Here’s the situation: Your sister wants to celebrate Mother’s Day with your mom. She claims that your mom, who is quite old, has been in quarantine for six weeks and is desperate to be around people she loves on her day. But your sister has also been going to the grocery store and seeing a few friends. She’s been mindful of the quarantine, but she’s been doing it her way, which means there’s a fair amount of risk involved if she decides to spend this Mother’s Day in the same space as your elderly mother.
Alternatively, you’re of the mindset that this is no time to break the quarantine and go visit your mom on Mother’s Day, which is why you don’t think your sister should go, either. You understand that it’s not ideal for your very old mother to be spending Mother’s Day alone, but this is a small sacrifice for the greater good, not to mention your mom’s health. As the day approaches, the text messages and phone calls between you and your sibling have evolved from touchy tête-à-têtes to outright character assassinations. You can’t even send a text without wondering if it could spiral into an exclamation-point-riddled texting deathmatch.
And as the day of Mothers gets closer and closer, your anxiety over not being able to speak to your sibling about what’s best for your mom has made Mother’s Day that much more stressful than it already is.
If this sounds like you, you’re not alone. According to Sarah English Wallace, an L.A.-based professional family mediator and the owner of Modern Mediation, one way people are dealing with uncertainty is by overspending to make up for their ambivalence about what’s right and wrong practice for Mother’s Day. “Naturally, a lot of people want to make it a celebration, but there’s also an acknowledgment that it’s not the safest environment,” she says.
So how do you balance those two and come to an agreement with your sibling that best serves your mom?
“What’s interesting about your question is that it raises the issue of how families make decisions,” says Wallace. “One thing is, a lot of times, it’s easy for families to fall into feeling pressured to feel the same way about a given topic, and the desire for harmony and feeling like a family, especially when it comes to something for a loved one.”
Wallace says that while in this case, the desired harmony is what to do for Mother’s Day, it applies to a variety of different family decisions. “It could be, what do we do about putting a family member in assisted living?” she says. “It could be anything that brings up feelings of obligation and will be attached a lot of meaning to — if I don’t or I do, what does it say about me and how much I feel toward this person? How much of a family member am I? And am I a team player? So in these sorts of questions, what makes it difficult is that you’re not just deciding, how do I feel about it, what am I comfortable with?”
For that reason, Wallace suggests taking into consideration the fact that Mother’s Day isn’t yours or your sibling’s day. It’s why she thinks it’s probably good to involve your mother in the conversation, because parents are all across the spectrum on this issue. “There’s some who would be like, ‘I’m perfectly fine. I’m going out. I’m getting my hair done,’” she says. “There’s just some sense of defiance that ‘I’ve been through life and I’m not going to let this stop me.’ That’s on one side of the spectrum. Then there are parents who feel very vulnerable and just don’t want to risk it. But listening to the person whose day it is and taking cues from them can give you a good metric of where you start.”
Wallace also insists that your discussion between you and your sibling(s) shouldn’t end up turning into a power struggle. “If you’re doing all the work to support your mom, I understand why you would feel like you get to make the ultimate call,” she says. But she points out that leaving out your other siblings, especially those who may not live in the same city, can lead to unnecessary family conflict because again, not everybody has to arrive at the same place with regard to how best to take care of your mom on Mother’s Day.
“If the family unit is becoming a source for hard feelings, it’s not serving its purpose,” she says. “That’s why, even if in the short-term it may seem like the easiest way to make the decision is based on a hierarchy — which is how we do it in parent-child relationships — when we transfer that over to the adult children making decisions with older parents or elderly parents, it leaves people out. It doesn’t promote the ultimate goal, which is some level of tolerance and harmony.”
Which is why, again, Wallace’s prescription for this situation is to simply consult with the person you’re celebrating. “If it’s really about, what do we as a family think is best for this person, I’d ultimately take the cue from the person, because if the mother feels comfortable and actively wants this, then who are you to say no?”