Reflections on Mother’s Day, Take Two

mother baby swing

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 “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’d had all kinds of fun plans for this weekend, like visiting the new farmer’s market and watching The Avengers. Now I have to spend Saturday afternoon at a mother-daughter church luncheon. Bleh.)

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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