Mother's Day can bring dread, and these companies are catching on

Mother's Day was already complicated for a lot of reasons, from grief to estrangement to infertility, not to mention the extra strain of the pandemic. Now, a slew of companies are recognizing the sting that can come with a Mother's Day mention, and they're giving customers the chance to opt out.

After 'a heavy year,' there's growing recognition that grief and other pains can make Mother's Day complicated

The vision of Mother's Day promoted in ads, or this stock photography, is not the reality for everyone. This year, many companies are letting customers opt out of marketing that may sting. (Studio Romantic/Shutterstock)

For weeks leading up to this weekend, the ads have been plastered over social feeds and email inboxes: "What are you getting Mom?" asks one. "Make her day!" proclaims another. And, the inevitable pun: "Tell her 'thanks a brunch.'" 

It all falls flat for Carina Stone, a mother of three young children on Salt Spring Island, B.C.

"The 'Happy Mother's Day' thing, it doesn't apply to me," said Stone, 37, whose children are three, five and eight years old. "It's not the same when that other partner is not around."

Stone's husband died from fentanyl poisoning when they were expecting their third child, nearly four years ago. Amid that grief, the pandemic snatched away in-home supports she had in place for her older child with autism.

While in theory, a day to appreciate mothers might sound good, Stone finds it "haunting."

"It feels like a sore reminder of what reality is actually like right now," she said.

"One day where the focus is on the needs of a parent just underscores how those needs are unmet most of the time."

Carina Stone, 37, surrounded by her three children: Dolphin, 8, Hudson, 5 and Ezra, 3. Since her husband died, she finds Mother's Day haunting, not happy, and a reminder of the difficulties she faces as a parent, especially during the pandemic. (Submitted by Carina Stone)

The fact is, Mother's Day can be complicated for a lot of reasons, from grief to estrangement to infertility. For mothers themselves, research shows that the COVID-19 pandemic has made a tough job even harder

But there's also a new signal that those who dread Mother's Day aren't alone. A slew of companies — from global brands such as Etsy and Pandora jewelry to smaller Canadian firms, such as Posterjack and Fable — are giving customers the chance to opt out of Mother's Day marketing.

A heavy year

The trend appears to have started across the pond, where even before the pandemic a United Kingdom MP who had lost his mom spoke in the House of Commons about why marketers should offer customers a way out of cheery Mother's Day emails that can trigger grief.

Several big U.K. companies heeded that call this year in the run-up to Mother's Day there, which fell on March 14. A number of North American retailers followed suit.

Etsy, an online marketplace for handmade and vintage items, was among the early adopters.

"After such a heavy year, the team agreed that this Mother's Day felt especially emotional," said Etsy's chief marketing officer, Ryan Scott, in an email. 

In late March, Etsy asked customers for the first time if they wanted to avoid Mother's Day emails, and Scott said the response was "overwhelmingly positive." 

"Our buyers seem to have had a very emotional response to the opt-out campaign — many have said that it made them cry."

At Posterjack, a photo printing company based in Etobicoke, Ont., the idea came up in a team brainstorming session for what's normally a busy season filled with promotions and a flurry of personalized gifts.

"With everything that's going on this year, the suffering and the hardships, I think we're just more attuned to trying to be polite," said president Tim Faught. 

It took a day or two for the company to figure out the technical side — how to rig the email software to let people opt out of some emails and not others. Then they sent the message to customers.

Posterjack president Tim Faught on the floor of the photo printing company's Etobicoke, Ont., headquarters. He said Posterjack invited customers to opt out of Mother's Day emails because it felt like a sensitive approach after such a rough year. The companys plan to do the same for Father's Day (Submitted by Tim Faught)

Some 880 people hit the "opt out here" button, said Faught, with a lot of positive feedback.

"People just saying, 'Thank you so much for that. Mother's Day is a very tough time,'" he said, reading over customer emails.

Both Etsy and Posterjack say they'll do the same for Father's Day, and Faught hopes it catches on.

"I feel like even though we've been separated and apart from people, there is just maybe a movement toward a more human understanding and empathizing with people that's bubbling up."

The moms are not okay

While grief didn't begin with COVID-19, there is something to the idea that the broadly felt hardship of the pandemic may be making it easier for people to share, said Dr. Nicole Racine, a clinical psychologist and researcher at the University of Calgary.

For mothers in particular, a number of studies — including one led by Racine, published this spring in The Lancet Psychiatry — have documented increases in stress and anxiety during the pandemic that are tied to lost income, a lack of child care, and difficulties balancing work and kids home from school.

Clinical psychologist Nicole Racine offers strategies to help if Mother's Day is a difficult time, including acknowledging how you feel and planning an activity that will fill your cup. (Submitted by Nicole Racine)

"Stress has really increased for families generally, but especially for mothers," she said.

Racine, who also has a two-year old daughter, noted that research has shown they've taken on the lion's share of filling the gaps created by the pandemic.

In the Lancet Psychiatry study, Racine and colleagues surveyed more than 1,000 women from Calgary who were already part of a cohort of mothers that researchers had followed since 2008. They asked about symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Pre-pandemic, less than 20 per cent of those mothers were showing clinically significant depression and anxiety, but during the pandemic, Racine said that has spiked to well above 30 per cent.

"What we see is this really big jump in maternal mental health symptoms," she said.

Against that backdrop, Racine said it's no wonder that happy advertisements or holiday cards can clash with someone's lived reality.

"We notice the inconsistency because what these ads or cards are telling us is, this is how you should be feeling," she said.

"It makes us question … why don't I feel good about it? Why am I reading the card that says 'show her you really care this Mother's Day' and feeling immense resentment?" 

A day to celebrate mothers can be good, but what many really need, as the Lancet paper notes, is financial stability and access to affordable child care — not flowers or brunch, Racine said.

On Mother's Day, Stone said she tries to keep pressure and expectations low, which might include a walk in the woods. (Submitted by Carina Stone)

Strategies if the day is hard

If Mother's Day is tough for you, either from grief, overwhelm or another reason, you're not alone. Psychologists have some advice to cope.

For starters, Racine said it can help to acknowledge it isn't easy, whether that's alerting others in your life who may offer support, or even just admitting it to yourself.

"Sometimes naming our emotions can help tame them," she said.

Some other tips:

  • Plan something to engage in that will bring you joy or help you feel well, whether that's a walk in a favourite place or safely seeing someone you care about. Racine has a "sanity check" run planned with friends.
  • Avoid scrolling social media if Happy Mother's Day posts are likely to get you down.
  • Doing something nice for another person can make you feel better and give a sense of purpose.

As for Stone, she has support from a new partner and co-parent, and often marks the day with post about how she feels — "it's a hard day and it isn't just a happy day." No big pressure or expectations; a hike in the woods may be the main event.

But she does want some acknowledgement from her children, even if, like many mothers of young kids, making it happen is partly on her.

"I'm really clear to spell that out, and remind," she said. "Amid everything else I feel about Mother's Day, I still want a card from my kids."

WATCH | A 1960s debate over the merits of Mother's Day:

Mother's Day in Canada

4 years ago
Duration 7:58
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