Mother's Day

I propose moving away from a unified narrative of Mother's Day. Can we reframe the day to contemplate the relationship between mother and child with real reflection?
05/13/2012 06:35 pm ET Updated Jul 13, 2012

From the start I want to be clear: I love my mother and I love being a mother.

Now to my point: Mother's Day causes a lot of tension. I noticed this perhaps-obvious fact years ago, shortly after my husband's mother died suddenly of a brain aneurism at age 59. He and I were leaving a restaurant and the bartender shouted, "Have you called your mother?" The rest of the afternoon was abysmal.

Mother's Day can be difficult for many reasons.

A recent controversial cover of Time magazine shows a mother breastfeeding her three-year old child with the caption: "Are You Mom Enough?" The intentionally provocative cover elicits reactions not only because of opinions about attachment parenting or cultural pressure to be "mom enough" (or "good enough" to use the psychoanalyst D. W. Winnciott's term). The cover also stirs up our own wishes and frustrations as children, awakening reservoirs of feelings about our own mothers. The cover was perfectly timed for Mother's Day, a holiday that engenders complex emotions.

The day can be frustrating. Many mothers I know resent spending what should be their day respectfully shuffling to in-laws. Whose day is it? My happily-married best friend consciously decided not to have children. She buys a gift for each of the mothers in her family but what is each relative to do in return? Answer: They buy her a gift. What was the point of the day again? And what about gay couples? Families with gay parents have faced this holiday long before the president's recent endorsement. If there are two dads, do both celebrate Father's Day or does one celebrate Mother's Day? The holiday presumes a heterosexual family and some children may feel excluded from the national narrative.

Mother's Day can leave women and children alike feeling depleted, inadequate, and depressed. For the child of a less-than "good-enough mother," Mother's Day presents challenges. It's difficult to make mimosa toasts when one feels angry. When a mother has died, the holiday becomes a marker of loss. If a woman has given a child up for adoption, as a surrogate, or has decided to terminate a pregnancy -- even if she is completely comfortable with her decision -- the day can raise mixed feelings. If someone has lost a child, then Mother's Day can turn into an anniversary of mourning. I know too many traumatic stories that must be reawakened on this day.

One colleague I admire greatly once declared both humorously and indignantly right after the holiday: "What's with the pervasive need to wish me Happy Mother's Day everywhere I go?" She was on to something; I had noticed that from neighbors to salespeople at the drug store, everyone that year seemed to wish me a Happy Mother's Day as well. "What is this compulsion?" she continued. "I hated my mother -- who is now dead -- and I don't have any children. These people are driving me crazy!"

I never forgot her humor, her rage and her insight. Why do we have a societal need to declare our love for the mother? What's beneath it?

The day has its own simplified or Hallmark narrative: the all-giving mother finally has an opportunity to be placed on a pedestal and her children can pay tribute. We, the children, prove that we appreciate our mothers through the purchase of flowers, jewelry or a hand-painted ceramic mug. Does the accumulation of trinkets, even those created or bought with love, actually mask the complexity of how we feel about our mothers?

I am a dutiful daughter. Having been a child for 45 years, I have a sense of what my own mother will like. (This year, she will receive a butter dish from my daughter, lovingly painted with the word "enjoyed" written on the bottom of the dish for when the butter runs out.) I apportion considerable time to shopping and, in the years we cannot be together, to waiting in line at the post office to mail gifts. But what does this dedication actually reveal? Is it perhaps a cover for any deeper ambivalent feelings? My mother knows that I love her. If I rush to the post office, then it is in order not to face feelings that I would experience if I disappointed her. The holiday can whitewash the realities of relationships and love.

Yet no matter how aware we are of the hypocrisy, it's hard to avoid the pressures. I have long told my children and husband that there's no need to buy me anything. A hand-made card or poem or even the ability to sleep late and get hugs from my kids is enough. Nevertheless, every year my kids compose a frame-worthy poem or save their pennies for a pair of earrings from the store down the street. It's not that I don't cherish each gift. I do. But I cherish their spontaneous expressions of love even more. After watching Jennifer Lopez sing on American Idol last night, I observed, "She's pretty" and my son earnestly responded, "not as pretty as Mommy." My daughter agreed. What more could I want for Mother's Day?

I can hear the rebuttals now -- what's wrong with children taking their time and pennies to express their love, even if we experience ambivalent feelings towards our mothers?

Nothing is wrong with it. I am not trying to scrap expressions of love or appreciations of motherhood. I propose, rather, moving away from a unified narrative of Mother's Day. Can we reframe the day to contemplate the relationship between mother and child with real reflection? Whether she was a "good enough mother" or not, how about asking your mother a question this Sunday, perhaps about something she'd like to tell you about her life? If your mother is no longer living, perhaps a portion of the day can be devoted to reflecting upon a memory of her, sending her a message or a prayer, or telling someone about her. And if your mother was never in the picture, maybe there's a woman who acts like a mother to you -- an aunt, a friend, a yoga teacher, a therapist -- and you want to celebrate her or them. Mother's Day could open insights about the complexities of motherhood -- being a mother and/or having a mother -- rather than leave many of us frazzled.

Stephen Dedalus, Joyce's literary alter ego in his epic work Ulysses, thinks: "Amor matris, subjective and objective genitive, may be the only true thing in life." But perhaps the best insight on Mother's Day I've ever heard comes not from Joyce but from my own daughter who, at age 11, performed a "Mother's Day dance" for me and said, while emerging out of a hula hoop, "When a child is born, so is a mother."