May 8. 2016
I’ve never been a fan of Mother’s Day. As a child, it seemed to me like adults pretty much got to do whatever they wanted whenever they wanted. I thought there should be a “Child’s Day,” to which I was frequently told, “Every day is Child’s Day.” As an adult, both before and after I had children of my own, I continued to dislike Mother’s Day for the same reasons I disliked Father’s Day and Valentine’s Day – because they were “holidays” created (or at least primarily promoted) by florists, jewelers, and the greeting card industry as a marketing tool that most consumers observed mainly out of a sense of guilt and obligation. That is to say, if you truly love your parent/significant other, you’d better show up on the appointed day with some (purchased) token of your love. And that makes me ill.
People shouldn’t be browbeaten into demonstrating their devotion to someone, children in particular. Children don’t ask to be born, and they shouldn’t feel obligated to thank their parents simply for doing their job. (As an aside, if you do that job well, you probably won’t have to wait until Mother’s Day for your kid to say “thank you,” or “I love you,” or whatever else you’re hoping they’ll say). It shouldn’t take some arbitrary day in February or May or June to express your feelings for someone, and expressing your feelings for someone shouldn’t require you to fork out 4 bucks for a card, $20 for flowers, and whatever else your budget permits. You should be telling those same people that you love them just because you do, in fact, love them, and let’s face it – a card is a poor substitute for saying what you feel in your own words, even if you’re the world’s most inarticulate human being.
Another reason I hate these holidays is because there’s a certain sense of smugness and self-satisfaction that goes along with this Triumvirate of Hallmark Holy Days of Obligation, a feeling that those who are being celebrated are downright entitled to their special day of adulation and worship, which I find utterly confounding: Is the fact that one has figured out how to procreate, or who happens to have found someone with whom to share dinner and a movie, really so special that we need to set aside a whole day in recognition of something that—let’s face it—is pretty unremarkable? And hey—isn’t being in a relationship, or having a child, reward enough? It ought to be.
There’s another reason I dislike Mother’s Day, in particular, and it’s because it perpetuates the notion of the perfect, selfless, apple-pie baking, tireless, all-loving woman who gives up everything for her children, always puts her family first, and never, ever complains. There are probably a few mothers out there who are like that, and they’re probably some of the most frustrated, miserable people alive. As well, most mothers are loving and self-sacrificing and take really good care of their kids most of the time. But if all you knew about motherhood was what you saw on the typical Mother’s Day greeting card commercial, you’d think that mothers never curse, sweat, or get angry; that they make their bake-sale offerings from scratch, that their minivans are spotless, and that their kids…well, that their kids are perfect, too.
I’ve been a mother long enough to know that none of that is true, but I still remember being a young mother who thought I was the only one who didn’t know what the hell I was doing, the only one who sometimes felt frustrated or bored, the only one who occasionally let loose an string of expletives in the presence of my children, wondered if the damn puppet show would ever end, and who cheated at Candyland just to get the damn game over with.
The truth is, the typical mom gets tired, and annoyed, and downright sick of her children from time to time. The typical mother does not love sitting at soccer tournaments, rain or shine, week after week after endless week, or the hours and hours and hours they spend in the car driving their kids from point A to point B, or doing laundry, or running to WalMart at 9:00 p.m. on a Sunday night to pick up something their child absolutely has to have for school the next day and without which they will fail the entire semester. The typical mom does not clap her hands with glee when cleaning up vomit or trying to scare up dinner after a long day at work. The typical mom does not love dealing with an exhausted toddler who won’t get into his carseat or a self-absorbed fourteen-year-old who hates her mother simply because she breathes air.
Typical moms aren’t perfect, but Teleflora tells us otherwise, thus raising the question, do you get to be celebrated on Mother’s Day if you’re not perfect? I think if you’re going to set aside a whole day to recognize mothers, you shouldn’t have to prove you’re perfect in order to participate. My mother was not a “perfect mother.” Our family had a fairly stormy history, and there were many years when I was not in touch with her because of the anger I harbored for how things had gone down when I was younger. My mom and I have made our peace with each other, and these days, my focus is on all the great things my mom did, and the example she set for me.
My mom didn’t have spotless glassware or a kitchen floor you could eat off of, but she took my brother, sister and I camping all over Europe while our family lived in Germany – she would simply pack up the Ford Falcon station wagon and set off to a country whose language she didn’t speak, pitch the tent, and take us to see the sights and eat foods we’d never tried. My mom didn’t bake homemade cookies (except for at Christmas time, when she made the most incredible iced ginger cookies you’ve ever tasted), but she was a fantastic Brownie leader who taught me how to sew. My mom wasn’t much for arts and crafts, but during the year my father was serving in Viet Nam, she took us to the beaches of Panama City, Florida every Sunday, made us grilled cheese sandwiches for dinner, and never once let on—not to me, anyway—that my dad might not be coming home.
When we returned from Germany in the early 1970’s, my mom, who’d had to drop out of college because her family could not afford for her to continue, got what was essentially an entry-level position at a friend’s computer software firm; by the time she retired twenty-odd years later, she was running the company. I didn’t realize then that she, like so many working moms of the 1970’s, was part of a movement whose message—that women can work outside the home, climb the corporate ladder, and shoot for the corner office—I took for granted by the time I started my own career. It never occurred to me how much courage it must have taken, how much she took on, or how little time she had for herself as she worked a full-time job while still keeping up with the housework and cooking and everything else she’d been responsible for when she didn’t work outside the home.
My mom is a very smart, very curious woman who talked about interesting things at the dinner table—sometimes we’d still be sitting there an hour after we’d finished our meal. She had enormous compassion and always—always—made people feel welcome in our home. She was the type of grandmother who got down on the floor and played with her grandchildren, read them books, and was always interested in what was going on in their lives. At Christmas time, she preferred to give them gifts of experiences or opportunities, such as gymnastics lessons or a subscription to “Archaeology” magazine, rather than toys they didn’t need or clothes they wouldn’t wear. Just as she always came to my concerts, plays, and marching band competitions, she attends her grandchildren’s milestone events, even though she is deaf in one ear and sometimes has a hard time understanding what is going on.
Our family had its troubles, to be sure, and some of those troubles were hard to get past. I’m fortunate that after a ten-year absence, when I returned to my mother’s life, she opened her arms wide and embraced me. In the time since, she has made it her mission to remind me of her surpassing love every day, whether challenging me in “Words with Friends,” sending me a text using my childhood nickname, or insisting that I call her during a midnight drive home after a long business trip, just to make sure I didn’t fall asleep at the wheel. I’m so deeply grateful for her love, a love which is informed by the fact that she is a mother, too, and she understands when my kids are being rotten or my days have been too long, and what’s more, she always seems to know when that is without me having to tell her. My mom isn’t perfect, but she’s instilled in me the same values I realized I’ve tried to impart to my own children, and although I spent a good part of my mothering experience trying to do things differently than my mom did, I realize now that every remarkable thing I’ve done as a mother, every time I’ve gotten it right, it’s because I’ve followed her example without even knowing it.
If the point of Mother’s Day is for children to make sure their moms know how much they matter, heck, that’s fine. If the point is to stop and make a person think about the positive ways in which their mother has influenced them and made them a better person, and to make a phone call or have a conversation where those feelings are expressed, that’s good, too. But those thoughts, and words, and feelings, don’t need to be accompanied by a $99 necklace from Zales, or a bouquet of flowers that will be wilted in a week, and they shouldn’t be the product of the greeting card industry – they should come from the heart, because we mean them, and because they’re true.
And you know who taught me that?