A childhood friend of mine lost her mother to covid this year. I used to spend many weekend nights over at their house when I was in middle school. Her mother was always gracious and supportive of this odd, heathen child who said strange things at her dinner table. All day yesterday my idle mind would return to my friend knowing that she was gearing up for this first Mother’s Day without her mother and feeling profoundly sad for her, aggrieved, and ultimately powerless to do anything but text her that I was thinking about her. I’m still thinking about her.
I try to stay off social media on Mother’s Day because it makes me ill. It’s almost like when there is a school shooting. When there is a school shooting, everyone knows that they need to mark it in some way and it seems that the only way we know how to do that is to have an opinion and proclaim it, loudly. Some people will say things like “thoughts and prayers” or “ban assault rifles” or “arm teachers” or “better mental healthcare,” and everyone’s opinion is sort of garbage even if there is some validity to it [though not the “arm teachers” part, lord what an awful idea]. Today on social media everyone is going to be all “I love my mom, she’s the best” while others are dealing with infant loss and infertility, death of their mother, estrangement from their mother, their own ambivalence about being a mother, poor relationships with their kids, fatigue with femininity being idealized in motherhood, and a tremendous amount of nuance. And because social media cannot handle nuance, because it makes everything some sort of life or death debate, I have to stay away.
I’ve tried to have this conversation in years past with people who are ostensibly my friends and it seems to always be interpreted as me being a pain in the ass. It’s not so much that I am a pain in the ass, it’s that my tendency to think “too far” into something is my default setting and other people’s desire to stay on the surface is likewise properly acceptable and “polite.” Therefore, the way that I am naturally reads as impolite, but it’s just my every day experience. It’s not so much that I need to think less, it’s that other’s need to think more. When I say I hate Mother’s Day it is for the same reasons that I hate most holidays: people observe them without thinking and then defensively shame people who want to understand what they are for. But I am a mother, and it’s my fucking day, so I’m going to go there.
I don’t know what most mothers want for Mother’s Day because I am not most mothers. I know what I want:
- to put on my noise cancelling headphones and have no one bother me,
- to watch home improvement shows on TV while knitting,
- to have my house be perfectly clean,
- to take a moderate hike to look at wildflowers and waterfalls and possibly see a moose or a beaver
- to have all my mental lists entirely suspended,
- to pleasantly putter in my garden while listening to audiobooks,
- to have no earthly responsibilities but to suffer no consequences for taking the day off,
- to drink a mimosa and eat cherry pie that I did not have to make, but were made exactly how I would make them,
- to be chosen as the site of one of the cat’s naps,
- to share a nice cheese plate with my best friends while wearing comfortable sun dresses [with pockets] and jaunty hats [I think this is a garden party?],
- to watch a light-hearted period drama under a snuggly blanket with my beloved while eating ice cream and/or popcorn.
It’s the same thing I want every day, and, because I am a woman of relative privilege with an excellent partner, I will get some of these things [but alas, the cat will not choose me].
But Mother’s Day is mostly going to go like this: being woken up by kids excited to give me my card while I am excited to be sleeping, partner exempting me from chores like cooking breakfast and walking the dog while I get a mimosa [some guilt because he deserves breakfast in bed more than I do], kids bickering while partner does chores, noise canceling headphones, trip to pick up bare root strawberries [trying to avoid crowds but failing], realizing it’s too cool to garden pleasantly, trying to get kids to leave me alone while I watch home improvement shows and knit, possibly blowing off calling my grandmother but feeling bad whether I call her or not, setting up a zoom call between my kids and my mother while balancing guilt about not wanting to talk to her either, realizing the day is pretty much over, pronouncing it “a great day” and reinforcing that this is how I want my performance of motherhood celebrated, period drama and snuggle blanket with beloved, mounting dread that Monday is upon me and I have accomplished nothing on my list.
So not a bad day. It’s the same thing I do every Sunday, more or less. I’ll not be in a position of having to go to brunch with my extended family while processing intergenerational guilt about the sacrifices of long suffering mothers as I perpetuate this cycle. I’ll not have some cold-war level standoff with my partner about how he didn’t do enough to appreciate me because he didn’t get me the present I refused to tell him at any point that I wanted. I’ll not feel ignored or unworthy because I’m childless or have chosen not to be a mother and made to feel less than properly female. I’ll not even have to go to the garden center and pick out root-bound annuals while pretending I am having a good time. I’ll not have to mourn my mother.
I’m about to feel as honored as anyone ever manages to feel about being a mother, so I should probably shut the hell up and enjoy my biscuits and gravy in bed. But, the idealization of motherhood comes at a great cost and I remain unhappy about it, and everyone else should take some time to think through what those costs are.
This year our society has been really, really shitty to mothers and their professional surrogates [teachers, early childcare workers, nurses]. We’ve required mothers to work from home while supporting online learning and punished them for not being able to be at peek productivity in one way or another. Or we have endangered mothers who can’t work from home and their children by giving them no safe, affordable childcare and making them chose between their jobs [and ability to feed their families] and the safety of their families. Women are leaving the work force in droves even when other groups of workers who lost jobs during the pandemic have almost regained their pre-pandemic employment rates because our leaders can’t be bothered to address the childcare crisis. And men, many of them fathers with partners who are mothers, are enabling this. How do you solve record unemployment? Well, just make sure that almost half the workforce isn’t really looking for work and let those underemployed men take those jobs.
This is in some ways a simplistic accounting of the mess that we are in because a) these problems pre-dated the pandemic, and b) other people write about these issues as their job and do better with the nuances than I am doing. I don’t know that I believe that fathers are culpable for what is happening to mothers, but I also don’t find them innocent. Mothers and fathers, after all, have the same start date for this job of parenting and most fathers somehow manage to be less competent parents because of some scientistic nonsense about nature and gender roles. Mothers absolutely get the shaft and we’re told [and often believe] that it is the natural order of things. It is incredibly complicated. However, what is not complicated is that we’re not really doing anything concrete to address it because our society and its leaders continue to labor under the delusion that women and mothers are naturally self-sacrificing and noble and that we can weather this terrible setback because of the inherent qualities of mothers, who always make do with not enough and ensure that their children are safe and happy in the bargain.
But the center cannot hold.
As I sit in bed, writing this with my breakfast and champagne, I know I am supposed to be thinking about what I can do to empower mothers. Of course, there isn’t anything that I can really do that I am not already doing, because I am not the one with the power. Curiously, in the past year I have seen zero men or fathers share any articles or posts about the need for universal childcare, but I have seen almost no women or mothers not do so. Obviously what one shares on social media is not the sum total of one’s beliefs or actions, but it is interesting what looks like a woman’s problem when it is really a social problem. You would think that men just don’t care about the happiness and self-actualization of their wives and mothers unless it can be tidily wrapped up in a bouquet of flowers or a free brunch once a year.
If you want to celebrate mothers then call your reps in Congress and advocate for universal childcare. Pay teachers and early child educators a living wage. Volunteer at your kid’s school instead of assuming your wife is going to do it. Consider making a shopping list and doing household chores the other 364 days of the year without being asked. And if your mother gives you a guilt trip for not calling her on Mother’s Day just tell her that you were busy rallying your male friends to help get women elected so that leaders have any frame of reference for the reality of more than half the population. But also, call your mother.