When Mother’s Day is Painful

There’s a dating adage out there that you should judge a man by how he treats his mother. And Mother’s Day is the biggest test of them all. Did your date take his mother to brunch? Send her flowers? At least call or text? Actually, a better measure of a man’s character is how he treats all the women in his life, including his daughter, great-aunt and high school English teacher. Well, and the men in his life, too. How does he treat others in general? And how does he treat you?

The Mother’s Day (and Father’s Day) test is a tricky one because many of our relationships with our parents can be complicated, to say the least. And your date may have desperately wished he could have had a simple pleasant meal with his Mom.

Of course, no one grew up in a drama-free family. All families are dysfunctional to some degree, and we’re all messy human beings with combinations of strengths and weaknesses. But some people have parents who can’t be easily packaged for our dates along the lines of “My Mom is the best!” or “My Dad is my hero.” Sometimes our parents have disappointed or wounded us. Perhaps they’re dealing with addiction problems or financial insecurity. They might be wrestling with depression, or they’ve sabotaged their health in ways we just can’t comprehend. Perhaps they make scenes at holiday dinners. Or they just repeatedly say things that hurt our feelings, and we’ve decided over time that spending less time with them is better for our sanity.

You’ve had a lifetime to come to terms with your parents. But it can be challenging to explain them in a couple sentences to a romantic interest.

Here are some tips for discussing your craziest kinfolk:

1) Realize that you are not your parents

The reason this topic creates such angst is that people are scared that their parents’ issues somehow make them come from a “bad family.” That’s not true at all. In fact, I would argue that the person who has dealt with dysfunctional family dynamics and fought to develop healthier ways of relating to people will be a much better partner down the road than the person who’s never handled conflict.

2) Be honest … But not too much

The temptation in early dating is to present everything from your relationship with your mother to your Cross Fit schedule in the most positive light possible. But you don’t want to sugarcoat the truth. At the same time, you want to avoid over-airing all the family laundry and scaring off your date. That shows a lack of judgment on your part.

3) Make it about you

The best way to broach the subject is to explain your feelings about the state of your relationship. For example, you might say, “I love my Mom to death, but she can be a handful at family gatherings, so we don’t all get together very often.” Or “My Dad struggles with alcohol, and he tends to keep himself isolated. It’s caused me a lot of sadness over the years.” Skip the cynical laugh and stay authentic. You’ll have a better chance of connecting to your date, who will feel more comfortable sharing her family stories. She probably has a few.

4) Distinguish yourself

Have you sorted out your issues in family therapy? Are you mindful that you don’t bring the unhelpful coping mechanisms from your past, such as shutting down or avoiding conflict, to your current relationships? Are you watching your wine or sugar intake because you’re scared that you’re genetically predisposed to alcoholism or obesity? Tell your dates! We should all be so lucky to meet someone with such personal awareness.

5) Show acceptance and compassion

An emotionally mature person surely has strong feelings about a strained relationship with a parent, whether it’s sadness, disappointment or anger. Yet they also have compassion for whatever demons their parents struggle with. They’re capable of expressing empathy and hopefully, forgiveness. Whatever the case, they don’t blame their parents for their own failures.

6) Focus on the good

People usually aren’t completely good or bad. By recognizing the good in your parents, you show your dates that you’re a nuanced person who accepts people in all their incarnations. That’s why it’s important to include both when describing them. Perhaps your mother picks fights at holidays, and you’re working on setting better boundaries with her, but you just love her homemade coconut cake and how she still sends you Snoopy cards on your birthday. Your father passed out during your college graduation, but you’re grateful how he still texts you his favorite jokes.

We can’t prevent the most important people in our lives from causing us intense sorrow. But we can remember that how we talk about them reveals who we are.

About the Author:

Sarah Elizabeth Richards is a journalist and the author of Motherhood, Rescheduled: The New Frontier of Egg Freezing and the Women Who Tried It. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Marie Claire, Elle, Cosmopolitan, Slate, and Salon.

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