Hating Mother’s Day is as damaging as sentimentalizing it

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 octomombreeder-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.

6 thoughts on “Hating Mother’s Day is as damaging as sentimentalizing it”

  1. It’s so weird to see this and to have read yesterday on Bitch Magazine’s blog (http://bitchmagazine.org/post/mothers-day-is-for-feminists) this new realization about Julia Ward Howe and her founding of Mother’s Day. I’ve been a mother for almost 8 years now – a young, radical mother at that – and I’ve been watching the work of Mother’s Acting Up (http://www.mothersactingup.org/) all that time.

    Also in all those years, I’ve been celebrating the holiday slightly differently than most. Most years we go to a Mother’s Day Peace Picnic which currently takes place in front of a statue of Ghandi in the Rockefeller Cultural Gardens here in Cleveland. Last year, a woman dressed and spoke as Rosa Parks about the need for peace activists and her role in the civil rights movement. Then we sent postcards to President Obama asking him to end the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We folded peace cranes out of paper and were fed a free meal.

    This year, I spent the day with my sisters from my consciousness raising group and the feminist art collective one of our members founded reading and listening to letters on motherhood. We then wrote letters to our representatives demanding birthing rights, comprehensive sex education, and care for victims of rape.

    I suppose I am lucky enough to have access to these events, but it has been my experience in the activist community that this understanding of Mother’s Day as a day for Peace is…normal. It is such a surprise then to hear from progressive women like Anne Lamott such a mainstream view of the day and its meaning. Weird.

  2. Watching the Mothers Day feed that came across my screen through Twitter was more fun than usual this year. The day before I tweeted my mother milking it for Peet’s Coffee. The morning was the expected my cute kid wrote this and my virtuous mother that tweets. Mid morning I tweeted that my mother sending us to ballet lessons was a lost cause. By noon the people whose mothers weren’t model mothers were posting that they got away with leaving a message on the answering machine. As the afternoon wore on people got into the insane stuff their exasperated mothers yelled at them growing up. If people get something they need from Mothers Day, go for it. Not that I would ever have the courage to be a mother or anything, but I got a kick out of the honesty.

  3. Hi Anna, sounds like you have some wonderful Mother’s Day traditions. I didn’t know about the Howe connection either until recently. I mostly knew the story from this century, by which time it had become all about the flowers. Truth be told, I’ve never really given it a lot of thought before – it’s always just seemed like a fairly innocuous day to me, probably because the only expectations in our family were that we treat our mother well, and I’m fortunate in that it’s never been an objectionable request. But since becoming one of those mom folk myself, I’ve been following a lot of the hand-wringing and mud-slinging with great interest – it’s hard to avoid if you spend any amount of time online.

    I actually wonder if Lamott would have been moved to pen her piece were it not for the internet, which seems to amplify all things crass and commercial completely out-of-proportion to reality. Mother’s Day certainly seems to have become much louder (dare I say, shrill) in the last few years. You really can’t get away from the endless articles (and always the food – why?). There was a lot of enthusiastic response to the piece in the Salon commentary, so clearly she touched a nerve – there’s so little honesty about motherhood, that any degree thereof, or anything that pushes back on the saccharine, is going to resonate.

  4. Hi Moth, it’s funny about Twitter and Facebook – for me, they made Mother’s Day slightly sweeter and more real than the many media articles that came my way. Likely because the comments were often from friends and ppl I otherwise interact with. Incidentally, one person tweeted that Mother’s Day was a chance to let his sister shine, and then later tweeted that his mother (also on Twitter) had duly called him out on it. Obviously, they have a good relationship or that wouldn’t have played out that way, but it’s also an interesting side note on how our relationships with our parents (and children, for parents whose kids are older) is changing when we all have that kind of access to unfettered thoughts/commentary.

  5. I don’t think LaMott is really exemplifying “inclusiveness gone wild” here. Ever since my grandmother died I can’t celebrate Mother’s Day with my Mom without thinking that it must be difficult for her to remember that though I’m afraid to bring it up and upset her more. My partner’s mother died when he was very young in an extremely traumatic way and it’s still really hard for him to deal with 2-4 weeks of commercials, special episodes, etc etc. And I’m currently in social work, working with mothers who are separated from their children due to foster care, so now I think of my clients too, and what it must feel like to not be allowed to see your kid on this day, and wonder who “deserves” to be a Mom in our society.

    I’m not saying we abolish the holiday because it can be upsetting, and I have always appreciated the original anti-war intent of the holiday as well as the idea of having a nice day of pampering for the Moms in our lives, but I think it’s not fair to act like this holiday isn’t very upsetting to a lot of people and to be dismissive about the fact that motherhood is complicated, it can involve trauma, anger, loss and grief. Part of the reason the Hallmark-ization of this holiday is offensive (besides the obvious message of spending money = the only way to show love) is that it cheapens and simplifies what motherhood means in our society.

  6. Hi Gigi, I completely agree with you in that we can’t pretend that there aren’t a lot of people who, for various reasons, can’t “celebrate” the day in the stereotypically mandated way, nor that it’s not painful for them. But my sense is that Lamott is arguing that we thus shouldn’t have the holiday at all. But yes, I’d love to see it become something more than just Hallmark.

    I think she’s just responding to all the cultural angst about motherhood (thus, she sees the day as being about who’s better than who), rather than challenging it, which is unfortunate. At the same time, the fact that so many people agreed with her tells me that we don’t have a lot of honest dialogue about mothers and we’re clearly in need of it. Even something as natural as a mother dying of old age (never mind all the other situations you raised), doesn’t seem to be part of the dialogue right now.

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