Mother's Day for an ex-mother
April 30, 2017 11:26 AM   Subscribe

How to recognize Mother's Day for a woman whose child died?

Lying in bed this morning with my gf, discussing future weekends. She mentions May 14 is Mothers Day so she's unavailable of course. I mention my family doesn't care too much about Hallmark holidays but I'm kinda lucky because my mother's bday is May 10 so I'll just do some small combo thing/gift as we don't care too much about bdays for oldies (myself included) either.

She says rather emphatically, "Well you'd better do something nice!"

Obviously this relationship is <1 year. And obviously she'll do something fancy with her mother May 14 because she takes it seriously. So we won't be together (I have not met her parents)

Here's the catch. Approx 5 years ago, in a previous marriage, she had a baby who died. I have no details other than "SIDS" and the event completely devastated her, and her marriage.

She might be the most sensitive person I've ever met. I am not the most sensitive person anyone's ever met. But care about her deeply and want to do the right thing.

So... looking for thoughts from hive mind on how/whether to acknowledge this, and if so what would be appropriate?
posted by raider to Human Relations (16 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Does she like flowers? I'd say flowers the day before.
posted by mochapickle at 11:39 AM on April 30, 2017 [4 favorites]

One of the hardest things about losing someone, and especially losing a child, is that it's rare that friends or family will acknowledge the person's life after their passing. Most people fear bringing up or being around sad feelings. So when someone shares a fond memory, or just gives you the space to talk about the passed person, that's a huge kindness.

In this case, having not met the child and having not known the mother at the time that the child was living, I wouldn't actually bring up the child too much in the days leading up to mothers day, as this is a really loaded time, emotionally. I would definitely get a spectacular flower arrangement with a simple note saying I love you.

Later, a week or two down the road, you might ask how she's feeling around mother's day. But when you do, be prepared to really listen and be really empathetic. Be willing to not be afraid of the feelings she's expressing. And don't do it in bed.
posted by vignettist at 11:42 AM on April 30, 2017 [18 favorites]

This is very thoughtful of you. I think you should ask your girlfriend whether she would like to be recognized on Mother's Day. Some women in this situation would be touched and others devastated. I imagine this is a really individual thing. If you really want it to be a surprise, are there any of her good friends you know who could guide you?

If she says she would like it, I think it might be best to shy away from anything baby themed and go with flowers, jewelry, or a massage gift certificate. Or else maybe some activity you can do together that you know she enjoys.
posted by Waiting for Pierce Inverarity at 11:44 AM on April 30, 2017 [14 favorites]

I, too, think you should ask. Tell her that while your own family doesn't do much to celebrate these kinds of holidays that you feel like mother's day might feel painful for her and is there anything that you can do for her or offer her to mark the day. Be prepared to shut up and listen and then don't forget to follow-through.
posted by amanda at 11:48 AM on April 30, 2017 [13 favorites]

Best answer: Credential: I am a mother whose first baby died at four months old.

I would acknowledge it with a beautiful card, perhaps a blank card, though I am sure a big Hallmark will have a specific "for mothers who have lost a child" card. Unless you read the inside of that specific card and it is perfect (and not a rhyming poem) maybe don't get that card. If you get a blank card you have to write your own words inside. You can't just write "Happy Mothers Day" and your name. Something like....." I know this day must be hard for you, but I want to acknowledge and celebrate your motherhood."

I would preface the card giving with a very heartfelt introduction acknowledging that you don't know if she'll like this but you didn't want to let the day pass without acknowledging her motherhood. Then say you've made plans to take her out for a meal (you need to have made plans to take her out for a meal). Ask if she's up for that and if not ask what she would like to do.

At some point in your time together around this card giving/meal having/remembering Mothers Day ask her if she would be willing to share more about her child with you. Ask her if she would be willing to show you pictures. If her experience is anything like mine nobody ever asks for further information past what I have given. I tend to give a pretty brief account of my daughter and her life because I don't want to make anyone uncomfortable. I would love to say more if someone was interested. I would love if someone were interested because they wanted to know me more fully.

As for the timing of all this, before Mothers Day, but as close to Mothers Day as possible, ideally the day before.

By the way, "ex-mother" is not a proper designation for a woman whose child died. She will always be a mother.
posted by Jenny'sCricket at 11:51 AM on April 30, 2017 [94 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks very much, Jenny'sCricket. I'm sorry for your loss, and sorry if my choice of words was inappropriate.


I'm not sure if this informs the discussion, but gf does not lack for anything in the material realm.
posted by raider at 12:52 PM on April 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

As someone who has also dealt with Mother's Day after the death of a baby I second Jenny'sCricket. Very few people acknowledged the day. All I wanted was for someone to ask me how I was. My spouse asked me if I wanted to do something special (I did not) and, really, just by asked no me I felt my (invisible) motherhood recognized.
posted by teamnap at 12:56 PM on April 30, 2017 [5 favorites]

> I'm not sure if this informs the discussion, but gf does not lack for anything in the material realm

It doesn't change anything; gifts for occasions like this are rarely about practical things like groceries, but instead are to indicate that you care about the person and want them to be happy.
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:14 PM on April 30, 2017 [5 favorites]

I have a friend/coworker whose only child was killed in a car crash several years ago. As Mothers Day approaches each year since her daughter's death I have simply told her (either verbally or, if need be, via a note left on her desk) to "be kind to yourself this weekend". She has expressed to me many times how much this simple acknowledgment means to her.
Obviously your relationship is different but I share this to emphasize that just a simple comment can go a long way and may be all that is needed to provide comfort.
posted by bookmammal at 3:49 PM on April 30, 2017 [4 favorites]

I had a late miscarriage on a Mother's Day. Not many people know about it and those who do never bring it up because I don't, plus I'm sure they have no idea what to say, which is fine. An intimate partner is the exception to that, though. I'd never expect an intimate partner to "just know" how to handle Mother's Day, however-- but I'd be hurt if they didn't ask how I prefer to deal with it. Everyone is different and it would be terrible to assume one way or the other.

I'm concerned about your calling her an "ex-mother"-- not because the phrasing is gross (though it is), but because it shows a lack of respect for what she's been through. In fact, something in your entire portrayal of her is coming across disrespectfully (saying that she said something "rather emphatically" as though she's too forceful, bringing up her apparent wealth as though that has anything to do with whether she prefers to be honored as a mother.) I hope it's just your choice of words but be mindful of how you speak to and about her if you care for her.
posted by kapers at 4:53 PM on April 30, 2017 [4 favorites]

I too am concerned about your term "ex-mother", and that you are thinking in terms of her needing a gift for Mother's Day as being a material thing. What she needs is the gift of your support and acknowledgment. Her grief will likely be with her for all her life. She will always be mother to her child, even if the child has passed. Please consider talking to her about this and asking her what she needs on what is likely a very difficult day for her. She may also want the flowers, cards, etc. that are acknowledgement that she is a mother, on Mother's Day. Asking her is the best way to know - start with something like, "I recognize that Mother's Day is an important and difficult day for you. How can I help? What do you need?"
posted by AliceBlue at 5:14 PM on April 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: ask her if she would be willing to share more about her child with you. Ask her if she would be willing to show you pictures. If her experience is anything like mine nobody ever asks for further information past what I have given. I tend to give a pretty brief account of my daughter and her life because I don't want to make anyone uncomfortable.


As a mom to a three month old baby who passed away, there is always a tough choice between not bringing up painful memories and also not forgetting my baby. Most times when casually asked, I say I have two boys when really it's three. Strangers and acquaintances don't want the whole story. But when people sincerely ask, and we're in a "safe place" I love having the chance of remembering and talking about my baby, having people acknowledge his life and what I went through.
posted by CrazyLemonade at 6:43 PM on April 30, 2017 [8 favorites]

She's not an ex-mother. She may be a mother without a living child, but you should acknowledge that and also acknowledge the broad range of feelings she might be without that evidence.
posted by Lyn Never at 6:54 PM on April 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Again, sincere apologies if my attempt(s) at being succinct resulted in an insensitive choice of words. Especially to those who have been through something similar.

But my question is precisely due to my inexperience with the situation and my desire to be sensitive to it. Not sure why so many seem to feel the need to excoriate me.

But I do appreciate your feedback, and point(s) taken.

(Sorry, mods -- I'm done now)
posted by raider at 8:34 PM on April 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

But my question is precisely due to my inexperience with the situation and my desire to be sensitive to it. Not sure why so many seem to feel the need to excoriate me.

You have to completely let go of any concept you currently have to even begin to approach sensitivity. So many are ganging up on you because your starting point is offensive and hurtful to them. This is no way to feel about someone you love.

If you lost a parent, no one would call you an ex-child of theirs. And that doesn't even begin to approach the sheer pain of losing a child, of losing a baby. From your brief description, and knowledge, it seems likely that this loss might have contributed to the end of her marriage.

Tread lightly. Approach kindly. Again, let go of everything yuo thought you knew of how to approach this.
posted by RainyJay at 12:45 AM on May 1, 2017 [5 favorites]

The whole point is that none of this is for you to decide or define or put words to. You can take one of two tacks: explicitly ask specifically what she wishes and do that, or try to make zero assumptions and attempt to follow her lead.

And you're immediately going to think "it's rude to ask" but I promise you that you are better off offending by asking than offending by assuming because of how much power to wound is in the behaviors that come from assumptions. And following her lead means putting the burden on her to manage your feelings. This is what is done to people (especially women) whenever feelings are involved and it's cruel. Assumptions turn into dictating/judging.

There is more than one way to feel about losing a child. You do not get to decide or choose. She is the expert on her loss. You should do what she wants. It's that easy, and so much less fraught than guessing. (And whatever the answer is this year is NOT automatically the answer for any future day or year.)

There are definitely lots of books out there about the overall mechanisms and diverse experiences of grief, and it does seem like you need to level up in just emotional and communication skills. Kubler-Ross is sort of the modern original work in grief and loss, and Why Can't You Read My Mind is a good starter book on relationship communication. Kelly McGonigal's The Science of Compassion is audio-only and I haven't listened to the whole thing but I've heard some talks she's given from the material.

You don't have to just shrug and say "oh noes, I'm just not sensitive!" You live in the world, improve it (and your life) by trying to become more sensitive.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:52 AM on May 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

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