I’m the first to recognize Mother’s Day as complicated.
Invented in 1908 by Ann Jarvis to celebrate her own mother, a Sunday School teacher and caregiver of soldiers during the Civil War, Mother’s Day was co-opted by greeting card companies by 1920 and today represents a multibillion-dollar enterprise. Despite her own campaigning for the holiday, Jarvis became disgusted with its commercialization and by 1924 was having petitions signed to rescind it. She accused florists and greeting card manufacturers of being “charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, kidnappers and termites that would undermine with their greed one of the finest, noblest and truest movements and celebrations.”
Still, who doesn’t enjoy being recognized with a thoughtful card or a beautiful bouquet?
For all the happy families gathering around their mothers for brunch next Sunday or celebrating her with flowers and cards, there are an equal number of people for whom the holiday brings dread and pain. I’m not talking about the eleventh-hour panic striking the hearts of fathers and kids searching for gifts that will live up to Mom’s expectations, although there is probably an essay to be written about the command-performance aspect of Mother’s Day.
I’m talking about the year you lose a mother, or the year in which, having lost both your mother and your mother-in-law and your grandmothers, you find yourself not needing to buy any cards at all. Suddenly, the issue of commercialization doesn’t seem so important, and every card you receive (or don’t) takes on a new meaning.
I’m talking about those Mother’s Days when maybe you’ve chosen to cease communication with your mother for months or maybe years, and despite knowing this is the best and healthiest choice for everyone, you are overcome with guilt because it seems everyone else in the world is able to have normal family relationships, that everyone else ended up with a mother who was easier to love.
I’m talking about the pain of Mother’s Day for women who have lost children, or the pain felt by women who gave birth and surrendered their children for adoption. There are complications for stepmothers and biological mothers, surrogate mothers and motherly figures. The scenarios are endless.
Why am I talking about these hard and complicated Mother’s Days? It’s not because I’m trying to be a downer. But I personally have experienced both the highs and lows of the holiday. I had a therapist with whom I spent a session expressing my anxiety over Mother’s Day and she told me that it was the most problematic holiday for so many of her patients. In a perverse way that made me feel better. I wasn’t alone in these hard and complicated feelings. For a while I imagined forming a group for all of us for whom this holiday isn’t just brunch and bouquets, the Mother’s Day Haters Club. Wanna join?
I’ll admit, it’s sort of ironic for an author obsessed with writing about motherhood to be the founder and president of the MDHC. (Not to mention an author who does a Mother’s Day giveaway of her books most every year—haha.) But then, that’s also the point. Motherhood, in all its forms, is hard and complicated. The stories I’m drawn to don’t shy away from those complications, and neither should the holiday.
Mother’s Day, I’m sure, is neither all good nor all bad for most women. A thoughtful card might land in the mailbox, or the phone might ring with a loved one calling, but it is also a day when both men and women feel loss, for people we no longer have in our lives, or people we never had in the first place. Recognizing these complications, rather than falling prey to the pressure of commercialization or perfectionistic ideals, helps us not only to be sensitive to the potential difficulties of Mother’s Day, but also to stay grounded in our approach to the true meaning of a holiday that can be quite joyous.
I am so glad I made the choice to become a mother. My relationships with my children are my greatest blessings. However, Mother’s Day isn’t the one day I look to them to manifest appreciation. We have loving relationships in which nobody has to give thanks or keep score. Their existence is enough. I hope for them, as flawed as I may be, my existence is enough.
For me, the second Sunday in May is the perfect temperature in Rhode Island to plant my vegetable garden—or, as I wrote in a recent essay, to reconnect with Mother Earth. It is a day to be grateful, with others or alone, hands in the dirt or reading or writing. My friends and I might exchange a few texts, my husband might bring me a cup of coffee. In my life, as in my writing, I’d rather recognize the complexity of human emotion surrounding motherhood instead of letting capitalism dictate some rosy ideal of what it looks and feels like.