There's no good Mother's Day card for a not-good mother

My mother isn't in my life, but I can't forget her on Mother's Day

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published May 7, 2018 7:00PM (EDT)


It's my little annual Mother's Day tradition. I stand in the greeting card aisle, surrounded by paper images of flowers and butterflies. I pick up one card after another, shake my head and put them back. They don't make great cards for not-great moms.

My mother and I haven't had a conversation in almost two years. She has seen me — and her two grandchildren — only once in the past dozen years, at a family funeral. She didn't stay long. In those 12 years, I've published two books, had serious cancer twice and watched my firstborn spend a week in the ICU. I've passed the milestones of holidays and birthdays and school plays. My mother lives an hour away. She doesn't answer her phone.

I typically send her three communications a year, unless there's an emergency — for Christmas, her birthday and Mother's Day. Mother's Day is the hardest. There are lots of safe cards for the other two celebrations — humorous ones, ones that don't assume intimacy. Mother's Day cards are different. Because they're for your mother, the person who ostensibly raised you and took care of you and loves you unconditionally. But those "You've taught me so much by your beautiful example" and "When a daughter grows up feeling as cherished as I did, she's bound to love her mom with all her heart" sentiments just feel a little . . . off for me, you know?

My mom's own track record with cards isn't the best. For my birthday last year, I got a nautical-themed card "Wishing you the very best" and a $20 bill. It was signed, "Mom. Hi." For my daughters' shared birthday in January, they got a Christmas card with "Merry Christmas" crossed out and "Happy Birthday" written underneath. I never get a card for Mother's Day, so at least it's not like I need concern myself with matching her tone this time of year. Yet here I am, scouring the Hallmark racks for something like a gesture anyway.

The practice of buying a thing made of paper, signing your name to it, sealing it in an envelope, putting a stamp on it and dropping it down an actual mailbox feels insanely old-fashioned — which is probably why people still value it. Plenty of us don't even make the effort to talk on the phone any more, or write out words in a text when a smiley face or a heart will do. Any communication that takes more than five seconds feels like a declaration of devotion. When, last week, a card with no other purpose except that it was funny arrived for me from a friend, I practically wept with gratitude.

Writer/illustrator Emily McDowell calls cards "the most special way to communicate." She notes, "We have 57,000 ways to communicate with each other, but they're all electronic. They're ephemeral. You don't keep a text on your refrigerator. Greeting cards have stood the test of time because they're something people can hold on to and save. You have someone's handwriting in it. Nobody's typed anything."

"You used to get a lot of stuff in the mail," she adds. "People sent letters all the time, so your mail was something to look forward to. Letters have kind of gone away, so you only get bills and junk mail and stuff you don't want in your mailbox. Getting a card in the mail is like, 'Oh my God, a good thing!'"

Despite how cherished cards are, the supposed imminent death of their industry has become a perennial subject of retail speculation. In 2015, Hallmark ominously began shutting down its Connecticut distribution center and announced it was cutting 570 jobs. A former Hallmark designer and marketer told NPR at the time, "The personal expressions industry is facing something, kind of like climate change shift." Yet retailers like the Chicago-based Paper Source have managed to stay afloat — and expand — by offering cute, millennial-friendly merchandise and craft-making classes along with what it describes as "that quirky card, chic personalized stationery, elegant invitations, and the beautifully wrapped gift that you are looking for." People still want to get mail.

This holiday, as I was once again feeling stumped for the appropriately neutral message of "It's Mother's day and you are, technically, my mother" to send, I decided to consult Emily. As the creator of Emily McDowell Studio, she knows that often in life, there is no good card. That's why she co-wrote a book called "There Is No Good Card for This: What to Say and Do When Life Is Scary, Awful, and Unfair to People You Love."

Three years ago, McDowell earned international attention when she created a line of "empathy cards" to offer, with heart and humor, supportive messages for people going through grief, illness, infertility and more. Sample sentiment: "If this is God's plan, God is a terrible planner." On the Mother's Day section of her site, currently, one can purchase witty and sweet messages for moms and "honorary moms," as well as her all-purpose classic, "I know this day really sucks for you."

When I asked her recently what the hell kind of card to get my less-than-World's-Greatest-mother, McDowell said, "[That] is actually the perfect use for the blank card with the flower on it. If you have a relationship that is in name only, where you have a mom or a dad and you are sending the card out of familial holiday obligation, the basic 'Happy Mother's Day, Happy Father's Day' is a benign message that checks the box, I think rather than trying in a store to find a card that is appropriate to send that person."

McDowell's thriving business, meanwhile, is a resource for, as she puts it, "the casualties of shitty people: the shitty adjacent people." She says, "We make a lot of cards for non-traditional parent child relationships. But they are less for what to send your shitty mom and more about what to send your friend who has a shitty mom and hates Mother's Day because they feel left out."

She acknowledges that this holiday is so tough for so many. "It's not just people who had a shitty mom," she says, "but people who had miscarriages or people who want to get pregnant and can't and have any kind of bad association and get triggered by the mother-child celebration. We focus on supporting each other, and recognizing the reality of what we're going through that may not be reflected in greeting card land."

The distance between my own mother and me grows wider with every passing marker of the year. I no longer send her gifts or attempt to call her, and I recently told my teenage daughters they shouldn't feel obliged to send her cards if they don't want to. When mom's birthday rolled around this winter, I toyed with the notion of ignoring it altogether. I was in throes of a deeply painful period in my life, and her conspicuous absence from it felt uniquely cruel.

It took a few days to make up my mind. I had to get to the place where I didn't want to do something purely out of guilt or tradition. But I didn't want to not do something, out of spite or hurt feelings, either. So I reached down deep for the love I still carry for her, the gratitude for the love she has given me and for the happy memories that nothing can ever erase. I sought to do something thoughtful, with no expectation of reciprocity. That's what a card is supposed to do. It was an exceptionally cold day. I had just come out of the hospital, where my daughter had been fitted with a heart monitor. I went to the drugstore and found a card that said, "Happy birthday, Mom" on the front. I wrote "I love you" inside.

And now, because they still don't make cards that say, "You probably did your best, given your limited emotional range" or "I turned out OK anyway," this weekend I got my mom a card that reads, "Wishing you every special thing Mother's Day can bring." I don't know what those special things would be, but I wish them for her anyway.

I won't include my older daughter's yearbook photo or the image of her sister singing at Le Chat Noir in Paris. I feel like it would seem like I'm asking my mom for something, and I'm done asking. Instead I'll just sign my name. The name she gave me. The name that's half hers. In two days, it'll travel to her mailbox and into her house. She'll recognize the return address on the envelope. She'll open it and see the butterflies on the paper. She'll read a message from a daughter she no longer knows. And then maybe she'll put it on her refrigerator.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Emily Mcdowell Empathy Cards Greeting Cards Mother's Day There Is No Good Card For This