It is called Mother’s Day.
Not Mothers Day, not Mothers’ Day.
Its modern American founder, Anna Jarvis, campaigned to make Mother’s Day a national holiday in the 1910s, and she went so far as to trademark the phrases “second Sunday in May” and “Mother’s Day” as she did so. The position of the apostrophe was quite deliberate. “Mothers Day” implies celebration of mothers en masse or the concept of motherhood in general. “Mothers’ Day” implies a day for mothers as a collective. Ms. Jarvis wanted a day on which individual families would convene to honor their individual mothers, giving the holiday a distinctly individualistic and personalized flavor.
It’s a lovely idea. But that apostrophe is also responsible for a lot of angst, especially in the age of social media.
While I have dedicated no shortage of space on this blog to complaining about my mother (I know, it’s so original), I have always observed Mother’s Day with, at the very least, a card and a phone call. Since my parents moved nearby three years ago, I have also endeavored to give my mother meaningful experiences for Mother’s Day, whether she will remember them or not. (She doesn’t.) Today, for example, my sister, my niece, and I took my mother to a local botanical garden for a long walk in gorgeous weather, then out to lunch at a local market. I gave her a handmade card, and I spent $50 on Korean tacos. The only deficiency in this year’s observance was my failure to give her a handmade card from the dog. She didn’t notice, because she had the actual dog. At one point on the walk, they both laid down in warm grass with yellow flowers, and my mother laughed and laughed as the dog lolled beside her. It was nice to see her happy when she is in so much pain.
I have never minded performing these rituals, and I still don’t. What I mind is the public performance of Mother’s Day on social media, which has metastasized into two virulent strains of observance. I don’t know which one I find more upsetting.
First, there is the posting of updates, links, photos, and memes that celebrate one’s own motherhood. At 44, I still have many friends and relatives who are in the early years of motherhood, and some of them feel the need to exclaim, loudly, about how it has shaped their lives. Goody for them! But attendant with these declarations is a sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit, conflation of womanhood with motherhood. Variations of “I didn’t know what it meant to be a woman until I became a mother” have saturated my Facebook newsfeed on Mother’s Day for the last few years.
From the perspective of the childless woman–whether due to infertility, the death of a child, not finding the right partner, or not wanting to be a mother–the only appropriate response to this pastel narcissism is, “Go fuck yourself.”
The other offending strain of Mother’s Day observance is entirely inoffensive, and yet, somehow more hurtful. It involves the posting of updates, links, photos, and memes that declare one’s own mother to be the best mother. Today, fully 95% of my Facebook newsfeed consists of photographs old and new, with declarations of love and thanks to mothers for what sound like magical childhoods. Profound sacrifices, shared confidences, shared adventures, unconditional love–these are the themes that animate my friends’ posts.
I am glad for them, that their mothers embodied the ideal. But I am left wondering, too. Are their mothers really that great? Or are my friends just better than I am at presenting a happy face to the world? Am I the asshole here?
Families are mysterious organisms, and because we spend our lives enclosed within perhaps just one or two, it is hard to know what is “normal.” Take violence, for example. What is an appropriate amount of violence within a parent-child relationship? All my life, I thought I knew. And then one day, when I was 28 years old, I learned that I had no idea.
Ellen was a new friend, but we hit it off so well that people who just met us assumed we had known each other for years. As new friends do, we spent a lot of time sharing our stories, including those of our families. I don’t remember what I was telling Ellen about my life growing up, but I will never forget the look on her face or the incredulity in her voice when I mentioned something about my mother’s discipline.
“Your mother hit you?” she asked, as though the concept was completely foreign to her.
I resented the implication that there was anything wrong with how I was raised, so I immediately sprang to my mom’s defense. “Well, no, she would just, you know, like, lose it. And then, WHAM”–I smashed my right hand through the air and tossed my head back to signal the impact–“right across the face.”
In my mind, I thought I was tempering the severity of the outbursts, which were frequent throughout my childhood but also totally unpredictable. My mother did not hit me as rational means of dispensing discipline, because there was no order or predictability to when she would lash out. She hit me when she needed to hit someone. And she only stopped hitting me when I got taller than her, in about 8th grade. One day she went to hit me, and I grabbed her wrist mid-smash. I held her arm firmly in the air, looked her dead in the eye, and said sternly, “If you ever hit me again, I will hit you back.” I was bluffing–I have never hit anyone, ever–but it worked. She never struck me again.
It took another 15 years for me to understand what that meant: there was nothing righteous about her anger towards me; she only hit me because she could not regulate her emotions; there was no perfect way I could behave that would not eventually incur her wrath; and the only way I could make her stop hitting me was to threaten her. My friend Ellen’s reaction helped me to untangle this.
“Your mother hit you in the face!?” Ellen exclaimed, even more aghast. What I thought was a mitigating detail was, for her, the final indictment. Not only had Ellen’s mother never struck her in the face, her mother had never struck her at all. Here, I was thinking my childhood was normal, but to Ellen, I might as well have grown up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. And to me, her childhood–and especially her relationship with her mother–seemed like a fantasy.
Actually, it seemed like a Hallmark card, one of those with the trifold and the florid script. And that’s why I tend to make my own Mother’s Day cards, because it is so hard to find a store-bought one that doesn’t force a bitter laugh.
I have no idea what is normal. I have no idea what goes on in other people’s families. I have no idea whether people who claim their mom is their best friend (whut?) or their biggest supporter or their greatest source of inspiration are really telling the truth. I hope so! But that’s not my situation. I haven’t spent much time alone with my mother since leaving for college. She is not my friend, and I have learned to carefully tailor the information I provide her about my life. She is sometimes a source of support, but just as often she has undermined my self-confidence and -esteem. She loves me, but not unconditionally.
Still, I am lucky. My mother worked hard to provide a nice life for our family. She taught me to be well-mannered and considerate of other people. She encouraged excellence in school and at work. She never abused alcohol or drugs, and she never hit me with anything other than her hands. She taught me how to take care of elderly parents. If it seems like I am damning with faint praise, it is because this is the unqualified list of traits I can offer. But still–I could have done worse. Much, much worse.
A long time ago, I visited a run-down community museum where schoolchildren’s poetry substituted for actual artistic and historic content. Elementary school students had obviously been asked to write poems about their mothers, and the little scraps of paper hanging on the museum’s walls were silly and touching, as you might expect. There was a line in one of the poems, though, that to this day stays with me, because it so elegantly captures the simplicity and ambivalence of Mother’s Day–and mothers–for people like me:
My mother is my mother
And I love her.
That’s really all there is to it. It’s not the individualized and personalized celebration of one’s own mother that Anna Jarvis envisioned when she slipped that apostrophe into Mother’s Day. But it is honest and sincere. Maybe next year I will post it on Facebook.