The Trouble with Mother’s Day

mother baby swing

(Note: this post was adapted from an earlier version I posted last year.)

Last year on Project M I wrote a blog post explaining why I dislike Mother’s Day and why I intend to discourage my kids from participating. I explained how I’m averse to obligatory gift-giving, and how it alienates would-be moms (i.e. infertile women, mothers who have lost babies, etc).

I guess I was naïve. I sort of expected a big round of “Hear, hear’s!” — especially from other women who’d had a hard time becoming mothers of biological children. Instead, I was frankly astonished at the response: moms everywhere were upset and offended that I could say such things against what they perceived to be “their” day.

Lesson #1: If a holiday is universally celebrated, it’s because it’s universally beloved. If you’re gonna dis it, be prepared for a backlash.

Many women mistakenly believed I was trying to take their holiday away from them. (Not only do I not have the authority to do that, but it’s not true: I only said I personally didn’t want to participate, or, that if I did, I thought we should celebrate all women). One commenter accused me of not wanting anyone to have a party if I wasn’t invited. Another said I was “dishonouring all mothers.” Phew! What a big accomplishment for a silly girl in Ontario with a tiny little blogging platform!

I wrote this post when pregnant with my first child after a two-year struggle with infertility. I assumed being pregnant put me into the mom camp, winning me the support of other mothers, while my experience with infertility would win the sympathy of other women who were currently enduring the same thing.

Instead, my not-here-but-not-quite-there position kind of alienated me from both sides. The infertile women saw me as a mom trying to throw them a pity card. Other mothers saw me as a non-mom throwing a tantrum because I wasn’t invited to their party.

Well, things are different this year. I gave birth to a child nine months ago and am officially and universally recognized as a mother.

Not much has changed in regards to my feelings about Mother’s Day, though.

In fact, when my husband reminded me that it was coming up, I stamped my foot and let loose a barrage of Christian-ified curse words. (Dang it! Frig! Frigitty-friggins!!”). I suck at throwing sentimental celebrations and thinking of meaningful gifts to give.

Here’s the thing. I absolutely LOVE being a mom. It is, without question, the most fun and interesting job I’ve ever had. Nine months into this gig, and I’m still not convinced my job is any harder or more important than many other women’s jobs. Sure, caring for an infant is time-consuming, frustrating, exhausting, et cetera – but so was earning a Master’s degree. I actually think it was harder. I got less sleep, and no one in my program was half as adorable as my baby. I imagine writing a book or running a business is equally tedious and taxing at times but also gratifying.

I got the distinct impression that those women who were most upset by my post criticizing Mother’s Day were the ones who most doubted the value of the work they were doing.

“No one appreciates us moms!” they protested, either explicitly or implicitly. “We deserve at least one day where someone acknowledges our work! Everyone else gets paychecks. Don’t we at least deserve some flowers?”

Our Cultural Ambivalence Towards Mothers

Our culture seems to have mixed feelings, and to send mixed messages, about motherhood.

On the one hand, motherhood is highly sentimentalized. Being a mom means you’re self-sacrificing, nurturing, and all-around wholesome, especially if you stay at home. Lots of career women feel judged for not choosing to procreate.

At the same time, though, many moms feel underappreciated, embarrassed, and inadequate. They suffer from what I call “just-a-mom” syndrome (“Oh, I’m just a mom . . .” ). They tend to feel defensive — they often feel the need to point out that unlike paid work, their jobs go 24-7. And their work is extra-important, because they’re raising the next generation of citizens. These feelings are legitimate, of course, in a culture that tends to value earning power over anything else.

(I’ve written more on our culture’s love-hate relationship towards being a stay-at-home mom elsewhere.)

Maybe my antipathy towards Mother’s Day is connected to the high regard I have personally experienced towards mothers and motherhood in my community. I feel like my choice to become a mother and stay home has been generally lauded and celebrated. I feel respected and valued by my husband, my extended family, and my church community.  In fact, I feel damn lucky to have been able to have this miraculous experience. Pregnancy, birth, motherhood? All incredible privileges. I don’t need a special day to exchange flowers, smiles, and saccharine cards and with other women who have been blessed with children.

Who is a Mother?

The other objection I have to Mother’s Day is the somewhat arbitrary demarcation between who is in and who is out.

Now that I am “officially” a mother, I can look back and see that I didn’t become a mother when I gave birth to my baby. I didn’t even become a mother when I got pregnant.

I believe my gradual metamorphosis into a mother began the day I fell in love with a child.

See, I was regularly caring for a friend’s child at the same that I was first toying with the idea of starting a family. (I didn’t know at that point how much trouble I would have with the first step, i.e. getting pregnant). I had never been especially fond of children.

I enjoyed the babysitting job, but it wasn’t anything magical. But one day, something crazy happened: the little boy leaned on me affectionately and I had the overwhelming urge to kiss him. And I exploded into tears.

Without meaning to, I had become a mother.

That’s why I found it so painful in future years when Mother’s Day passed and my arms were empty: just because my ovaries weren’t working quite right, I could not be acknowledged as a nurturer of children.

And that’s why I continue to insist: if you’re a woman with a love for children, YOU ARE A MOTHER. Even if you’ve never been pregnant or given birth.

That’s why I continue to insist: if we’re going to set aside a day to celebrate mothers, this day is also for those women who are nurturing children in any capacity.

Those who are seeking fertility treatments. Those who are working to improve their health and learning about their bodies in the hopes of conceiving. Those who are seeking adoptions. Those who care for their nieces and nephews and students and youth groups. Those who babysit and nanny with love and affection.

All of these women are mothering children, either future or existing.

From one mother to another, I insist that if we’re going to go around congratulating women for bringing forth children, you women who care for other people’s children or wait patiently for your own deserve recognition as well. You might be doing the hardest work of all.

Imagining a Mother’s Love

Last thing. There was a lot of stuff going around in the comments of my post last year along the lines of, “You just can’t imagine the love you have for your own children until you’ve had them.”

First, I feel these commenters underestimate my imagination. How do they know what I’m capable of imagining? I’m a writer. It’s my job to imagine feelings and experiences.

And second, I’m not sure they were right. I wasn’t able to imagine the specifics of how I’d feel towards my actual child, of course — I’m not clairvoyant — but I think I had a pretty good idea.

I had to spend two years of my life waiting and imagining what it would feel like to have a child of my own. And I’ve spent the last nine months saying, “Yep. This is about right. This is sooooo right.”

Mother’s Day and Me

I’m going to keep celebrating my own mothers (i.e. mom and mom-in-law) on Mother’s Day because I know it’s meaningful to them. But I don’t think I want to be a part of it in any other way, except to take the hands my sisters who feel like not-quite-mothers and to tell them, “You’re one of us. Thanks for being you.

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  1. Birgitta says:

    This will be my first time experiencing this holiday as a mom and I’m looking forward to it. I don’t think that means I “doubt the value of the work I’m doing.”

  2. This article made me cry because it is so true. Several years ago a semi-stranger wished me a “A Happy Mother’s Day.” I looked at her and said, “I don’t have any children,” (I am a single woman). She said that I am a caring person and that made me a mother.”
    I do have a tendency to “adopt” children. Several of them are convinced I am a “mommy”. I said, “No, I’m not, just an auntie.”
    His mother disagreed with me and said, “In their minds a ‘mommy’ and an ‘auntie’ is the same thing.
    I wish mother’s who have never given birth would be recognized as well.
    I hope you don’t mind if I provide the link to your blog onto mine.

  3. Rachel M says:

    I have really enjoyed many of your previous blog posts, but this one missed the mark for me for a number of reasons.

    I agree, your job as a married, stay-at-home-by-choice mother of a single, healthy almost two year-old is almost certainly no “harder or more important than many other women’s jobs.” But you’ve barely scratched the surface of what motherhood is/can be. You don’t have twins, or older children vying for your attention. You don’t have a child with developmental challenges or serious health issues. You haven’t been through the terrible twos, let alone the minefield of adolescence. You are blessed to share the responsibilities of parenthood with a supportive spouse and have a supportive extended family and community. In other words, your experience to this point has definitely been at the easy end of the motherhood spectrum.

    I don’t feel the need for saccharin cards to mark this day either – but in twenty years of motherhood I don’t recall getting a single such card. I’ve gotten countless hand-printed and decorated ones however, given to me by some pretty excited and proud children. Not to mention the bouquets of wildflowers, or the many handmade treasures. And I wouldn’t miss them for the world. Nor would my children – Mother’s Day is as much for them (especially the young ones) as it is for me. It’s good for them on many levels to have a holiday to celebrate their mothers, and another one to celebrate their fathers.

    In fact it’s good in general for us to recognize and celebrate each other, whether we do that on birthdays, anniversaries, or Secretary’s Day for that matter. Yes, ideally we should acknowledge and express gratitude to our loved ones every day. But special holidays are good as well, and mothers are definitely worthy of special recognition.

    This comment particularly rubbed me the wrong way: “I got the distinct impression that those women who were most upset by my post criticizing Mother’s Day were the ones who most doubted the value of the work they were doing.” First, if that was in fact the case, than those would be the women most in need of a special day – and your compassion for their insecurity. Secondly, while I don’t need Mother’s Day to know what I’ve given my kids over the years, or the impact I’ve had in their lives, Mother’s Day IS very, very special to me, and an attack on it from someone whose insights I otherwise deeply respect is troubling.

    I come from a family of high-achieving women. My mother was a family therapist and mother of three. My sister is a midwife and mother of two. My sister-in-law is an oncology nurse and mother of two. I’m the author of four trade-published novels (including one available in three languages), and the mother of five. And all of us would agree that motherhood was/is our primary vocation, and the most challenging – and yes, most fulfilling – of our roles. Without excluding the nurturing women around us who haven’t chosen or been able to give birth, it’s definitely worth celebrating in a special way once a year.

    • Hi Rachel! Thanks for your thoughts. You’ve given me lots to reflect on tonight. I don’t have time to delve too deeply at the moment, but in case I don’t get the chance at a later time, I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge your heartfelt comment. I’m sorry that this post came off as an “attack.” If I’d had the chance to re-write it completely this year, I think it would have had a slightly different tone, as I’ve continued to soften in my role as a mother. I can especially recognize the problem with the passage wherein I highlight how easy motherhood has been for me so far. It’s definitely immature. Because, as you point out, I’ve barely scratched the surface of this motherhood gig.

      I’m still reluctant to concede that motherhood is a more praiseworthy role than other women’s roles. (Not that you say it is; it just feels inherent in the whole concept of a Mother’s Day.) I don’t know — it’s an issue I’m still struggling with. The person to first put words to what I was trying to say was Ann Lamott in this article. (She’s a billion times a better writer than me.) She writes that Mother’s Day “celebrates the great lie about women: That those with children are more important than those without,” and I think she hits on something there.

      For me, it’s not my experience as a mother that most colours my feelings about Mother’s Day, but my experience as a woman who desired to be a mother, but was excluded from that role for two heartbreaking years. My sympathy remains biased towards those women who are unhappily left out on this day, as I was. The main thing I was trying to emphasize with this article was there are many other women with important, difficult vocations, and the sentimentalization of motherhood on Mother’s Day tends (in my opinion) to diminish the value of their work and struggles.

      Again, thanks for challenging and provoking me.

      • Rachel M says:

        Hi Kathleen,

        My response was probably a little-heavy handed, and I apologize for that. Your response to me on the other hand was very gracious – thank you.
        We can wholeheartedly agree that women who have children are no more important than those who don’t. I guess the issue remains finding the balance between truly valuing mothers (and not just with once-a-year, sentimental lip-service) without devaluing the contributions or worth of women without children.
        As a mom of five, I am probably not the person to whom childless women confide their secret heartache. Your essay definitely challenged me in this area. I will certainly be making an effort to be more sensitive and compassionate to the women who may be suffering silently around me – so thank you for making me think as well!
        P.S. I’m on my way to read the essay you linked. I’m also a big Ann Lamott fan.

  4. Hi there!
    I usually enjoy your articles, but I was a little disappointed with what you had to say in this one. I feel that we should celebrate mother’s day, because mothers work so hard they should be acknowledged for all they’ve done for us. They work so hard, we should at least have a special day to thank them. This is why I feel I should observe mother’s day and celebrate it with my mom.

  5. Been meaning to comment on this, as I finally wrote my take on Mother’s Day this year (3 years in the making!) which was probably originally spurred by yours and several other posts that I read where the author took a totally different take. It looks like from the comments we should switch readers, ha! I learned yet again this weekend that its hard to put things on the internet when people disagree and can let you know, but well, that’s kind of the point. Thanks for sharing this point of view, even if it obviously differs from my own. How boring this world would be if we agreed on everything!
    alison recently posted..Thank your mother.My Profile

  6. Tina Stacy says:


    I must say that I have really read a lot of your blogs, and I really feel like FINALLY I have found someone who thinks like me. Perhaps it is our English background, but nonetheless, I agree with your post. I think that there are so many reasons women would be offended by your opinion, but I heartily agree that these holidays for silly gift-giving just doesn’t need to be. I have no Menonite background, but being raised on an Indiana farm by Polish Immigrants I think gives me a view similar to you. It is so easy to get caught up in the consumerism and selfishness that holiday after holiday promotes. There is really no time to just reflect and appreciate the people around you without being forced into another reason for gifts. I also have always felt, which I attribute to my Catholic heritage, that praise is vanity and seeking it on a random day that so random person chose makes me feel unworthy of it. As a mother, I appreciate my children’s true act of kindness so much more than I do their forced construction paper cards sent forth by their teachers. I want you to know that there are those of us out there that have similar feelings, who also dry their clothes on lines, and who enjoy all that connects us to the world. Thank you for being brave to voice your opinion because when you live in the middle of Indiana it is very easy to feel alone and weird. Have a great day:)

  7. Mothers should be honored by their husbands and children every day. I think the one-day-a-year thing lets a lot of people think they’ve paid their dues by buying something they saw in a commercial, when they’ve done anything but. My husband and children don’t celebrate Mothers Day, but believe me, I wouldn’t trade what I do have – a husband who regularly does the dinner dishes and puts the kids to bed, and children who are usually obedient and help with their baby brother – for a bouquet and box of chocolates, or worse, a hand made doo hickey I am honor bound to keep and clutter up my life with, once a year.
    Sarah recently posted..Seven on the First – May 2013My Profile

  8. Reading this for the second year in a row on Mother’s Day. After trying to conceive for over four years… it just makes me feel a little better to read it. :) Thanks

  9. I totally get your take on Mother’s Day. It took a few years and a miscarriage until we were finally able to have children – via adoption. After that every Mother’s Day reminded me of all those Mothers’ Days that just hurt because I had no children, and I now thought also of my children’s birth other, who was likely also hurting on that day because her children were taken from her. I disliked Mother’s Day still and avoided going to church on those days. Five years later I gave birth to our miracle baby. The Mother’s Day after that someone asked me if I celebrated Mother’s Day now that I was a real mother. I could have punched them. I became a real mother the day I adopted my children, not the day I gave birth. Those events were different, but good grief, how rude. I am still not a fan of Mother’s Day because we should honour our mothers every day, not on some contrived holiday, and because so many women hurt extra on Mother’s Day.

    I disagree with your statement though that if you are a woman with love for a child, you are a mother. Loving someone else’s child is not the same as loving your own, and by “your own” I mean no matter how they became your own. Before I had my own children, I very much loved and cared for my friend’s children, but it was not the same. When I brought my two children home, THEN I became a mother.

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