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Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

If Mothering Sunday feels like pouring a mountain of salt on a complex and unresolved wound, you are not alone. In fact, I don’t believe anyone has an entirely straightforward relationship with their mother - that’s why they’ve been subject to scrutiny from everyone from the ancient Greeks to Phillip Larkin, in his famously concise summary. Mothers may have inspired mythological symbolism, but they can also be painfully real forces that fundamentally shape us. It’s not surprising that Mother’s Day can prove a bit of a challenge.

For some, Mother’s Day means the unmistakable agony of missing one. If that’s you, look for words that are warm and kind. Those of Kim Addonizio, in her poem ‘To The Woman Crying Uncontrollably In The Next Stall’, recently caught the attention of Twitter after journalist Agnes Frimston posted them on the social network, revealing she read them through the door of a loo cubicle to a woman who was mourning the loss of her mother. Addonizio’s words have long provided solace:

‘If you have ... moved against / a pillow in the dark stood miserably on a beach / seaweed clinging to your ankles paid / good money for a bad haircut ... Listen I love you joy is coming.'

Writers rarely have a precise ETA for joy, but they have long attested that, with time, painful memories lose their bite. As Joan Didion wrote in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, in 1968: ‘We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget’.

Writer, feminist and civil rights activist Audre Lorde believed the love we find with other women can also be essential to finding happiness in challenging times (she famously wrote letters to her friend, African-American poet Pat Parker, for 15 years). The shared experiences of women, and the understanding of the afflictions they have faced, mean the love between them 'is particular and powerful because we have had to love in order to live', she wrote in her 1984 collection of essays, Sister Outsider.

There are many examples of a void of maternal love being filled by female friendship but I find Gloria Steinem’s memoir, On the Road, particularly powerful. The book describes Steinem's itinerant childhood – following her father's job around the country – as her mother faded into a fog of depression. Steinem, however, finds love with her 'chosen family', her friend of over 20 years, Wilma Mankiller, a Cherokee activist and the first woman principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. Before Mankiller dies, Steinem asks to have her ashes scattered alongside her. In their friendship, Steinem finally discovers a home.

From one classic symbol of American sisterhood to another, re-read Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott, to remind yourself that an unconditional sisterly bond can get you through loss, heartache and the uncertainty of who you are in this world. And it’s not just other women who offer solace. In Cash Carryaway’s Skint Estate and Stephenie Land’s Maid, those cruelly let down by their mothers find great love stories when they become mothers themselves. In Jane Austen’s work, fathers are benevolent guides. Take Henry Woodhouse’s patience with Emma or Mr Bennet's understanding of Elizabeth. There is delight in unexpected friendship too, as proven by Mark Twain’s motherless Huckleberry Finn: ‘I was ever so glad to see Jim’, says Huck. ‘I warn't lonesome now’. 

Comfort can be taken in trying to understand the mothers we feel we don’t know as women who have lived their own lives. In The Joy Luck Club (1989), Amy Tan explores the struggle of American daughters to understand their Chinese mothers. One mother confesses: ‘When my daughter looks at me, she sees a small old lady...if she had chuming, the ability to see inside, she would see a tiger lady’.

Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing examines what slavery does to generations of Africans and how families are shaped because of it. Ness’s mother, a slave, has experienced violence and rape, and as a result, ‘though Ness had met warm slaves on other plantations, black people who smiled and hugged and told nice stories, she would always miss the gray rock of her mother’s heart. She would always associate real love with a hardness of spirit’. Widen the picture to beyond ourselves and sometimes a mother’s troubling actions are more understandable.

Poet Patricia Lockwood’s memoir, Priestdaddy, drenched in humor and poignancy, raises the stakes for anyone who thinks they've had tricky parents. The book opens: ‘“Before they allowed your father to be a priest”, my mother tells me “they made me take the Psychopath Test. You know, a priest can’t have a psychopath wife, it would bring disgrace!”’

Lockwood demonstrates that we can overcome difficulty by finding humor in the absurd and even the tragic. Priestdaddy is about growing up with an overbearing man who sees his proximity to god as a divine right.

Yet Lockwood’s focus on her father’s dominance reveals the ‘absence’ of her mother, as she vanishes behind his booming voice. His eccentric personality suffocates every room and he makes countless demands of her mother for himself and his church. There is an act of wish fulfillment as Lockwood’s words try to bring her mother centre stage, but as she repeatedly warns her father ‘I can only write what you say’. We must see our mothers and fathers for who they are, Lockwood tells us, but if we can laugh while doing so, things will be better. 

So when you struggle along the emotional tightrope of Mother’s day, hold yourself steady with the reassuring stories of others. Allow yourself to cry or laugh or rage, and lean against words that are soothing, strengthening and enlightening. And, ultimately, remember that we are more than the emotions stirred up by a single day. When Lockwood leaves her parents behind, she realises "radiance still sits in my skin, warm color still pulses in me, and I understand what I have is enough".

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