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  • Janyne McConnaughey, PhD

Picking Roses and Cards

When I was a little girl, every Mother’s Day, my mother would go outside and pick a rose for each of us. She would choose red for me and white for her. I thought the white roses were the prettiest, but I understood it meant my mother was alive and hers was not. My grandmother had died when my mother was in her early 20’s so I never met her. I wondered about her. I wondered if she was like my mother.

As I grew up, the tradition of the roses faded from our lives. Instead of roses, I had to learn to pick cards. I would set aside a significant amount of time to carefully pick a Mother’s Day card. First, I would go to the beautiful cards. I would have enjoyed choosing one of those because they reminded me of the roses, but once I read the lovely words inside, I would put the cards back and chose a humorous card instead. Picking a card was a significant undertaking because I believed it was important to honor my mother while remaining true to myself.

One Mother’s Day when I was in my 40’s, she asked me, “Why do you always buy me cards like this and not beautiful cards?” Honestly, some questions should never be asked, but I played the game, “Well, you know my sense of humor. I like funny cards.” Her answer was, “Well, I don’t.” Yes, I understood she didn’t because she really had no sense of humor.

After that conversation, I moved on to the generic but beautiful cards. I tried to remember the good things about her: she was a wonderful cook, she always made sure our physical needs were met, she kept a lovely home, she had completed a college degree and career as a teacher, she was an intelligent consumer of information, she worked tirelessly at every task, she was always supportive of my dad’s ministries, and she was tenacious. There really was a lot of good and because I had suppressed most of our painful interactions, I was never completely sure why picking a card was so difficult. Sometimes it took me weeks and several stores to find a beautiful card—one that said absolutely nothing.

As others have begun to share their stories with me, I realize I am not alone in this dilemma. I remember standing in the card aisle sighing and hearing other people sighing around me. Then I would gather my strength and tell myself, “Well, Janyne you aren’t a perfect mother either so you just need to pick a card.”

If we are honest, our children all have memories of things we did that created pain we would like them to forget. Our most important gift to our children might be to admit it. There is no such thing as a perfect mother. The cards are more easily chosen if our good moments outweigh our not so positive moments in mothering. When the story is unbalanced and we accept our own failings in honest ways, sometimes it creates a bridge. I hear stories of mothers and daughters meeting on the bridge of healing—but not often enough. Both sides have to be willing to walk onto the bridge.

The most tragic stories are those of complete motherhood failure. Mother’s Day is simply painful in those cases. I never put my mother in that category. I still don’t, but as a result of fully knowing my story, I understand why it was so difficult to pick a card. My mother’s inability to emotionally deal with my sexual abuse at three had profound ramifications. It took many months of therapy to understand my deep-seated fear of abandonment. While she never abdicated her role as a mother, she did emotionally abandon me—sometimes in very psychologically cruel ways.

As I wrote that last sentence, I felt the outcry for the need to forgive. Forgiveness is our ‘go to’ when others share their sad, sometimes tragic stories. We want to ask, “Have you forgiven?” We need each other to forgive. It is the right thing to do. If the other person forgives then it doesn’t stir our own fragile places where we have worked very hard to forgive. If we have truly found healing from our wounds, we do not feel compelled to press others toward forgiving. We understand forgiveness is not a decision; it is a place of deep healing.

In the midst of my healing journey, my husband bought me a large bouquet of white roses for Mother’s Day. He knew nothing of the white rose tradition. My small girl self was both happy and terrified by the vase of flowers. It wasn’t just one white rose, it was a dozen. I realize now that as a child, I wanted the white rose for many reasons beyond its beauty. On the day I received the bouquet of white roses, I knew my mother who had died four years earlier was very much alive in my psyche. There weren’t enough white roses in the world to change this painful truth.

While the dilemma of choosing a card no longer haunted me on a yearly basis, the need to heal was still very real. The pressure was to forgive and move on, which sounded more like suppression than true forgiveness. The real need was to sit down in the middle of my story, accept its truth, accept the pain, and heal. In order to do this, I had to come to terms with the probability that my mother had a story, which I will never know.

Those of us who have been emotionally damaged by our mother’s stories must understand their inability to access the help they needed. Whether it was the cultural time period, the stigma against accessing therapy, or their own shame and fear, they were trapped in their pain. My mother experienced many emotional (nervous) breakdowns over the course of her life. Her mind and body were crying out for help, but ‘nerve pills’ were the only help she ever received. I don’t believe the person God created her to be would have been so cruel to me. It wasn’t who she was; it was what happened to her. She made some choices out of her pain for which she is responsible, but it wasn’t who she was.

This blog is what forgiveness looks like. It looks like healing. It looks like change. It looks like breaking generational patterns. There is absolutely nothing I can ever do to change the story she wrote as my mother. I honored her always and telling our story in order to help others is my path to redeeming good out of tragedy. I truly believe she was healed in death and is glad I have found healing while still alive.

This year, for Mother’s Day, I went to an imaginary store with a rack of cards labeled: From Damaged Children. I chose the one with a beautiful white rose on the front. Inside it said,

I know you found healing in death,

I hope one day to know who you truly were,

I hope you will also know me.

For now, I will use the strength and tenacity you gave

To tell all mothers to heal their stories,

To heal and be emotionally present for their children,

So they can choose beautiful cards like you always desired.

I hope out of our healing in death and life,

We can help those who come behind us.

The story my mother and I share could have been different. It would have required her generation to not hide their stories, to be vulnerable about their pain, to have had access to and sought psychological healing. Before I leave this earth, my desire is to encourage the hurting to no longer suppress their stories and pain, but to seek healing. There is hope for writing a different ending to our stories. Children of all ages should not suffer the shame and confusion of wanting to wear the white rose.

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