about me. She woke me up with two cards. One was made by a friend at church, but my daughter had signed it. The other was a drawing she made before I got up this morning that said “Happy mathrs day! I love you” with pictures of both of us as people and again as cats. When I went out to the living room I noticed immediately that she had picked up all of the toys she had left out the night before (and simultaneously wondered just exactly how long she had been up!) I half-expected to see the table set for breakfast, but she stopped short of that (which is good as it would have involved climbing on a chair to reach the plates, so I’m glad she exercised good judgment there.)

During breakfast she asked if she could give me my present. Now, here’s an interesting story. When I picked her up on Friday she mentioned that she had a surprise in one hand and that I was not to look behind her back. She made a big show of hiding it even when she got into the van. At some point before or after the conversation regarding the Tea, she mentioned that the gift in the bag would need some water. Then she inquired as to whether I might know what it was. So I said that if it needed water it must be a plant or an animal. There was a short period of silence, followed by soft mewing sounds from the backseat! When we got home I gave her an appropriate amount of water and she disappeared into her bedroom with it. I did not hear any more mewing all weekend. Until this morning. I could hear her footsteps as she crossed the living room, but before she came into view. What I could also hear once again, was that soft mewing sound. She came into the dining room with my gift behind her back. And I can now say I am the proud owner of the only pink petunia planted in a plastic cup that can say “meow”!

After breakfast we headed to church, which was an exercise in torture. (Bear with me here). I’m starting to realize that attending church on Mother’s Day might not be in either one of our best interests, especially if we are in the midst of a particularly difficult period of grief as we have been this year. And this comes on the heels of a service which had very little mention of Mother’s Day as the pastor is preaching through one of the books of the Bible. I can only imagine what it might have been like if he had delivered a traditional Mother’s Day sermon. The first year we spent the weekend alone at a friend’s beach cottage. I’m tempted to see if I can call in a similar favor for this Sunday in May next year.

After church we went out to eat, then to a birthday party for one of my daughter’s classmates. It wasn’t exactly how I wanted to spend the afternoon, but it was important to her that we went. The timing of the birthday party interfered with my plans to head to the beach, even though it was twenty degrees colder today than it was yesterday, so I knew it would likely be cold and windy standing on the edge of the country with the ocean at my feet. But after the party my daughter asked if we could still head to the beach because it was Mother’s Day and she wanted “to do something special to remember Mommy”.

They say “great minds think alike”. I say sometimes grieving minds do too.

So we drove down to the beach in attire that was not appropriate for beach combing, but was good for a short walk on a windy beach day. Except we would have been better off in shorts and swimsuits. As a general rule of thumb, the beach will range anywhere from five to ten degrees cooler than it is in town during all seasons except summer. Today, of all days, was the exception to the rule. Not only was it just the right temperature, the breeze was slight, and the waves were gentle. It was one of those perfect days at the beach. Except we weren’t dressed for it, and it was Mother’s Day, and I was getting a sinus headache.

Okay, the headache hit pretty fast so I’m not sure how much of it was truly sinus-related and how much was me being angry that of all days this would be the perfect beach day and we weren’t in the right attire or frame of mind to enjoy it. Despite all of this, we did stay for a short while – long enough for my daughter to carefully make a small fortress out of wet sand. I was further irritated thinking that she was going to somehow get her clothes wet and I had no way to dry her off (though I thankfully did not let her know I was irritated). When we left, she told me that she had built that for Mommy and she as glad we had come to the beach.

Leave it to my six-year-old to put a positive spin on my negative outlook.

When we got home it was time for the dinner/bath/bedtime routine. Then I called my mom (my daughter had spoken to her earlier in the day), which is where I had just left off when I started this post. And as I mentioned, it is already after midnight, so Mother’s Day has officially passed on the 2010 calendar.

But I can’t help but wonder what it will continue to bring on our grief calendar.


  1. I sure understand your feelings. Father's Day brings the same grief and dread in our lives. We cringe at all the commercials that litter the airwaves and at all the reminders that my kids don't have a Dad anymore. I can actually say I hate Father's Day, even though I still have my Dad and feel guilty that I barely want to acknowledge it for him. I feel so bad for my sons that it feels wrong to celebrate the fact that I still have a Dad. I'm hoping that these feelings soften over time. I'm already dreading June 20th, and it's still weeks away. Just one more thing that makes this journey harder. Add it to the very long list:)

  2. Great narrative about the pitfalls, and peaks, of Mother's Day. This was the first year that I didn't have to intervene with any classroom celebration/gift giving for Mother's Day. In the past I also told the kids to pick out any of the women in their lives to honor and celebrate. A couple of years ago we learned that their birth mother had died. This was a very big blow to all of them. All of their hopes and dreams of one day having her living life in a healthier way, and possibly being in their life, came to an end.

    This year we focused out attention on my mother in law, as it was her first holiday without Michael. It turned out to be a very good decision. We all had a wonderful time, as did my mother in law. I think that we do the best we can to help our kids decide for themselves how to participate in this holiday. In know that by now, my kids understand that they have choices in how to either 'get through' or 'celebrate' a somewhat loaded holiday.

    Best wishes to you.


  3. I find it really interesting to read a widower's take on this stupid holiday. I know I've had a hard time with Mother's Day since Charley died, but for whatever reason, Father's Day doesn't bother me. Perhaps it's because I know he didn't make a big fuss over the day to start with, but I think it also helps because he only had one; there aren't years upon years of Father's Day to sting me now. But who knows why, exactly. But I also confess to being glad that school is out before we hit Father's Day, so that I'm spared all the dead-daddy issues with school/daycare/etc.

    So does Father's Day bother you as well? (I didn't go back among your archived posts to find out.)

    I also really appreciate reading the detailed explanations of how grief continues to hit you and your daughter as you get farther out from your wife's death. I know many widows, but few widowers my age (um...2? 3?...and other than Matt, I've never met any of you in person), and it really helps me to hear both the commonalities and the potential differences because of gender. Plus, my daughter is almost 6 too...but she's been spared most grief so far purely by virtue of her age when he died and that she has no memories of her father. I have no idea if that "luck" will hold or not as she starts elementary school next fall or not.

    Best wishes to you as you continue to mire your way through the fresh bouts of grief lately....


  4. I understand. Fathers day brings the same issues in our house, and if if was't for the things that my son brought home from school on Mothers day I would not have received anything for my children are little and unable to get stuff on their own for me. Thanks for your post!

  5. I totally agree that you might want to skip church on Mother's Day. My kids and I skip it on Father's Day .... for the same reasons, although less fuss seems to be made on that day. But still ..... it's easier to avoid it.
    For all of us.
    Good post.