Home » My Love-Hate Relationship with Mother’s Day

My Love-Hate Relationship with Mother’s Day

How we’re turning it into a kindness scavenger hunt.

My mom, benefitting from item #10

I hate to admit this, but I’ve come to feel entitled to breakfast in bed on Mother’s Day (complete with gifts and a clean kitchen afterwards), a family hike (no whining, everyone remembers their water bottles and packs their own snack, remembering one for me), and a little downtime with a good book before dinner.
But truth be told, I rarely get all, if any, of these Mother’s Day treats. I know this shouldn’t surprise me, and it shouldn’t irritate me… but it kinda does, or it has in the past. It’s a horrible confession for someone like me to make, but I’m rarely as cranky as I can be on Mother’s Day.

I know I’m not the only one feeling blue on on the second Sunday in May. In fact, I’m bracing myself for a series of phone calls from disgruntled friends again this year. “All I wanted was to picnic on the beach with the kids,” one friend lamented last year. Her often-charming but rarely-helpful-with-the-kids husband couldn’t get it together—the waves were looking good, and he thought he’d sneak a quick surf into the schedule, right when he should have been securing picnic supplies. Her kids, two of whom were old enough to take the day into their own hands, didn’t rally either. She felt abandoned, and taken for granted.

I know how she felt. One year my kids didn’t do anything for me but make very, um, hasty, cards on scrap paper, an effort so effortless it brought tears to my eyes.

Not the happy kind of tears.

The problem isn’t the kids, though. It is my focus on myself and what I’m entitled to. Even though I really do believe that we moms deserve a day to be treated like goddesses—at least one day!—I don’t think it sets us up for the happiest of Mother’s Days when we expect this to happen.

Although we think that indulging ourselves is going to make us happy, it generally doesn’t: Studies show that we’re happier after spending money on others than after spending on ourselves — yet when people are asked, they expect the opposite will be true.

I see this play out on Mother’s Day (for myself, and some of my friends). After we spend so much time caring for those around us — our kids, our partners, our parents — we think that a quick ticket to a happy Mother’s Day will come from being pampered. But we’re inevitably disappointed when we find that focusing on ourselves is not always, or even usually, a sure route to happiness.

The solution to this sticky-wicket is deceptively simple: We can set ourselves up to be happy on Mother’s Day — to feel gratitude and awe and deep love instead of frustration and disappointment — by simply helping other people. People who help others tend to be less stressed, more joyful, and healthier; less stress, more joy, and greater health all sound good to me this Mother’s Day.

So this year, even though I often long for a break from caring for others, I will make Mother’s Day all about other people. (I know that this strategy isn’t for everyone; those of you suffering from caregiver or compassion fatigue won’t want to try this from home.)

We’ll celebrate the grandmothers in our family, of course, with a big brunch or a fun family dinner (or both, for both sides of the family). But for months, I’ve been wanting to try what this guy does for his birthday: spend a day or two doing dozens of little good deeds—and bring my kids along for the ride.

We’re finally going to do it — for Mother’s Day instead of my birthday — as a way to honor my own mother, Sylvia. She just turned 70 and is as beautiful and vibrant as ever. We’d like to help one person for each year that she has been a mother (41 years). Since her mother, my Oma, passed away this year (at the amazing age of 104!) we’d also like to honor her by helping at least one person for each year Oma was a mother (71 years). Silly math, but we’re aiming to do kind acts for 112 or more people.

We started our “kindness scavenger hunt” this weekend, but to be honest, we didn’t get as far with it as I’d hoped. Personally, I could have powered through the whole list, but my kids fatigued after checking just a few things off the list. We agreed we’d do some more on Mother’s Day, and each week thereafter, until we think we’ve helped more than a hundred people.

Here’s our “Kindness Scavenger Hunt” list:

1. Pick the lemons from our elderly neighbor’s tree, make lemonade, and deliver it to her.
2. Bring food to the food bank.
3. Do a loving-kindness meditation for all those that we love and are concerned about—and also for those that bother us.
4. Leave flowers for a widow who is grieving the man she was married to for 59 years.
5. Give vegetables from our garden to neighbors.
6. Pick up trash in our local park.
7. Stop for everyone looking to cross the street or merge.
8. Make a larger-than-comfortable donation to Tipping Point, a group that is striving to eradicate poverty in our area.
9. Fill a thred up bag full of like-new clothing to benefit Teach for America.
10. Give out extra hugs to the grandmothers in our lives, who really appreciate them.
11. Write a thank-you note to the kids’ preschool teacher: one of those “other mothers” that really made a difference in their lives.
12. Make and deliver “care-kits” to as many homeless people in Berkeley as we can, and give the extras to our friends and family to distribute in their travels.
13. Send someone a book I think they will enjoy, totally randomly.
14. Send all the pregnant women I know some of my favorite parenting books.
15. Write a letter our beat cop thanking him for all he does for our neighborhood.
16. Help a friend with some work on Sunday morning (instead of sleeping in).
17. Visit people at the old age home where my father-in-law used to live (and bring the dog, who despite also being quite old, tends to light up their day).
18. Babysit for the neighbors that have little kids, so that they can have a date-night.
19. Deliver Challahs to temple congregants who are grieving or ill.
20. Serve dinner to homeless and hungry people in San Francisco’s tenderloin neighborhood (Glide Memorial allows kids to volunteer).

What do you think we should add to our list? Please add your suggestions as a comment below!

Happy Mother’s Day, all. Cheers to all the work you and the mothers you love are doing to raise happiness.


  1. Melanie Gatton says:

    Dr. Christine, I have LOVED everything I’ve heard or read
    from you. But I have a hard time with this one. I’m tired of being told that
    women are supposed to sacrifice their own needs and wishes to nurture others. I
    take darn good care of my family and I do good deeds for people on a regular
    basis. I want to be spoiled on Mothers’ Day and on my birthday and I don’t feel
    guilty about that. You’re right that it has never happened. But I don’t
    believe that’s because my expectations are too high. I believe it’s because I have
    always expected so little for myself – and that has not made me happy. I plan
    to spoil myself this Mothers’ Day. And I’ll try the “Kindness Scavenger Hunt”
    on Fathers’ Day this year.

    • Christine Carter says:

      I have been WAITING for a comment like this (this post was originally published on my Greater Good blog, and though there are a lot of comments, none to this effect). THANK you. I totally agree with you: honestly, I also want to be spoiled on Mother’s Day, and if that were in the cards for me, I wouldn’t feel at all guilty about it!! I don’t think my expectations are too high, though they are unrealistic in the sense that because I’m not married to my children’s father, and because my mother has her own expectations about what we’ll do on Mother’s Day (which don’t involve the things I personally would choose to do if I were going to spoil myself), I simply won’t get to spoil myself. So instead of spending the day feeling disappointed about this, I thought I’d try a different tactic this year. We’ll see…

      • Melanie Gatton says:

        Awesome!! I originally thought the post was going to be
        about how our extended families dominate the holidays and how to best deal with that lol. I totally believe that “People who help others tend to be less stressed, more joyful, and healthier”. I hope you and your family have a wonderful Mother’s Day this year!

  2. Tamazin Heher says:

    Both my older boys wrote the most touching letters to their teachers yesterday for teacher-appreciation week. I could not have been prouder. But I also thought to myself, “if they write me letters like this for mother’s day, my day will be perfect”, but I know that’s just setting myself up for disappointment. Because along with the unconditional love of a mother, comes feeling taken for granted, more often than I’d like. So instead, I’ve decided to feel good about the fact that they could write such lovely letters to their teachers and to secretly take a little piece of that sentiment for myself. Wishing you all a wonderful Mother’s Day!

  3. Pamela in Chico says:

    Christine, I have to tell you how much your post about Mother’s Day affected me. As soon as I read it, I sent it to my kids & husband, most of whom thought *I* wrote it (Older son, “Especially the part about wanting to go on a hike!”). I am notoriously horrible on Mother’s Day, compounded by the fact that sometimes, like this year, it’s also my birthday. “I MUST take advantage of every second of the one day that I can FORCE my family to do things with / for me!” It is clearly insane, even to me, but I’ve felt powerless to stop it.

    I did love your idea of exchanging my mind-set of jealous selfishness for the much healthier one of looking for opportunities to do good deeds and acts of kindness. I am not in your league of committing to one for every year of motherhood, but I did go on the lookout for one apiece in honor of each member of my immediate family (starting with waiting for a pedestrian who wasn’t even in a crosswalk, in honor of my uber-traffic-polite husband).

    Thanks for a really great solution to a problem that has plagued me for years. This year I was MUCH happier! My family thanks you tooo 🙂

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