#243: Mother’s Day: Not Always A Holiday

Dear Captain Awkward,

After a three year-long battle with a rare form of cancer, my Mom passed away a few weeks ago.  Don’t worry, Team Me has been assembled and regular doses of Chinese food, dark chocolate, Monty Python, and silent horror films have been, and continue to be, implemented.  Now, however, begins the hard part of getting back into daily life without her and informing/dealing with everyone else.  They are all lovely and well-meaning people, but fielding their well wishes is exhausting, and the origin of my problem.

Mom, who is my mother in all of the really really important ways, is not my biological mom.  The story behind it is very long, but the cliffnote version is: abusive step-father, police get involved, Biological Mother takes his side and uses my personal diaries against me at the trial, Dad and wonderful step-mother (Mom) sweep in to take in my sister and I and pick up the pieces.  Mom is Mom, and nothing will change that.

There is a healthy mixture of friends and acquaintances who do and do not know about this (not that it’s a BIG SECRET, I just…don’t talk about it much).  Other siblings still have a relationship with Biological Mother, and I see/talk to her maybe once or twice a year, so I cannot simply pretend that she does not exist.  So, question one: what are some scripts I can use when people ask me why Mom is not my biological mom and want to know about my strained relationship with Biological Mother? I don’t mind telling them, but I want to do so in a way that answers their question about Mom without going into the whole story, and simultaneously tell them Biological Mother is not up for discussion.  I only discuss that with Team Me, and no one else.

Also, in light of Mom’s death, some members of my family have been pressuring my sister and I to forgive, forget, and reconcile with Biological Mother.  That is NOT HAPPENING.  She has a lot to explaining and apologizing to do before any of it can be considered, and until then, she gets to live with rare, strained, and superficial visits.  Of course these family members bring this up in front of my mourning Dad, so out of consideration for him I can’t respond to them in various forms of “fuck no, and also, not your fucking business.”  So, question two: what are some scripts that I can use that will politely tell them Not Happening, None of Your Business, and Don’t Ask Ever Again?

PS: Quick follow-up question, in light Mother’s Day, what can I tell unknowing people who innocently ask me what I’m doing for my Mom on Mother’s Day?


I Miss Mom

This isn’t the good news, but maybe it’s comforting a little: You’re not the only person for whom Mother’s Day is “Holy shit is that a fraught and complicated subject of conversation” day. So while I am so sorry for your loss and the occasion of it, I appreciate the very timely question.

Let’s work in reverse. When people who don’t know the story ask what you’re doing for Mother’s Day, tell them the truth:

I’m still grieving for her, so I’ll be spending the day with some close friends.”

The vast majority of people will say a variation of “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry!” which, if you’ve just buried a Loved One, you know how to deal with like a pro by now – Recently Bereaved Autopilot*: Activate! People who are also grieving for their moms won’t have asked you the question in the first place, but in the off chance one does, you can commiserate. That leaves the very, very small number of people who know that you have a Bio-Mom and know that she’s alive and who also prioritize satisfying their curiosity. You can just stare blankly at those people and repeat “My mom passed recently, so I’ll be remembering her with a few close friends” and don’t worry too much about whether they get it or what they think. You don’t have to draw your family tree for everyone who asks.

Now, let’s help you create the short version of why you called this particular lady “Mom.” Once again, go with the plain truth.

My stepmother and my dad raised me after my biological mom remarried. She and I became very close, and I consider her to be my ‘mom.‘”

Perceptive people will sense the iceberg of dark history beneath those brief sentences, but most will not ask you anything more about it. If people press you for more details and you don’t feel like giving them, you can always go with “Obviously it’s a long and complicated story, I don’t really feel like telling it now. Maybe some other time.”  (Hint: Some other time = probably never!) Anyone who keeps pushing you after that (even if they mean well) is officially a Being A Jerk and you don’t have to be polite or answer any questions. Excuse yourself from the conversation.

On to your relatives! I am frankly aghast at someone who would say “Now that the person you loved most in the world has been dead for a couple of weeks, howabout you make up with the woman who publicly and brutally chose her abusive husband over you so that we all feel like you have somewhere to send a Mother’s Day card and don’t have to feel bad about what happened anymore?

So let’s go with “aghast” and keep sticking with that plain, blunt truth we’ve been working with. And let go of the idea that if you respond honestly that you’re being impolite or the one making it weird. Use as few words as possible, do not apologize, do not explain yourself, do not repeat yourself. Let it get AWK-WARD. Let them be the ones to back away from you slowly or rush to change the subject.

Wow.” (+ awkward, freezing silence).

Do you really expect me to have a conversation about this RIGHT NOW?” (+ awkward, freezing silence)

That is so not a question I feel like talking about today.” (+ awkward, freezing silence).

I’m sorry, what did you just ask me? I didn’t quite catch it. Could you repeat that, please?” (+ awkward, freezing silence) (Bonus points if you make them repeat it 3 or 4 times until they get embarrassed and shut up).

I’m sorry, that’s something I only discuss with people who are very close to me. Let’s change the subject.” (+ awkward, freezing silence)

And, as a bonus, to give you something to fantasize about: “I will never forget what happened and what she did. If I do forgive, it won’t be because people pressured me in order to make themselves feel a little better, and it certainly won’t happen while I’m grieving the woman who became my real mom, so please take five steps back and change the subject, or I’ll have to ask you to leave.

I know that last one feels awful and rude, but it has the benefit of delivering the message you want to give as directly and completely as possible. I hope you spend Sunday surrounded with people and things you love and I’m glad you have a good plan. It sounds like you were lucky to have the Mom you did, and your dad was lucky to have her, and you.

*Recently Bereaved Autopilot:

People who love you want to let you know, but often they don’t know what to say and it gets overwhelming and weird. Some variation of “Thanks for your kind words. I loved her very much.” – will usually get the job done. If your mom knew and liked the person giving the wishes? Try “Thank you so much for your kind words. She always loved  you (or x detail about you).”

And you get to say “Thank you so much. I’m feeling a little overwhelmed right now, can we talk later?” – if that’s the truth, that’s the truth, and people will MORE than understand. You don’t have to be Good At Grieving. Absolve yourself completely from taking care of other people around this.

35 thoughts on “#243: Mother’s Day: Not Always A Holiday

  1. I tend to run as fast as possible from any sort of awkward conflict and the Captain’s last, longer, arguably ruder response sounds WHOLLY APPROPRIATE for any family members who could possibly think that now would be the best time rather than the WORST POSSIBLE TIME for such a discussion.

    LW, I’m so sorry for your loss. Fuck cancer.

  2. I am an open person, but even I draw the line when people don’t need to know. You don’t have to tell everyone everything. Don’t sweat it.

  3. When family members ambush you at events, especially in front of your father or sister with questions or recommendations regarding your biological mother, I might just sidestep the question with a, “Right now, I just need to grieve with my father and sister.” If they ask you mother’s day plans, you can say some variation on that theme. It has the benefit of being true, of being non-confrontational (if that’s important to you), and it will make anyone wanting to ask follow-up questions about your biological mother sound silly since there’s no natural segue.

    1. Good one! As you can see from my answer, I am itching to put these relatives in their place and may have glossed over the whole “polite” thing.

      1. Well, I also think it’s useful just to have in the back of your mind because you can also deploy it to deflect all manner of asinine comments and suggestions that people like to heap upon the bereaved. Or even just the asinine things that family members say because they haven’t seen you in a long time. I mean, I don’t mind being rude to nosy family members, but some people do.

  4. I am very sorry for your loss letter writer. Jedi Hugs are available should you wish to partake of them.

    I actually have experience wit ha similar phenom to what you are describing. My “dad” is not my bio-dad. My bio-dad is, I presume, living but I haven’t spoken to him since I was in high school. I have literally never had anyone ask intrusive questions after I say “Dad is my step-dad, I don’t have a relationship with my bio-dad.” My Dad is still living as well, but I doubt the nature of my response would change much after he passes other than to perhaps say “my late dad is my stepdad” should the need arise.

    It could be that, because estranged/absent fathers are somewhat more common (or perceived to be more common?), people take that hint pretty easily. I could also just be lucky. Sometimes I elaborate with “Bio-dad was not a very nice person,” (understatement OF THE YEAR) or something, if I’m so inclined, but no one has ever pressed me.

    Of course my friend group also consists almost entirely of ladies with absent fathers… so my sample is probably biased.

    1. And P.S. your family members are probably giant jerks. Feel free to use the blank stare and shocked blink liberally.

  5. It seems to me like some of the people encouraging you to reconcile with Bio Mom have the mindset that she can replace Real Mom. She can’t, of course, and maybe telling people that might get them to back off? “I know you mean well, but nothing can replace the relationship I had with Real Mom. If I reconcile with Bio Mom, it’ll be on our own terms.”

    1. I like this very much.

      The “Eat a bag of dicks, nosy family” is truly silent!

  6. I have no advice, Letter Writer, but I just want to give you Jedi Hugs. I’m so sorry for what you’re going through, and I’m even sorrier that some of your family is choosing to be a butt about it.

  7. Some people are completely nosy, brazen, and not to be trusted, regardless of whether they’re relatives, and they seem to swarm like harpies around mourning souls who are obviously at a very sensitive time in their lives. Ah, the perfect time to ask probing questions and catch the mourning person off guard. I remember being 12, right after my 7-year-old brother passed away, and sitting at the dinner table with my friend and her family. Her mother had the gall to talk on and on about my brother, asking me questions about him in front of everyone, as if it were the most normal thing in the world to try and find out what I experienced going through his death, etc. Can’t these people have the compassion to place themselves in the bereaving person’s shoes and ponder a bit on how they’d feel if asked the same questions under the same circumstances?? If I’d had any guts at all, I would have loved to give her a quick comeback to put her in her place or told her that I didn’t feel well, promptly get up out of the chair, and walk out the door. But I sat like a stone, feeling very uncomfortable. Obviously this situation still lives and breathes with me, many decades later.

    I love Captain’s ideas on what to say back to these people! They should surely be able to take a quick touche! of words back, shouldn’t they, deftly, quickly, to the point and with purpose, to get right to the heart of the matter and make it sink in that they’re being unbelievably RUDE?

    Perhaps people are being innocently insensitive in telling you that you should consider reconciling with your biological mom when you are grieving for the mom who loved and cherished you and brought you up. Are they seriously thinking that your biological mom can take the place of the mom you lost and make everything somehow better for you? I shudder.

    Good luck to you, read up on what Captain advised, and perhaps practice saying these comments so that they’ll come out clearly and easily when the harpies descend.

  8. The first Mother’s Day after the death of your mom is the hardest. My mom and I never made a deal about Mother’s Day. I might send her a card…or not. But the first Mother’s Day after she died, I was so distraught. I remember hearing a commercial saying “Everyone has a Mother!” and I dissolved because “I DON’T!” sob.
    Every holiday is worse the first year. It gets better.
    And the Cap’n is right on. Your Mom is your Mom. Having a living bio mother is irrelevant. She’s just lucky you didn’t make a career of lobbing rocks through her windows.

    1. I actually wrote an angry e-mail to Amazon when they sent me a “Don’t forget Mother’s Day!” reminder. Talking to friends who’ve lost parents, I’ve discovered I am not the only person who has done this.

  9. Also LW, you could just skip the scripts and go straight to the awkward, freezing silence. There’s a certain satisfaction in silently staring down someone who is SO INCREDIBLY RUDE OMG until they break eye contact and run away. In my experience, when people with emotions get that reaction to one of their questions, they will never repeat that question again. Ever.

    1. Yup, I have employed the shocked, awkward silence to great effect. It also has the bonus of not requiring you to actually talk, at least for a long moment, which is you’re like me and would either 1) start crying 2) bumble what you were trying to say hopelessly or 3) go off script and risk freaking out at someone, can be a god send.

  10. Oh, LW, I feel you. My mother died in hospice exactly eleven months ago (as in, June 9th), and I have been dreading Mother’s Day. I just know that all the blithe facebook “post this if you have the greatest mom in the worldddddddddddd!” posts and the ads reminding me to buy her a bouquet are going to keep it fresh in my mind.

    The good news, though, is that I’ve found that the Captain is right– people are way less likely to call you on being “rude” or “unsociable” when you are grieving! Also, there is also the fact that some of the people saying these stupid and hurtful things about reconciliation might not even mean it. Something I have learned in the past year is how incredibly thoughtless and panicked people become after a death, and their panic sometimes results in them saying the stupidest things that pop into their heads. Some of these suggestions might come less from a sincere suggestion, and more from an inner monologue of “dead mom, what do I say, dead mom, dead STEPmom? oh, moms, mom facts, OTHER MOM, BACKUP MOM! SUGGEST BACKUP MOM!!!!” A lot of people get nervous around grieving people, worry that they will say the wrong thing, and then proceed to say the WORST thing. Thinking of it that way helped me to keep from getting angry when hurtful things were occasionally said.

    1. “the blithe facebook “post this if you have the greatest mom in the worldddddddddddd!””

      I hate those too, but probably for different reasons. The ones that particularly bug me are the “bestFriEND, boyfriEND, girlfriEND, Family: which one doesn’t end? Post if you love your family!”

      My family consists of: distant relatives I’ve never met, dead people, heroin addicts, and people with untreated mental problems. I don’t think the people who make those chain-posts mean it as a dig, but every time I read those, what I hear is “Your social support system is invalid! All your friends and S.O.’s will never be there for you when you need anything because the only Twoooo Support System is your family :DDDD”

      And LW, jedi-hugs and I hope you find a good way to tell your jerkass relatives where to stick it; and sorry for your loss :/

  11. Anyone who keeps pushing you after that (even if they mean well) is officially a Being A Jerk and you don’t have to be polite or answer any questions. Excuse yourself from the conversation.

    Maybe I’m not understanding the scenario correctly, but I am having trouble imaging how it isn’t Being A Total Jerk in the first place to ask any kind of questions at all about the specific details of family relationships when someone tells you their “mom” just died. Is there any possible response appropriate other than, “I’m so sorry for your loss. Please let me know if there’s anything I can do or if you’d like to talk about it more.”?

      1. Sometimes people are trying to genuinely Curious and Showing Interest In Your Life and don’t understand the whole “choose your moment” thing. So I was giving them a tiny, tiny bit of leeway before HULK SMASH.

  12. LW, I’m adopted and people are incredibly insensitive without meaning to be about family relationships that do not mirror their own understanding of “Family.” As if there is only ONE way to be/have family. Which, as everyone in the world must have proof of now, bears no relationship to reality at all. With that in mind, there are plenty of ideas about how to shut down rude and intrusive questions from acquaintances and almost-strangers.

    But your family? I am not sure you need the verbal parts of the Captain Awkward’s suggestions. Just the “cold awkward silence” part should be enough to anyone at all who is related to you and knows the full story. Why on earth do you need to justify that with a response? And cold awkward silence is pretty hard to refute, argue with, ask questions about, whatever, and it takes gall (or sheer idiocy) to push that line of questioning further.

    Jedi hugs, LW. Your family is what YOU define it to be. And that’s what’s important. I am so sorry you lost a big part of it. But I am also so happy that you had that part of your family — that despite your story, you had a wonderful mom who stepped up to be this big part of your life. I hope your memories of this wonderful woman bring you some peace.

  13. Alternatively, if you want to go the Shut THem The Fuck Up Immediately route, you can fix them with a cold stare and say, “Even if I did reconcile with Bio Mom, it wouldn’t be because I was looking for a replacement, as if I lost a pet fish instead of my mother.”

  14. Oh, LW, so many Jedi hugs. My Beloved’s mom passed away oh, gosh, so many years ago now (six? really?!), and there are still certain times of the year that are hard. They get easier, they really do. It’s just, that hurt might always be there, a little bit. I hope that you can find ways to grieve that are right for you, and remember there’s no “right” or “wrong” way to grieve or feel right now. Beloved, indeed, went through times where he was angry, or blank. It happens.

    On to your question. I have to face similar questions about my sister, who also has a “long story” situation. I have found that the best approach is to have a script like CA suggested, plus a tone of voice that makes it clear that “this is more than enough information and totally clearly conveys the whole story and you DO NOT need to ask further questions” (very Captain Carrot in some ways, yeah?). I hope that makes sense. I’m not saying “act natural” or anything, because especially during this time it’s going to be hard. Just, act like at the end of your script that the story is Now Over, and that you will NOT be taking questions. I kind of feel like I’m not explaining this properly, due to text-based communication limitations, but I hope you kind of get what I mean.

    I am also a fan of silent disbelief in the face of incredible awkwardness. I have used it to great effect.

  15. Captain’s advice is spot on. In the case of your forgiveness insistent/shaming relatives, politeness is overrated. Really, please don’t feel at all guilty if you end up telling them to go fuck themselves sideways with a rusty chainsaw.

    I am so sorry for your loss. This must be a difficult holiday for you. She sounds like she was a fantastic person.

  16. My personal favorite answer to “I’m so sorry for (sad thing that happened), maybe now you should (totally unrelated stuff)” is “why?” (+awkward, freezing silence). Unless I’m dealing with someone particularly obtuse, you can almost see the gears painfully clicking into place in their heads as they realise how dumb what they just said sounded.

    I am so sorry for your loss, I Miss Mom. I hope you get to mourn in peace. May I recommend “Condolence Visit” from Rohinton Mistry’s wonderful “Tales from Firozsha Baag” if you find yourself in need of catharsis?

    1. Oh man, I love the “Why?” answer, especially when coupled with a Look Of Genuine Confusion.

      It could work if you say it rhetorically or sarcastically, but asking for a polite explanation is one of my favorite ways of dealing with people who say terrible things.

      I’ve called people on a lot of racist or sexist humor, or just telling me what to do with a good “I’m sorry, I don’t understand?”

    2. I second the “Condolence Visit” suggestion if you want to feel pretty righteous about someone dealing with grief in totally her own way. I’m also a fan of the confused “Why?” after an inappropriate suggestion. It can sometimes serve the same function as the Captain’s “Pardon me? I didn’t catch that.” Sometimes, if you force people to explain (and therefore actually think about) what they’ve said, they realize on their own that they shouldn’t have said it.

  17. Ugh, I hear you LW. People ask me about my mother all the time, as she lives in the community and many people don’t know that she is Super Toxic Lady Who Kicked Me Out (and recently kicked out my little brother.)

    Even though we have made some contact lately and are perhaps making our way towards being Civil Adults, she’s still not my “mother.”

    I’m also SuperAwkwardOpen about things, and I tend to say something like “Oh, my bio-mom isn’t a nice lady and she’s not really in my life, BUT hey, good news, my Dad just got married to New Mommy and she’s really been my mother for the last decade” or a variation on the theme depending on my audience.

    For people I’m really, really not close with (for instance, my vet from childhood asked about her the other day) I just say “Oh, you know, we don’t really talk. BUT HEY INSERT HAPPY NEWS HERE SHINY DISTRACTIONS!”

    That saves them the awkwardness of trying to be polite and friendly but accidentally bringing up a heavy subject. I don’t want to lie usually, because if they know her, they ask all about what she’s doing and we all feel silly when I’m like “Um no idea!”

    Usually this is great because I end it on a happy note and switch the subject to the family I AM close with. This tactic works with everyone from strangers to very close other family members, and when other family members pry, I just say something to the effect of it being her choice, and then BAM SUBJECT CHANGE HEY LOOK OVER THERE.

  18. I see these members of your family that want to see you reconcile as being self-serving assholes, to put it mildly. This pressure they’re putting on you is to assuage their own guilty feelings about not having fhe most structurally sound or “normal” family. Maybe they saw what your bio-mom did to you and didn’t or couldn’t interfere, or maybe they’re succumbing to the impulse to moderate how everyone around them plays house, even if it’s only playing.

    Your friends might benefit from knowing a tiny bit of background, so when they ask about your mom you don’t have to drag all these feelings out from the deep place you keep your bio-mom’s history. Your real mom and your bio-mom are very different territories for you emotionally so it might help to just tell them that you only think of your step-mom when they bring up “Mom” issues.

  19. Oh, LW, I got nothin’, just JEDI HUGS and a healthy dose of awe and respect from me: after all that, which would in other universes cause you to become a superhero or supervillain (or at the very least a really dysfunctional person), you instead became sane and amazing.

    Your mom sounds like a wonderful, wonderful person, and I’m so glad you and your dad and sister had her in your lives.

  20. LW, I am sorry for your loss, and I hope the weekend is tolerable. Last year, my cancer mentor died, and she called me to join her for the final days. As a result, I had to cancel some volunteer shifts at a local event for my organization, and so as soon as I got off the phone, I booked the plane tickets and started notifying the necessary people. One friend wanted permission to tell a mutual friend, and I paused and reluctantly agreed, not wanting that person to feel excluded or somehow less important. Not 10 minutes later, she called to find out the details. “How is your friend feeling?” “What do you mean? She’s DYING.” Wow, I really didn’t expect such insensitivity. Another phone call with another friend, and I get, “I feel like you’re shutting me out.” Yes, yes I am. I just got this news, and I haven’t even had time to process it. I sure ain’t ready to talk about it yet. Maybe when I get back. These were well-meaning people, but yes, they felt like vultures circling in at that moment. I can’t imagine how much worse it would be dealing with active malice and so on.

    One thing that I haven’t seen suggested is to appoint a spokesperson. If you don’t want to negotiate these conversational minefields alone, bring along a trusted friend even to family gatherings who will intercept and deal with such inappropriate jerks as needed. It’s often much easier for a nonfamily member to be as brusque and take-no-prisoners as needed. And feel free to post on FB or whatever that inquiries or offers of assistance should be routed through that person (or someone else) as well. You can even post suggestions for people in terms of what would be helpful for you right now (deliver a home-cooked meal, help you write thank-you cards, make a donation in your mother’s name, make sure you’re not alone for X timeframe, whatever). Don’t be afraid to proactively broadcast your needs and your boundaries, instead of using up your limited energy coping with separate incidents individually as they happen.

    Probably you won’t be up to much this weekend, but you might consider turning this “holiday” into a remembrance day for your mother in the future, whether it is something you do alone or with your dad and sister. Creating personal rituals in this way may help with the grieving. You have my profound sympathies.

    1. Yes, seconded on the spokesperson. I did this for Beloved, calling and notifying close friends, Beloved’s boss, etc. That was the thing he very very very much did not want to do, and I had some distance from the situation so I was happy to handle it. It took that particular burden off him, plus it took away the burden of dreading doing it and handling reactions and things.

  21. First of all, LW, I am so sorry for your loss, and the timing, and the fact that it is dragging up other family stuff and unwanted advice/questions from nosy people. Mother’s Day was never a big deal in our family but all the hoopla about how great moms are makes me feel queasy and terrible. I try to make a plan to do something on all the sad anniversaries — sometimes by myself if I need time alone, sometimes with members of Team Me if I feel like I need company or to be taken care of. It has really helped. What you feel like doing will be specific to you, but I recommend avoiding brunch places.

    Plus, while I have many, many friends who are my age (31) or younger and have lost a parent, people just assume if you are on the young side, your parents must still be around. With regard to your first question, I think you might be asking how to handle questions about Mother’s Day when they come from people who don’t realize your mom is gone. It sucks to have to break the news to people who don’t know about it, and unfortunately it can keep happening for years. I still run into people in my hometown, or catch up with folks on Facebook, who ask me questions like, “How are your folks?” or “Do your parents still live in [my hometown]?” I sometimes bust out some awkward, morbid humor to deal with this — “Oh, my dad is still in [town], but my mom’s got a nice little piece of land in [name of cemetery where she is buried] now.” YMMV; you might not be up for making jokes about this now or ever, but it’s part of how I deal AND it does a remarkable job of shutting up nosy people. A friend of mine also sometimes delivers a nice, deadpan, “My mom is dead” and that can be really handy (and hilariously awkward).

    If you want to make awkward situations LESS awkward and not MORE awkward, you can also say, “Mother’s Day? I guess you haven’t heard this yet, but my mom passed away recently and I’m having a hard time with it.” Then change the subject. You can also tell them you don’t want to talk about it, or say, “I don’t know.” I don’t know in what context you have been asked/will be asked this question, but people who ask it are often making small talk and are not that interested in the answer, so they’re also unlikely to think much of it if you just demur and move on.

  22. If someone tries to get you to discuss your bio-mother: “The subject of my mother is a whole Pandora’s box full of pain. I don’t open that box except under very carefully controlled conditions, like when I have a trained HazMat team on standby in case something nasty tries to crawl out.” If they push, “No, seriously. I’m not going to discuss this. How about if I give you credit for meaning well, and you give me credit for coping as best I can, and we talk about something else?” (I suppose in your father/sister’s presence you could tone “pain” down to “angst.”)

Comments are closed.