Mother's Day used to be simple. It was a holiday when I would strive to come up with an original gift for my mother. When I was very young, part of the ritual included marking the occasion with my Grandmother. The first years after she died, I always wondered if my mother's primary thoughts were with her during our Sunday celebration.
By the time I hit my early 30s, people presumed that I had given birth. Well-intentioned folks offered me "Happy Mother's Day" wishes. With a mixture of mordant humor and aggrieved annoyance I would answer, "I'm nobody's mother. Even my dog is dead."
Eventually, I entered into the "hallowed" classification of mother when my son was born. His August arrival gave me until the following May to ease into my new role, yet I felt like an imposter on that day which had always been about paying homage to my mother. After all, who was I to encroach upon her territory? I was just getting started. Moreover, I was struggling to adjust to the ramifications of being another human being's caretaker.
Nine years later, by the time I was more comfortable with my forever-altered status (but not with all the questions about what being a mother meant), my mother died after a three-year illness. Although she had lived a full life, I never expected it to end that way for her. My first Mother's day without her was filled with sadness, anxiety, and the nagging question, "Who am I on this planet without my mother?"
Another seven years have passed. My son will be turning sixteen this summer. Recently, I have received phone calls from conflicted female compatriots calling to share their feelings about a holiday that is supposed to be suffused with love and happiness. The litany is expansive. The laments include: "Now that my mother is gone, I really miss her"; "I always hated Mother's Day because I couldn't stand my mother"; "My kids didn't get me anything for Mother's Day"; "I'm going to be alone on Mother's Day."
I was speaking with a friend who has children in the college/post-college sphere, parsing why women feel they need to be validated on Mother's Day. "You have to validate yourself," I told my friend firmly. "It's no different than a relationship with a man." I continued, "The answer lies in ourselves."
Is it because even the flowers, dinners, and physical presence of offspring cannot take away the self-doubt and longing for the perfect mother we had all intended to be? Is it possible to be a mother without being convinced that you have made too many mistakes? Remembrances of piercing comments made in anger from a beloved child's lips bring a fresh opportunity to reflect on personal failings and misgivings about the ability to mother.
American society plays a good game. It puts motherhood up on a pedestal, but does little to help women with childcare or creating an environment that would foster a work/life balance. The unpaid work that women do in the home is not respected. The function of caretaking is diminished until it is time to pay the piper - when something goes wrong. Inevitably, the question almost always comes down to, "Where was the mother?"
While on the bus during the last week of April, I saw a screaming headline from one of New York City's finest tabloids. It read, "Cameron Douglas' mom vacationed during son's drug spiral." I checked out the article online when I got home. It was a deconstruction of Diandra's Douglas' indifferent parenting skills. Needless to say, it didn't mention Michael Douglas until the final paragraphs.
This article originally appeared on the website mgyerman.com