Every year at this time, blog posts and news reports appear begging mothers to consider all the people for whom Mother’s Day might not be a pleasant holiday. The growing trend is to request that mothers yield the day to those who have experienced loss.
I have been a motherless child. I spent over two decades estranged from my mother, who passed away just a few years after we re-united. I have also been a childless woman, desperate to enter motherhood. I spent years struggling with infertility and awaiting adoption. I understand how painful it can be around Mother’s Day to have images that evoke personal loss punctuate one’s time and space.
At the same time, I can’t ignore the troubling suspicion I have that many of the criticisms and calls for consideration that typically crop up around Mother’s Day might just be thinly veiled manifestations of sexism.
Consider the following:
1. The value of motherhood in the U.S. is often minimized and disparaged. It might not seem this way to people without children, who are tired of our double-strollers crowding sidewalks and our whining children disturbing their nights out (or to at least one woman who thinks that maternity leave should be available to women without children). However, U.S. mothers are regularly mommy-tracked in our careers. Unlike much of the world’s mothers and despite many of us requiring, at minimum, physical recovery time, we are not guaranteed pay for maternity leave. Child care is often prohibitively expensive for U.S. families, typically leading to one parent staying home. Since, on average, women are paid less than our male counterparts for the same jobs, it usually falls on women to sacrifice our careers if necessary to care for our children.
2. Father’s Day, the male equivalent to Mother’s Day, does not receive the same level of scrutiny and criticism. My Facebook feed isn’t filled each Father’s Day with calls to be more considerate of fatherless children and men who struggle with the loss of fatherhood. Father’s Day even holds the distinction of having been created largely so that fathers would feel included in celebrations of parenthood.
3. A day meant to celebrate women is the one secular holiday that U.S. Americans seem to want to micro-manage. There are various annual, secular holidays besides Father’s Day that celebrate a particular faction of people to the exclusion of others without the scrutiny held over Mother’s Day. When Veterans Day rolls around, those of us who are neither veterans nor closely connected with veterans step aside to allow the beneficiaries of the day to hold their spotlight. We even line up to participate in parades where we cheer on people we might not even know. Likewise, Valentine’s Day is typically considered for lovers, the crux of Halloween for children. Though we should never force pointed holidays onto those who don’t celebrate them, we can and do allow specific groups of people their special days.
4. The U.S. American calendar is filled with non-holiday events and experiences that provide opportunities for some to the exclusion of others. As long as exclusivity is not born out of bigotry, hatred, or support for inequality, this can be okay, even necessary. Non-runners, including those of us unable to run due to disabilities, typically do not begrudge runners their races, even though they close our roads and clog our neighborhood coffee shops several times a year. Adults don’t ask children to enjoy their school breaks less because we don’t receive the same amount of time off. We don’t request that college students avoid expressing their pride on social media about scholarships or other accolades they receive as academics, even though non-students don’t receive scholarships for general living. Everybody can’t be a part of everything, nor should we expect total inclusion.
5. More than any other group of people, it seems, mothers are constantly told how we are supposed to carry out our roles.* We are given conflicting advice, backed by convincing, but also conflicting, science regularly. We are pandered to by corporations that want our money, criticized and prosecuted by legislators who want to control us, simultaneously demonized and deified by the media. Now we are being told to be careful about how we celebrate Mother’s Day because people who are not mothers, or who don’t have healthy relationships with their mothers or motherhood, might feel excluded. To be tossed into yet one more battle that divides and belittles us, a battle that few else are asked to enter with regards to other secular holidays, feels like another way to control women in general, mothers specifically.
Mother’s Day holds its roots in feminism. Early incarnations included ancient Greco-Roman celebrations of the mother Goddesses and a day for mothers of opposing sides during the Civil War to reconcile. The more formal holiday grew out of feminist calls to action, the most renowned being Julia Ward Howe’s late 19th century request for mothers to unite for world peace.
Within a contemporary feminist context, Mother’s Day affords us one day a year when we can hope for a neutral zone, when mothers can support and celebrate one another, despite our culture’s insistence upon dividing us. It also offers families who choose to celebrate the day together a formal pause in family chaos to reflect upon mother/child relationships.
The concept of motherhood can be an emotionally loaded challenge for many people. I understand and have been there. I also believe that we can honor the losses surrounding mothers and motherhood within our culture while also creating space on Mother’s Day for mothers and families of every incarnation to choose to celebrate motherhood as desired—without fear of repercussion, guilt, and division.
*I am speaking here of groups that include people of all races and cultures. There are plenty of examples of people trying to micro-manage and dictate the behaviors of people within a particular race or culture. I am focusing more on groups that have culturally-assigned roles.