05/16/2012 11:50 am ET Updated Jul 15, 2012

A Toast to Imperfect Mother's Days

I'm sure that for some families (particularly on the Hallmark Channel), the second Sunday in May is a daisy chain of handmade gifts, brunches where children eat asparagus, stimulating conversations with extended family who truly enjoy each other's company, sunshine, conviviality and a blissful holiday of joyful togetherness with the womb as its centerpiece.

But after conducting a (very casual, but likely highly accurate) poll of women friends, I'd venture that the majority of us fall into a different camp: Mother's Day is a lovely holiday with not only the potential to quickly lose its luster, but a holiday so alienating to some women (and men) that for many, it's best to be avoided.

Counter to national custom, I spent most of Mother's Day at a Steampunk festival. Since my son doesn't eat asparagus (or most things) and can hardly sit still, extravagant Mother's Day brunches are excruciating for him, and by extension excruciating for my husband and me. So instead of the complimentary glass of champagne and chocolate fountain, we joined a friend who has no children and whose mother had recently died. Our day was spent distracting her from a holiday that depresses her and no longer includes her at all. We wandered amidst the Steampunks, who were dressed in their splendid and odd Jules Verne-inspired Victoriana, all goggled, bustled, sword and jetpack-adorned. There were not a lot of mothers in evidence.

My son had a protracted fit mid-day because not only was there no Ferris wheel or bumper cars, but I'd forgotten to tell him we were going to a "costume fair" and he was wearing track pants and a t-shirt. The magic show we used to distract him was cancelled because it was being held inside an Indian grocery store and the Muslim owners prohibited sorcery in their establishment. We had a period of lovely calm mid-day and then another fit at night for reasons unknown, though likely precipitated by the Froot Loops and Sprite I'd permitted to avoid hysteria at the magic show.

And then there were the Mother's Day reports from friends. One had to drive her husband to the airport at 5 a.m. so he could fly cross-country to diffuse a situation between his ex-wife and his adult son. Another had dinner with us at an insanely loud family-packed restaurant because her partner had left on vacation that morning, forgetting (or ignoring) that it was Mother's Day. A third told me that while the day ended well, things weren't so blissful earlier when she was screaming, "Just get away from me!" at her two kids. A husband asked his gluten-free wife for a pancake recipe. Divorced two-mom families we know argued about how to split the day. My cousin's only son was recently sent to jail. A friend flew home because her mother is dying. A widower colleague brought his kids to two back-to-back movies to erase the day.

I'm sure some people come by their Mother's Day Facebook photos honestly. The photos of my not-so-close "friends" and their kids on beaches and under willow trees -- which I found myself muttering over at midnight -- must hold some authenticity. I don't believe they'd go so far as to Photoshop them, but some are truly over-saturated with portrait studio smiles and rosy cheeks. The only photo I have from this year's Mother's Day is of my son standing between a barrel of swords and a heavy-set Steampunk in a Revolutionary War costume.

Yet my feelings about Mother's Day have nothing to do with my feelings about being a mother. As a later-in-life parent, I'm enormously grateful that I have a child, a husband and both my parents. It's the demand that we all participate in the holiday that dismays me, and upsets everyone I know who has no mother, or no children, or none that they wish to celebrate with.

I called my mother and asked if over the years she'd had Mother's Days she found disappointing. "Some," she said. But then she thought for a minute. "But I think it's more about the memories. About being disappointed or sentimental that some of the things and people we remember about Mother's Day aren't here anymore."

She was right. I was missing the golden blush of memory. My romanticized memories of Mother's Day are mostly from when I was between 5-10, before my aunt died at age 33. Before my grandmother died. Before my brothers and cousins dispersed across the country. In those days, we had dinner with my extended family at the same restaurant every year. It was on a muddy river in New Jersey that's probably a Super Fund site now, but we thought it was elegant and we could depend on it being there.

Disappointment is so often about missed opportunities, unmet expectations and misidentified heartache. Holidays are the Holy Grail of all three.

So for another cliché about holidays: Often we must make or remake our traditions. It's unlikely that a Steampunk festival will become our annual Mother's Day activity, but from this inaugural year forward, I vow to talk to my mother and my girlfriends at the end of the day, appreciate our good fortune, laugh at ourselves and our families and toast to how messy and spirited our lives are.