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Why they've got Mother's Day all wrong

Cards for Mother's Day.


Presents of pictures and gifts of jewelry and silliness abounds.

I'm sure I'll get a nice breakfast in bed, and a nice picture colored with crayons, and my family will ask me what I want, and I'll get some kind of nice gesture -- we'll work in the garden together, or I'll get a couple of clean bathrooms to mark the way this culture celebrates mothers.

But the whole idea of Mother's Day is just so wrong.

Sure, I love my kids. Anyone who knows me knows that I am a fierce, devoted, involved mother to my children, and that I have firmly held beliefs about parenting that make my life harder than it has to be. I homeschool my kids because of those beliefs. Being a mother is one of the few things I find sacred in life.

But Mother's Day? It's a warped mockery of motherhood. You give birth, you get a card. Woohoo!

Who says that being a mother has anything to do with the children you birth?

I was a mother by age six. I had three younger sisters, and we all had no mother to speak of. Sure, my mother was there in person, but when it comes to the things that matter the most about having a mother, she didn't count. So I filled in the gaps, the best I could. I was someone my sisters could trust. I was someone who they came to if they needed help with a teacher. I was the one who cooked breakfast, told them how to deal with friends who hurt their feelings, and threatened to beat up any bullies who came near them.

My mother fed us, took us to museums and to parks, and put clothes on our backs. She told us she loved us, and I honestly think she did the best she knew how to do. But she was broken, flawed, with trauma beyond repair. We never knew when we turned to her for help if we'd get it. Sometimes, she'd step in, save the day, and all would be well. Other times, she'd turn on us, use our troubles against us, and make a bad situation into a desperate one. There was never a way to trust her, to rely on her. 

She used to laugh at Mother's Day and call it "a consumer holiday, invented by a greeting card company," and she'd tell us not to celebrate it. We were horrified! We adored her and wanted to honor her! And we'd give her homemade cards, pictures of our happy family with the words "Best Mother in the Whole Wide World" on top, hoping that maybe if we believed it, and she believed it, then maybe she could be. Because on her good days, she was a very good mother.

But on her bad days, and there were more and more of them as I got older, she knew wasn't able to give us what we needed, and desperation set in. "Do you love me?" she'd ask, crying. "Do you know how much I loved you when you were a baby, how much I've done for you?"

I didn't, then. But now, as I raise three children, yes, yes of course I see how much she loved me. Enough to hold me and sing to me as a baby. Enough to read to me, to take me for pony rides, to travel with me,  enough to stay in a marriage to a philandering, selfish, man long enough to have three more children.

Enough to steal to feed us. Enough to cheat people, and to lie to people to get food for us. She loved us, all right. We were "her girls," and she was going to make sure she had the best for her girls.

But here's where Mother's Day goes wrong.

Being a good mother has very little to do with love, any more than a good marriage does. Giving birth to a baby is not enough to make you a mother. And you don't have to give birth to be one.

It's easy to love a baby. It's hard to take good care of it, to do the boring work necessary, to slog through endless breakfasts and spilled bowls of cereal and loads of laundry and snot everywhere and poop every single day and all of the things that come with babies and that no one remembers when they say, "Having a baby is easy."

Because that's what my mother used to say. "I love babies -- babies are easy."

And so, perhaps, they are, if you don't worrry about the future, and if you never plan ahead, and you don't worry about money. But toddlers aren't easy. And neither are five-year-olds. And I know that kids who are 11 can be tough, too. Not the kids themselves -- loving them is easy.

But just like it's possible to love a man with all your heart and be terrible in a marriage with him, it's possible to love your kids and be a terrible mother. Having a good marriage takes a certain set of skills, determination to do it right, and a willingness to forgo at least a little of what you want for the greater good. Loving someone means nothing without those basic building blocks.

And so it goes with being a good mother. 

Because being a good mother means being willing to do hard things for them, even if you don't want to.

If your baby's out of clean clothes, you have to do laundry, even if you'd rather finish reading your book. You have to make breakfast, even if it's easier to say to your oldest kid, "I'll give you a dollar if you make them breakfast." 
You have to face teachers at conferences, even if you don't want to, and you have to make your kids do homework, even if it's not your style. You have to teach them how to make beds and do dishes and clean toilets, and you have to do it yourself until they're old enough to learn. You have to teach them routines where they learn to brush their teeth, take baths and wear clean clothes. Even if you want to be a free spirit. When you're depressed, you can't just stay in bed for three months and let your kids fend for themselves. You have to go get help.

You have to get a job if your kids are starving, even if it's easier to steal. Because if you're the mother, and you go to jail, then your kids are in trouble. So you have to make sure you take of yourself, first, so you can take care of your kids. You have to engage with your kids, even if you're in emotional pain. Because they need you.

And despite my mother loving us very much, I became the mother to my sisters. And then I grew up, and my sisters grew up, and I took a break from loving children and enjoyed the freedom of adulthood.

And then I became a mother to my nephew, when he was 11 and I was 30 and my sister couldn't take of him anymore.

And then I became a mother to my own three children, and I began to see what it was all about.

Mothering has nothing to do with giving birth to children. I learned that who gave birth to you has little to do with who mothers you. My Aunt Nora, who was 18 when I was born, was a mother to me growing up. She helped me face teachers, encouraged me to do homework, made me learn how to make beds, how to wash my face and brush my teeth every day, and she engaged with me. Even when she had children of her own who needed her.

And because of her, I was able to pass that on to my children. 

Mother's Day has nothing to do with children you give birth to, and I think we do an injustice to people everywhere by making the assumption that pushing a kid from your body is enough to make you a mother.

There are men I know raising children alone who are far better mothers than my mother ever was, and yet because it's Mother's Day, my mother "should" get a card, and my friends are left out.

My Aunt Nora will get cards from her kids, of course, because she was a great mother to them. But I wish there were a "mothering" day, where she could get the recognition she deserves from all of the children she raised.

And my mother will call me at some point tomorrow, because she knows that I won't call her, and she'll say, "I didn't mean it when I said not to celebrate Mother's Day! So I thought I'd thank you for making me a mother. Because on the day you were born, I became a mother."

And I won't be heartless enough to tell her that being a mother is more than giving birth to a baby. Instead, I'll say, "Happy Mother's Day," and I'll call Aunt Nora, and I'll enjoy my breakfast in bed and my hand-made cards.

Reader Comments (2)

Lump in my throat.

July 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHelena Marriott

Tears in my eyes.
That is a really profound piece that transcends time.

May 14, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSue

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