I’m surely not alone in disliking Mothers’ Day. Over the past decade, I have noticed a growing recognition that this can sometimes be a hard day: for people with fraught relationships with mothers, whether alive or deceased, or women who had disappointing experiences with childbearing. There’s plenty of sadness and heartbreak around mothering, and this can be a day when those feelings are felt keenly, whether because of difficult circumstances or just the fact that even people with happy pictures can have sad and hard feelings. There are even greeting cards that mark some of these Mothers’ Day challenges, extending compassion to women with complicated relationships up and down the maternal line
But that doesn’t describe me. My mother and mother-in-law are alive and well, and I have fond memories of my grandmothers. My own childbearing was not without its challenges, but I have four healthy and wonderful children who orient my life and whom I adore.
And yet, still, I hate Mother’s Day.
When I pop onto social media, many of my married-to-women friends post pictures of their wives, often alongside their children, smiling of course. The captions praise these women for keeping the household running, for raising children, for being the glue that ties everyone together. The messages often cheaply point out that if it weren’t for these women, they’re not sure how they could keep track of the tedium of daily life. They talk about the unwavering support and care these mothers provide, offering a steady course through life’s stormy waters. And it is actually the simplicity of this praise for straightforward mothering which has me wishing I could push the fast-forward button on this day and arrive happily at a regular routine Monday.
It bothers me to no end to think of “mothering” as a thing that people do, as though the pieces of that task are somehow enough of a coherent identity, separate from the rest of life, that merits its own consideration. To be clear, I don’t deny that there are a complicated set of tasks that surround women who mother. I spend most of my day doing them, and I do feel (as I suppose many women do), frequently under- or un-appreciated for bearing so many of the burdens that keep my family afloat, from children’s health and schooling to their emotional woes, not to mention the overwhelming lion’s share of household, upkeep, shopping, cooking, cleaning, and providing.
It’s not that I resent any particular effort to recognize me for the work I put in.
But I do resent that the recognition for my work as a mother, when it descends upon me in this way, is so incredibly shallow and fungible. I am not valued for any particular way that I do any of these tasks. The recognition is essentially for my role as a stand-in.
When I read on Facebook that ten of my married-to-women friends proclaim something like “Our kids are so lucky to have you, where would we be without you?” I want to point out that they haven’t identified anything particular at all about their wives, that they almost certainly would have said the same about any other wife they happened to have married. Where is the pleasure and recognition in that?
Which is to say: I believe, almost out of necessity, that there is a unique way that I mother my children, for better or worse. To take a day to insist that the work that I do is so insanely similar to the work that every other woman does in their own mothering that we could have one day to celebrate the lot of us— that feels reductive to me in a way that is insulting.
I remember my first Mothers’ Day as a parent— my eldest was just a few months old. At one of our well-baby visits, his pediatrician asked whether I had been able to connect with other first-time mothers with babies the same age. He offered that the HMO had mothers’ groups that began monthly, and he could easily connect me with a conglomeration of women who gave birth in October as I did.
The idea of packing up my baby to sit in a room and talk about spit-up with other women I didn’t know did not sound like my cup of tea. I fashioned myself as someone with so many interests that were particular to me, and a group that coalesced around this almost-accident of physiological processes, a group that took the complexity of my interests and personhood and tried to find me friends based upon my child’s birthdate? It did not appeal.
“Six months ago, I wouldn’t have had anything at all in common with those women,” I said. “So I don’t suppose I would now either.”
And that’s how I feel about Mothers’ Day as well. Do I have something in common with my mother and my mother-in-law, my grandmothers, all by virtue of having birthed and served and spending our lives in relationships with people who depended upon us for their very being? Well, sure, of course, I suppose I do.
But I find it vastly more interesting to delight in the differences. (And “interesting” sometimes means exasperating— or worse). There are a million ways to mother. How lovely it would be to have a day that celebrated the weird way that I have chosen to do it, not the fungible role that makes every mother indistinguishable from one another, not the having-birthed, shopping-and-cleaning role that is the boring tedium of the world. Not even the “you always know what to say to make me feel better,” part, as though this were also part of the job description.
No, save me from the hand-lettered platitudes that proclaim appreciation, the demands of “what would you like to do today?” and surround me instead with a day that celebrates that women are as diverse as the stars, that there is no common experience of mothering, that there are a million good ways to do it. Let’s drop the simple narrative that mothering is sacrifice, or emotional well-being, or instincts for safety, and instead embrace the simple truth that mothers are complicated humans the way the rest of us are. Honor the work they do? Sure, but let’s do it by honoring the complex people they are and not by reducing their stories to simple and vapid Hallmark sentiments of generic appreciation.
Ariella Radwin, a mother of four, has been a parent for nearly 18 years and has yet to find a Mothers’ Day celebration to enjoy. She does, however, believe that early May is a lovely time for floral bouquets, Sunday brunches, and hand-drawn pictures of cheerful daisies.