Maternal distinctions

Joey Garcia offers insight into dealing with the mother of all holidays

Kristen Carpio, a life coach, helps clients to work through mommy issues, and she has her own well of experiences to draw from in those sessions.

Kristen Carpio, a life coach, helps clients to work through mommy issues, and she has her own well of experiences to draw from in those sessions.


Joey Garcia writes SN&R’s weekly Ask Joey column.

Kristin Carpio has no memories of Mother's Day before age 16. That was the year her mother died from cancer.

“Once she passed, all I felt on Mother's Day was grief,” says the 56-year-old life coach. “All day, I would be thinking of my mom and feeling sad even as I was saying ‘Happy Mother's Day' to other mothers. Watching people buying presents, eating meals out, kissing and hugging their moms, I would think: ‘I miss my mother.'”

But then, she says, a deeper awareness would kick in.

“I'd say to myself, ‘Really? Are you missing the mother you had?' No. I was missing a mother, not the mother who passed. It was the relationship I was missing, a relationship that never actually existed.”

She pauses. “Our minds do interesting things.”

While Mother’s Day can induce denial in some minds, President Woodrow Wilson anticipated something more positive in 1914 when he signed legislation designating a holiday to honor mothers.

Unfortunately for some, over the years, the second Sunday in May has become saturated in sentimentality and commercialization. National Restaurant Association 2013 data shows that more money is spent eating out on Mother’s Day, with 80 million people dining out on this day, than any other holiday, including Valentine’s Day. And there’s so much social pressure to celebrate every mother, it’s almost taboo to admit you had one who was closer to the Mommie Dearest standard than the Hallmark ideal.

But it can be healthy to talk about, too, especially for those looking to heal emotionally—or not repeat the mistakes of their mother.

Carpio says her mother was emotionally distant throughout their life together.

“There was no interaction. We never exchanged words like ’I love you’ or ’What’s going on in your life?’” she says. “I felt she was jealous of me because my father and I were close.”

By the time Carpio was a sophomore in high school, her mother had developed cancer. The lack of connection with her now-dying mother, coupled with her brother’s ongoing health problems, hit Carpio hard.

“I didn’t feel safe, emotionally or physically,” she says.

At 15, she moved out of her parents’ house and in with the family of a school friend.

“My friend and her mom were close. So it felt like home, even though it wasn’t my home.”

Douglas Michaels, a 45-year-old sales professional who asked that SN&R not use his real name, says he moved in with his grandparents when he was a tween, rather than continue the strained relationship he had with his “narcissistic and apathetic mother.” Their connection became so difficult that at times, “It felt more like we were brother and sister,” he says. “It was a strange dynamic.”

Being raised by his grandparents allowed Michaels to see his relationship with his mother more clearly.

“I realized our relationship wasn’t ever going to be idyllic, or Norman Rockwell. I had to make do with what was truly there,” he says.

Conversations with his somewhat celebrity-obsessed 75-year-old mother are always a surprise, he says.

“She’s never been that familiar with Prince. But after his death she watched Purple Rain, then called me and said, ’Prince is the sexiest man I’ve ever met.’ She never met him.”

Aubrey Keys, a pyschotherapist, assists patients through maternal issues and guides them toward compassion and understanding.


His mother has little interest in his life, he says, but still confides personal details that Michaels wishes she would keep to herself.

“After her two knee replacements, she told me, ’You know, I’m not well enough for sexual activity.’ She’s a cross between Joan Crawford and Courtney Love.”

For Michaels, becoming an adult meant acknowledging his mother’s limitations, learning to appreciate who she is, and offering her an olive branch.

“I made amends for my part in what our relationship lacked. It brought us closer, but the challenges are still prevalent. I set healthy boundaries. I’ve also noticed the difference between helping her and enabling her. She’s my mother. I love her, but at times I don’t like her at all.”

Aubrey Keys, a psychotherapist with the Multi-Cultural Center for Psychotherapy in Natomas, acknowledges that it can be difficult for people to talk publicly about having a mother who is emotionally distant or narcissistic, abusive or hypercritical because it violates the social norm of holidays like Mother’s Day.

“The celebration of Mother’s Day is not bad in itself. But when families get together, there are opportunities to be retraumatized,” he says. “When we revisit those emotional attachments, the original difficulties become apparent again.”

I’ve learned through my work that life changes, like a death, marriage, divorce, even the birth of a child, can also trigger old wounds.

Years ago I was facilitating a women’s group in my home for women ready to take big risks in their choices. The week before Mother’s Day, one woman—I’ll call her Martina—was talking about her contentious divorce. Formerly a stay-at-home mom, the 35-year-old yearned to return to the modeling career she gave up when she married. Her soon-to-be-ex ridiculed her, but she felt vindicated by her choices when she landed a well-paying catalog gig. Unfortunately, the job required travel, and that meant letting her husband win the custody battle. Suddenly, overwhelmed by sobs contorting her lovely face, Martina’s deepest fear broke through in a harrowing wail: “I don’t want to be a bad mother!”

Between sobs, Martina admitted she was afraid of being a bad mother because she was raised by one. She believed her mother had emotionally abandoned her while she was growing up. Her mother was also on her ex-husband’s side in the custody battle, she said, intensifying those feelings of abandonment.

Keys says, without therapy, people often normalize their unrepaired relationships with their mothers.

“We move on to become the best parent we can be, but those painful things become frozen in our brain as events and get triggered during social celebrations like Mother’s Day. We work, become successful and we recreate fantasies about our relationships with our mothers that fit our sense of feeling good about ourselves.”

The alternative is to find a different maternal model. Through that, he says, we can discover who we are.

“Maybe a neighbor who was loving to her children, attended church and invited you along. In that scenario, or one like that, you would learn how to create a relationship model that allows you to connect to others.

Carpio says she remembers admiring the relationship her high-school friend shared with her own mother. It must have inspired her, she says, but she doesn’t remember actually deciding to leave her family home for theirs. She does, however, remember the tremendous relief she felt at being out of her family’s home.

“As kids, we look for guidance and I had absolutely none. Maybe that’s what was scary.”

As a life coach with the Tao Center for Healing in Midtown, Carpio says she draws on her personal experiences to guide clients toward compassion for the way their mothers were raised, and to let go of judgment, sadness, pain and hurt around the relationship. And, as a mother of three daughters, she has learned to navigate the mother-daughter dynamic differently.

“When they called me ’mom’ it didn’t feel real,” she says. “It took me a while to realize what that word meant to them, and to me.”

Her mother’s emotional distance also meant Carpio lacked the tools necessary to chaperone her daughters through the traditional rites of passage for American teens, like proms.

“I never had a mother who said, ’Let’s take you to get a prom dress,’ or ’Let’s get your nails done for a dance,’” she says. “When my daughters were invited to prom, I didn’t understand why their hair or nails were such a big deal to them. If we were picking out burial plots, well, I had experience with that.”

Finally, she realized that prom and its associated rituals should be important to her, because it was important to her daughters.

“I told them, ’I need your patience,’” she says. “My daughters taught me a lot about how to be a mother.”