Last updated on March 21, 2022
Amidst yesterday’s many saccharine mother shout-outs and articles, seeing “Why I hate Mother’s Day” pop up in my Twitter feed was a breath of fresh air. Hating Mother’s Day? Of course I clicked. On a day that wallows in the sappiest of mother-cliche (If a child doesn’t pen an ode to mother’s food, does that mother truly exist?), a little perspective is in order. Anne Lamott’s Salon article argues that Mother’s Day reinforces the supposed superiority of mothers over the childless, but unfortunately, it misses the mark. To Lamott’s credit, she’s a mother herself, so this isn’t just sour grapes talking.
The illusion is that mothers are automatically happier, more fulfilled and complete. But the craziest, grimmest people this Sunday will be the mothers themselves, stuck herding their own mothers and weeping children and husbands’ mothers into seats at restaurants. These mothers do not want a box of chocolate. These mothers are on a diet. –Anne Lamott
Yes, Lamott makes some great points about the forced celebratory nature of the day, but I can’t get behind her sentiment that Mother’s Day is about the superiority of mothers over non-mothers. (Full disclosure here—this is my first Mother’s Day as a mom, a fact whose complete strangeness I’m still mulling). She rightly points out that the exalted status granted on motherhood is false—motherhood as the ultimate female fulfillment is, to be blunt, complete bullshit. But I think that’s where Lamott misses an opportunity for genuine analysis of mothering in our culture. Because that idealized pedestal, and its endless odes to Mother Dear and her cooking, obscures the realities for many mothers. Let’s see — how about the loss of income, of professional opportunities, of social stature? (I’ve been surprised at the number of people who now have trouble talking to me about anything beyond “How’s being a mother?” as if I no longer have opinions, work to do or a general interest in the world around me.)
More evidence, you ask? The derogatory tone of the New York Times towards that monstrosity, the mommyblogger, and the ensuing fracas — another great opportunity for insightful analysis lost to mud-slinging and finger-pointing. Pop quiz: how many of you, if you’re moms who blog, are willing to call yourself a mommyblogger, even if the term is technically accurate? Or how about the general hate-on for the stroller mafia? The frequent tossing around of terms like breeder to describe people who’ve, oh shock, just done what humans have, by and large, always done, including our own moms. Or, the pile-on over octomom, breeder-extraordinaire. Just this fall, Salon published an article titled “Everybody hates mommy.” Maybe Lamott didn’t get the memo.
If anything, Lamott’s assertion that Mother’s Day is about the superiority of mothers reinforces just how confused our culture is about motherhood. We are endlessly stumbling over ourselves arguing about who is superior to whom. The assumption that if someone does something differently from us, and talks about it publicly, they are automatically asserting their superiority is a trend that’s not limited to parenting. Mother’s Day doesn’t exist in a vacuum. If Lamott feels that it’s an opportunity to divide and judge, that’s because something (ahem, see links above) in the wider culture is reinforcing that hierarchy. Because otherwise, we would be able to view Mother’s Day as simply a chance to appreciate one’s own mother. (To take this thinking to its logical extension, why don’t we cancel Christmas too? And Easter? And, and, and…)
But instead of examining the wider culture around motherhood, or finding ways to reclaim the holiday and give it a layer of honesty, Mother’s Day critiques often turn to the ultimate “It’s just not fair” whine — that just because some of us have shitty mothers, or no longer have mothers, the rest of us should just shut it. Unfortunately, there will never be a day, a holiday, an event that can be all things to all people. Mother’s Day absolutely white-washes the meanings of motherhood, but demanding that a celebration include every permutation of every person’s experience falls apart at some point. It’s really a demand to eliminate all difference and all nuance in life. I’m not trying to be crass and insensitive to people whose mothers have passed away, or those whose mothers simply failed at the job. But I’m not convinced that the pain caused by these situations means that we should stop appreciating mothers altogether.
Ultimately, the problem here isn’t the holiday or the sentiment. It’s the commercialization and Hallmark co-opting thereof — not unlike what’s happened to Women’s Day, a day most of us never heard of until social media came along. I have never had a problem calling up my mother and wishing her a happy mother’s day. And I say this as someone who has a tumultuous relationship with said parent. The reasons to rage against the dichotomies we set up around motherhood are plentiful—they just don’t seem to have much to do with the holiday itself. It’s too bad Lamott didn’t think of something a little more radical, like changing the meaning of the day. Reclaim Mother’s Day and all that. The idea originated as a protest against the horrors of the Civil War — if anything, it was about women’s empowerment (and at that time, most women past a certain age were mothers) and voice, not so much about flowers and cards. That’s right, Mother’s Day was for activists. Now there’s a radical thought.
What we really should have been reading yesterday is Ruth Rosen, professor of history at UC Davis, who writes:
The women who conceived Mother’s Day would be bewildered by the ubiquitous ads that hound us to find that “perfect gift for Mom.” They would expect women to be marching in the streets, not eating with their families in restaurants. This is because Mother’s Day began as a holiday that commemorated women’s public activism, not as a celebration of a mother’s devotion to her family… Many middle-class women in the 19th century believed that they bore a special responsibility as actual or potential mothers to care for the casualties of society and to turn America into a more civilized nation… Americans may revere the idea of motherhood and love their own mothers, but not all mothers. Poor, unemployed mothers may enjoy flowers, but they also need child care, job training, health care, a higher minimum wage and paid parental leave. Working mothers may enjoy breakfast in bed, but they also need the kind of governmental assistance provided by every other industrialized society. With a little imagination, we could restore Mother’s Day as a holiday that celebrates women’s political engagement in society.
Now that’s a Mother’s Day we could all get behind.