In many places around the world, this weekend is Mother’s Day.
Mother’s Day can bring up a mix of many feelings – gratitude, joy, forgiveness, appreciation, or grief. There may be anger or sadness about a present or past relationship with a mother or mother figure. You may feel the frustration or pain of unmet expectations.
No matter your relationship with your mother, in the days surrounding the holiday, you may notice your attention has turned towards this idea of ‘mother.’
You may feel ‘mother hunger:’ a longing for things that we typically acquaint with mothering – warmth, security, nurturance, attunement, caring, or comfort.
Mother hunger and the longing for food
Mother hunger can easily be transferred to food, where food becomes a mother substitute– a place where you look to be filled, to be seen, or to receive the gifts of nurturing, caring, warmth, and mattering.
This is one reason why Mother’s Day can be a trigger to overeat, binge, or to seek out excessive comfort foods.
Of course, we can displace ‘mother hunger’ onto many other things besides food – shopping, status, beauty, wealth, self perfection and self improvement, or the pursuit of a body or weight ideal are common ones.
On some level, there’s a hope that these things will produce satiation and satisfaction: a place of fulfillment, nourishment and psychological rest. There is a hope for approval, or comfort, or relaxation.
None of these things – including overeating, overindulging in comfort foods, or overdoing sugar and sweets – create the satisfaction or nourishment that we imagine them to. Intellectually, we know that a bag of Doritos or a gallon of ice cream doesn’t really satiate us, or give us what we’re yearning for.
But you may find yourself hopelessly attracted to them anyway! You may not know what to do instead.
Growth and healing are possible, and you can outgrow a reliance on food as a substitute mother. It is possible to feel more ease, joy, connection, and confidence in your relationship with food this Mother’s Day.
Here are 4 things that can help:
1. Deepen connection and meaning
We all long for meaning, connection, soul, and purpose. I notice a strong correlation between how rushed, hurried or present I am with the food that I eat and how satiated I feel by it. My belly may be filled by a hearty meal, but something else feels missing when I eat it mindlessly or without a feeling of appreciation.
Connecting with your food – feeling appreciation for the many hands that are connected to your food and feeling appreciation for the Earth that nurtures you – is a powerful antidote to disconnection or meaningless. It elevates eating to something precious, and deeply nourishing.
Likewise, you can connect more deeply to those you hold dear. You can do this whether or not your loved ones are physically with you.
A simple way to do this is to to use food as a vehicle for connection. Cook a dish that your ancestors ate, or one that a mother, grandmother, aunt, older sister, foster mother, adoptive mother, or mother figure cooked for you. Deepen your connection to them through the food, and through food rituals.
The past few nights, I’ve been longing for my maternal line. So I’ve been cooking Italian meals, a large part of my maternal heritage. By doing so, my family is with me, surrounding me at my table, even though they are not physically present. By cooking their food, I hold them close.
You can also connect by eating with others. If you tend to eat alone, eat with a companion, a word that literally means “with bread.” Share a meal. Break bread with another.
2. Grieve and play
If feelings of sadness or anger arise around Mother’s Day, give yourself the support to grieve. You may be missing an absent mother, grieving the recent death of a mother, or walking alongside a mother in her last stages. You may be grieving the loss of the mother that you wish you’d had.
Allowing ourselves to feel all the vulnerable emotions that arise around Mother’s Day is a gift to our humanity and to the tender experience of being human.
As one of my mentors, developmental psychologist Dr. Gordon Neufeld says, “Don’t be afraid of the holes. It’s where the sadness is supposed to go.” Make room for the sadness, and the emptiness.
On the other side of grief is resilience, where we “are changed by what we can’t change.” In my experience, this resilience nurtures a tenderized, softer, more compassionate heart alongside it, where we feel more openness, understanding, and empathy towards our fellow human beings.
On the other side of the emotional spectrum, bring play into your relationship with food. You can experiment with new textures, tastes, and recipes. Recreate a favorite childhood dish. Make the holiday lighthearted.
You can also bring in play by softening the expectations you have for yourself about how well you ‘eat.’ Whenever students of mine are feeling anxious about bingeing or overeating on a holiday, and are feeling pressured to make sure they ‘get it right,’ I invite them to make the day more playful. Soften the attachment to outcome or ‘doing it right.’
Look at the day as an opportunity to relate, not an opportunity to perform to a standard or a place where you’re being measured, graded or evaluated. This approach feels so much better to the heart, and paradoxically, lowers the stress that excacerbates overeating.
3. Honor the mother hunger
Because Mother’s Day can bring up so many uncomfortable feelings, it’s easy to see it as an enemy. Try shifting your perspective. What if these feelings – and the holiday that brings them to the fore – is something helpful, trying to bring your attention to something?
What is mother hunger is a helpful, ‘ensouled messenger,’ and is merely asking for your attention, and care?
It’s possible that some of the hunger that you’re feeling is not just your ‘own,’ but the cry of the beloved, the hunger the mother has for you.
You can honor this mother hunger in several ways.
First, use Mother’s Day as an opportunity to honor and cherish all the ways that you’ve been mothered, and have been on the receiving end of love. I understand this can be difficult if you had a challenging or extremely painful relationship with your own mother, a grandmother, or aunt. I would invite you, then, to widen the circle to include all the mothers that have crossed your path.
Second, if the mother is calling you, perhaps your own mothering presence and capacity is being asked for.
You can honor your mothering capacity by caring for a plant, garden, animal, or a place in nature that has meaning for you; offering the young, the old, the marginalized or the abandoned your time and attention; using your hands to create something of nourishment – knit, sew, sing, create something, cook a hearty meal or a pot of soup, arrange flowers in a vase, beautify a room.
Third, the mother may be hungering to bless you . This is an opportunity for you to receive the bounty of mothering and nourishment.
Say yes to help, support, and care. Take it in when someone offers you a compliment or lends you a hand, when Nature offers a glorious sunset, or when someone offers to help, even when it’s something as simple as a door being held in your honor or an invitation to load your groceries in your car. Be open to the ways love longs to support you and remind you that you are not alone.
4. Foster mattering
Interestingly, ‘mother’ and ‘matter’ arise from the same root, mater. Mothering conveys a sense of mattering, a feeling of inherent worth and value, and a feeling of reverence.
I invite you to offer the things you love – your loved ones, your kin, your friends, your neighborhood, your community, the earth, yourself – reverence today.
Create an altar. Stop and admire a sunset or the trees that inhabit the part of the world where you call home. Offer mothering towards your own self – paint your nails, dress yourself beautifully, make yourself a new piece of jewelry, soak your feet, or give yourself a long bath.
Survey the course of your life and see if you can feel a mother’s pride, gentleness and unconditional love towards the arc of your story. A new friend of mine, Nicole, articulated this beautifully. When she was talking about her teenage years – times that can be filled with all kinds of learning experiences! – she shared this tender phrase: “I love and respect the girl that I was.”
Outgrowing a dependence on food
You can thrive in your relationship with food, and rest in a deeper sense of connection to the food that you eat and the body that you inhabit. It’s possible to outgrow frustrating behaviors like overeating and binge eating. You don’t have to feel trapped in feelings of worry, unease or anxiety about food.
Play with these ideas in your own life when you feel a hunger for mothering, nurturing, care or connection, and when you seek out food as the solution to those innate needs. See if they lead you closer to the nourishing relationship with food that you long for.
Want support and hands on help?
If this article speaks to you and your struggles with food, and you’d like more support, you may be interested in my class, When Food is Your Mother.
Each fall and spring, I teach When Food is Your Mother to an international group. In this class, you’ll learn how to outgrow an emotional bond with food and a reliance on food as a ‘substitute mother.’ You’ll learn about the developmental roots of an emotional bond with food and how to replace this bond with a deeper, more nourishing bond with yourself, others and Life.
Sign up for the waiting list here if you’d like to be notified when the next class opens for registration.