I hate you Mum
In the US this weekend, and in other parts of the world at about this time, people celebrate Mother’s Day – a ritual specially designed to allow children to take a moment to express their gratitude and love for their mothers.
This is normally done by buying mother a card and perhaps taking her out for dinner. The occasion can be extremely heart-warming, but for a small yet significant minority, it can also be counted upon to be agonising – because Mother’s Day, for all its good intentions, is a ritual profoundly blind to the complex truths of human relationships, and in particular, to the significant chance that one might not only love one’s mother.
Parent-child relationships are at high risk of being marked by a degree of ambivalence, by a complex coexistence of positive as well as negative feelings: gratitude but also anger, loyalty but also resentment. Mother’s Day wants to set itself up as a ritual that can renew bonds between generations, but by allowing only one side of the equation to be safely expressed, it harms the chances of genuine reconnection. It is hard to love when sweetness is all we are allowed to display.
Almost every card for sale offers a variation on the same two messages: ‘To the best mum in the world’. And: ‘Thank you for everything’. They are trying to help, but they would do a better job if they found a way to speak of the darkness too: the injuries of adolescence, the unwitting patronisation and incomprehension, the harmful competitiveness, the checks to our ambitions… To say unhappy things is not always a route to damaging a relationship, it may be the only way to improve it. An ideal card might add, as a prelude to a frank lunch: ‘Today, I need to upset you, in order that I will then properly be able to love you.’
The best rituals – many of them religious in origin – create occasions for us safely to discharge dangerous but important emotions. They demarcate a bounded time for the bad stuff. For example, during the festival of the god Dionysus, ancient Athenians – who were normally expected to be sober, rational, deferential and loyal – were allowed to drink themselves silly, insult their superiors and sleep with anyone who would have them. After a few days of madness, they could then get back to ordinary life recharged and purged of their antisocial feelings. Many of the same dynamics were in play during the medieval Christian Feast of Fools and can still be observed in the great South American carnivals.
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If we want well-functioning communities and relationships, we cannot be naive about our nature. We must fully accept the claims of our destructive, bitter or hurt sides. If we have occasions for love, we cannot deny equal airtime to hate.
The best thing one might do today is, therefore, to go and tell Mother, perhaps for the first time in a while, about some of those resentments. Thereafter, true love will be a whole lot easier, and more plentiful, to give.