• If you feel that your relationship with your mother is toxic or non-existent, Mother's Day can bring on envy and dissatisfaction

  • Therapist Wendy Bristow shares her advice

  • Relationships with parents and families often comes up in therapy – if this is something you need to talk about, find your therapist here

‘If you were a flower, Mum, I’d pick you.’  ‘Other people say they have the best Mum in the world. I KNOW I do!’

These are typical messages on cards for Mother’s Day. But what if the one you’d really like to send would say ‘Just this one day, Mum, try not to get drunk and ruin everything.’ Or ‘No one says they have the worst mother in the world. I suspect I might.’ Or even ‘Hello Mum, whoever you are – I’m sending this into the ether, hoping I’ll find you one day.’

And what if you dread the day from the other side of the story – because no one will send you a card, much as you’d love someone to.

Welcome to the difficult world of Mother’s Day envy. Just as single people can dread mid-February when the world celebrates coupledom, a lot of people are quietly struggling with the idea of venerating motherhood because their own experience is nothing like the perfect one suggested by the greeting cards and falls deeply short of good.

We live in a society where the archetypal self-sacrificing mother sits firmly on her pedestal and there’s a real taboo in questioning any mother’s love. But there are unloving mothers out there. In her book Mothers Who Can’t Love, US psychotherapist Susan Forward identified five types. As well as the narcissistic mother, she describes the overly enmeshed mother –  forever intruding into her children’s lives and preventing them growing up as independent adults; the control freak mother; mothers who need mothering themselves – including the alcoholic, drug-dependent and depressed; and mothers who neglect, betray, abuse and batter.

Sons and daughters of women who upend the archetype – who put their own needs before those of their children or are incapable of loving, healthy care and concern –  can have a hard time this Sunday and envy people whose relationship with mum seems far more straightforward. Would-be mothers who find themselves in the grip of difficult feelings when Mothering Sunday comes around include women who can’t or just didn’t have children or have lost a child – Mother’s Day highlights how there’ll be no card or flowers for them. Then there are women who did their best with their children yet know they won’t be seeing or hearing from them.

All these people can experience envy if their Facebook or Instagram feed fills with happy pictures of mums getting bouquets or breakfast in bed.

So what’s envy actually like? 

Psychoanalyst Melanie Klein was the doyenne of thinking about an emotion so painful and difficult that Chaucer called it the worst of the Seven Deadly Sins.

In everyday language the words ‘jealousy’ and ‘envy’ are often interchangeable. In both, you resent, grudge or feel loss, fear or sadness about what one person has. But Klein defined envy as having particular characteristics. Whereas jealousy involves three people and is concerned with love, attention or money you feel is due to you but appears to be going elsewhere; envy is a two-person thing. Klein’s genius contribution was to nail the sting in the envious tail – that it provokes a ‘spoiling response’. It’s hard to feel envious and celebrate what the other person has that you don’t. Far more likely is that, as The Dictionary of Kleinian Thought puts it, it ‘stimulates the impulse to take away and spoil the possession of another’.

Not all this ‘spoiling’ is conscious. If you find yourself thinking bitchy thoughts scrolling through those happy smiling pictures - ‘those look like crappy petrol-station flowers’, maybe, or ‘she’s looking old/fat/whatever’ - envy has you in its poisonous grasp. Klein would say the bitchiness – which effectively minimises or denigrates the good things the person you envy is getting - is a defence against envy’s sting.

We may not just think bitchy thoughts but put them into action. A less-favoured child whose sibling has always been ‘Mummy’s boy’ might ‘accidentally’ spill red wine over his brother’s card – Klein would say that wasn’t an accident. Turning up massively late or spoiling mother’s day in some other way, even ‘forgetting’ it altogether, might be acting envy out.

The reason it so often operates unconsciously is that envy is a hugely painful thing to admit to, even to yourself. The dark impulses and thoughts it stirs can make us judge ourselves harshly thus whipping up a toxic spiral of painful emotions. Conscious or not, it can eat you up inside, ruin your mood and spoil your own day. If you feel yourself ‘eaten up’ by envy, if you often find yourself doing what’s called ‘compare and despair’; a counsellor or therapist could help you break envy’s painful hold.

Thankfully Klein offered an antidote: gratitude. She identified it as envy’s antithesis in a seminal 1957 paper and since then a host of psychologists and researchers have agreed that gratitude is a positive force generating a host of helpful effects from greater happiness to a better night’s sleep.

It could help right now to ask yourself ‘what can I be grateful for this Mother’s Day’? Perhaps there are aspects of your own mothering to be thankful for – did she feed you? Clothe you? If not perhaps you found other mother (or father) figures to be grateful for instead. If you’re feeling sad and envious about your own experiences of trying to be a parent, it might help to think about what you could be grateful for in your situation. When envy takes a hold on us it’s easy to see the world in black and white terms, as all bad (in our situation) and all good (elsewhere). Actively practicing gratitude helps get a balancing sense of perspective.

One way to truly super-size gratitude’s positive effect is to direct it at yourself. When we feel bad about something we’re going through it can be a real challenge to give yourself credit for the struggle. But why not give yourself your own Mother’s Day treat – flowers, a lovely meal, even a card – to celebrate the fact you’ve learnt or are learning to nurture yourself.

To paraphrase one of those cheesy cards mothers receive this Sunday, if you were a flower, what would you pick to water yourself with today?

Wendy Bristow is a verified welldoing.org therapist in Central London and online

Further reading

Growing up with a narcissistic mother

I'm a mother, but Mother's Day isn't for me

Dear Therapist..."I can't stand Mother's Day"

Why are mother-daughter relationships so complex?

This Mother's Day, be the person you needed when you were younger