Dedicated to my friend, C.
My Facebook feed on Mother’s Day looked like everyone else’s, a treacly stream of photos, encomia, and remembrances of moms past and present. Well, almost everyone else’s feed. Tucked between the sugar plums was a brief rant from one of the moms on an ODD support forum where I participate, a fist shake at heaven delivered into the cybersphere. Because Mother’s Day may not feel the same to you if your child routinely curses you, hits you, spits at you, falsely reports you to Child Protective Services, destroys your property, holds his stool and then poops his pants, urinates on inappropriate surfaces in retaliation for perceived injustices, or refuses to obey the most routine requests (not to mention that you’re often blamed for this, even by medical experts). My child isn’t old enough to do all those things . . . yet, and that’s a big “yet.” But at five years old he does most of them, so I commiserated briefly with the poster.
No, they didn’t!
Oh, yes, they did. The church I was attending, mercifully not my home church, asked all the mothers to stand up to be recognized on Mother’s Day. Had no one in ministry there received one of the copious Facebook posts describing how painful this ritual is for women who aren’t mothers and not by choice? I wondered whether I should remain seated — in solidarity with no one who was there? In a protest no one might notice or understand? I stood up. I mean, the only reason I was at this church on this day was my children. At least C. wasn’t there.
When I mentioned this acerbically to K., our former nanny’s brother, who also attends the church, his face screwed up in disapproval. “You mean,” K. said, “Don’t recognize the ones who are because of the ones who aren’t?” Like many people, he views asking churches to refrain from this particular form of honoring mothers as hypersensitivity run amok in our culture. Which would be more understandable if K. weren’t C.’s brother.
I ran across C., our former nanny, later in the week at a church dinner. I mentioned the church service to her and told her I was thinking of writing this post and my proposed title. “Please!” she replied, “Just kill it! By the end of the day, I had to just shut down Facebook and stay off till the next day.”
So what’s C.’s story? C. had a hysterectomy as a young woman to end the debilitating pain and massive bleeding of endometriosis. While it brought an end to that suffering, she had not yet become a mother, so she was destined to be without biological children. Years later, when she was employed by me, she learned in the course of treating another medical issue that had the doctors recognized an endocrine problem that likely underlay the endometriosis, they could
have treated her condition more effectively and avoided the hysterectomy. A nurse, she later attempted to adopt a special needs child whom she had taught to eat and walk. The child’s parents rarely visited her in the institution where C. cared for her, but they refused to relinquish their parental rights, perhaps because they were receiving government benefits for their daughter. And, on this particular Mother’s Day, C. was mourning the loss of a beloved pet, a sweet and gentle dog that she had adopted from a family with a special needs child when caring for the animal became too much for them.
So, who wants to be the one to tell C. to suck it up? The minister would probably say that if C. were in right relationship with God, she would accept His will and be at peace with it. The many people who suck up life like human Electroluxes would probably berate her for not being more emotionally resilient. I can imagine my own therapist saying, “People won’t always behave as considerately as we would hope, so it’s good to have some emotional resilience to deal with these hurts.” True. But is that a good reason for us to resist behaving with more compassion?
Not Your Great-Great-Grandmother’s Mother’s Day
Let’s talk about the history of Mother’s Day in the U.S. Mother’s Day originated in the peace movement that arose after the Civil War [per Wikipedia and for all related factual details following]. It was intimately linked to the “social purity” movements of the late nineteenth and twentieth century, including prohibition and anti-prostitution efforts. These groups were dedicated to alleviating the oppression of women in the terms that it was viewed in their day, and many of the women involved in them were also suffragists. In 1910, Anna Jarvis, daughter of the woman who “created a committee to establish a ‘Mother’s Friendship Day’, the purpose of which was ‘to reunite families that had been divided during the Civil War,'” succeeded in persuading Congress to declare a national Mother’s Day. Mother’s Day, then, was a day conceived by women and for women as part of a movement to improve their lives and raise them from the near-chattel status from which they were only beginning to emerge. It was not about fetishizing maternity.
But They’re a Minority!
Assuming you think the pain of women who suffer from reproductive problems isn’t a good enough reason to be more thoughtful in how we celebrate Mother’s Day, consider that the largest group of people who disapprove of its modern observance is probably the folks who disapprove of its Hallmark Holiday status, and that’s a rainbow coalition of the annoyed. Still, let’s enumerate some of the other people so might feel discomfort at Mother’s Day traditions:
- Women who suffer from fertility issues and their partners.
- Women who have suffered miscarriages or still births and their partners.
- Parents who have lost children to illness, accidents, or crime.
- People whose life circumstances or other health issues prevented them from having children, although they might have liked to have had them. That includes older women who suffered from infertility or recurrent miscarriage before the advent of fertility medicine or before its techniques improved and became more affordable.
- People who have problematic relationships with their mothers. If mom neglected or abused you because she’s a drug addict or mentally ill, a day extolling motherhood may not feel very heartwarming.
- Parents who have problematic relationships with their children. See above, but in reverse.
- People who have recently lost their mothers, especially if the death was caused by suicide, crime, or accident.
- People whose mothers abandoned them.
- And any time I raise this subject, others bring up personal experiences or those of acquaintances that I had never considered.
Sensitivity Versus Hypersensitivity
That’s a lot of people. It is, perhaps, most of us at some point during our lives. Now, perhaps you’re thinking, “I had x, y, or z experience from that list, and I never felt particularly sad on Mother’s Day or upset by any of the usual activities honoring mothers.” Good on you. Even though I experienced several of the items on the list above, I did not uniformly find Mother’s Day to be as depressing as some people do. But I can tell you that on infertility support forums, the members often advise others to hunker down the way the Emergency Management System details what you should be doing as a hurricane approaches. And I’m thinking you’d find the same on support forums for other issues in the list.
The equation can also be affected by the other positive things happening in one’s life. For women experiencing a cluster of deeply stressful events like unemployment, major health problems, or loss of friends or family, being left sitting down when the minister asks the moms to rise to be recognized can feel like being told you’re less worthy when it might normally not cause significant discomfort. Yes, they may be hypersensitized, but it’s not due to some deep-seated character flaw. Life is beating up on them, so why are we so intent on beating them up again?
And perhaps sensitivity levels might run lower if our culture had more validation for women who don’t have children, whether by choice or not. The point is, is it so imperative that we glorify motherhood at the expense of hurting others? Since the current holiday has drifted so far from its original mission, I’m hard pressed to think the women who cultivated it would think so. Speaking of its original mission, perhaps, as John Oliver mordantly suggests (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zIhKAQX5izw), we could honor Mother’s Day by doing something to improve mothers’ lives instead of handing them a bouquet of supermarket flowers and taking them to Golden Corral for dinner.
What About Father’s Day?
Except for the men who work in the hospitality or greeting card industries, we could probably just remove Father’s Day from the calendar, and no male would be the wiser. To the extent men suffer from the life events listed above, though, they probably endure similar reactions to the traditions of that holiday. Since men aren’t subject to the same kind of cultural pressure around becoming fathers, however, it’s likely that even men who are childless not by choice do not feel the same sense of devaluation because of it. Still, equity all around: let’s avoid insensitive rituals on Father’s Day, too.
Sense and Sensitivity
We don’t have to do away to Mother’s Day to make it more like what its founders envisioned. The chances of that happening are slim, though. Aside from the corporate Mother’s Day machine, there are a host of conservative forces who will balk at its message of peace and social justice. In the meantime, what we can do is practice a little forethought and place ourselves in the seats of the women who don’t stand on Mother’s Day.