Sunday is Mother’s Day. I know this because I have been to the mall three times in the past few weeks (through no fault of my own). You can’t walk past a single shiny window without being bombarded with the certain way to make your mother happy come this Sunday morning — BUY THIS. Mom needs that. IF YOU LOVE HER, YOU WILL SPEND A LOT OF MONEY ON HER.
I hate this stupid holiday. I hate the flower commercials and I hate the greeting cards and I hate the “spa day” thing and I hate the alcohol marketing, the you’re-why-Mommy-drinks little “jokes.” I hate all of it and it makes my skin crawl every year.
(I hate this holiday despite having a good mother, who cared for us and exhibited all the qualities lauded on greeting cards and in syrupy jewelry commercials: generosity, patience, kindness. I know for many of you, that’s not something that can be said, and it complicates the whole thing even more.)
Maybe it’s having lost my much-loved mother-in-law a few short weeks ago, a detonation in our lives around which the dust is still settling. More likely it’s my prickly relationship with my own motherhood, with the Mommy Wars that demand reflexive worship of childbearing without any recognition of the cost of mothering (or not mothering) in American society. I say worship because its implied adoration subtracts doubt and complication, replaces gratitude with supplicative guilt. It makes of a mother an object, to appease and to whom we atone. We direct feelings toward an implacable, unknowable, distant figure, and consider neither that figure’s motivations nor our own.
But what’s wrong with taking one day to say thank you? Nothing. Look, if your mom worked two jobs or gave you a kidney I ain’t telling you not to say thank you for that. If you were a screwup kid, and you want to apologize to your mom once a year for being an asshole, that’s one thing, as is simply wanting to say thank you and needing, I guess, a day other than every single one ending in Y to say it.
But the coercive, slavering Mother’s Day marketing — that implies children should feel ashamed of their weight in a family and try to make up for it — does nobody any honor, least of all mothers. There’s nothing wrong with taking a day to appreciate but there is something wrong with reducing motherhood to that day and nailing Mom to the cross on it.
I hear you already: You’ll understand when your daughter is older! Yeah, maybe, and then I hope you print this out and staple it to my forehead: I don’t want my child’s implied apology for the work I choose to do raising her.
It’s work. Of course it’s work. I play games when I’m tired and go to the park when I’m sick and read to her when her 5,000th request of Wheedle on the Needle bores me senseless, and I come home early for dinner when I could be out with friends. I cook endless pans of mac and cheese and cut her toast into quarters. I sign her up for soccer camp and make doctor’s appointments and ponder how she manages to rip holes in the knees of every pair of leggings she has. She’s the reason I function on six hours of sleep and eight cups of coffee and I swear to God the next time I have to remind her not to carry the cat around like he’s a feckin’ football I’m gonna lose it.
And I don’t ever even once want her to think that any of that was some noble sacrifice I made despite my heart’s desires, or think about how she was a bother or a chore or a piece of drudgery.
Because here’s the secret: We all are. Everything we do is in spite of our selfish instinct to lay on the couch and watch TV. I work hard for her and I work hard for Mr. A and for me and our friends and our families and for causes and causes and causes I care about. I work hard because I’m fecking breathing and that’s what you do. Parenting is hard work. Friendship is hard work. My two dumb cats are hard work. Love is hard work, and we do ourselves no favors by pretending it shouldn’t be.
Half of adult misery is waiting for a parade that isn’t coming or a rest that isn’t restful, thinking you’re due something you ain’t gonna get, and the problem with these days of special gratitude is that they end and then you go back to what you think is the grind. As if hard work can’t be deeply, deeply rewarding and not in an “it was all worth it, even the times you puked on me” grudging kind of mockingly resentful way.
I don’t want Kick to be grateful for a life we gave her, I want her to be a part of a life we’re all living every day, that we’re all working for, together. I want her to be kind and strong and unafraid, and I want her to love and be loved, and I want her to have joy in her work whatever that work is, and I want her to know that nothing is truly thankless unless you make it so.
Not even motherhood. Not for a minute. Not when every night there’s a pair of small arms around my neck and a whispered, “I love you, Mama” right before she pretends to fall asleep when we both know she’s gonna flop around in her bed for an hour talking to her stuffies and then whisper through the baby monitor, “Can I kiss the cats goodnight one more time?”