Mother Day

It is called Mother’s Day.

Not Mothers Day, not Mothers’ Day.

Mother’s 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.

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You know who else shapes lives? Teachers, mentors, aunts, serial killers…

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.

rights of women
I dunno, the writ of habeas corpus is pretty good too…

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.

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I’m guessing these people’s mothers did not invoke the spectre of homelessness every time they suggested trying something new.

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.

best friend
The motto of middle-aged women who shop at Forever 21, rely on their children for advice, and buy the booze for after-prom.

“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.

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I love the wholesome, unsentimental simplicity of this Victorian Mother’s Day card, which suggests both the endurance and insidiousness of a mother’s love through its use of the invasive and virtually indestructible English ivy.

The Knockout

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I think I might need anger management.

A good way to tell whether someone knows me–really knows me–is to ask them how I am under stress. A year or so ago, when my department was discussing future leadership, one of my colleagues offered privately that I might make a good chair. Part of his argument was that I am “calm.” When I conveyed this to a friend of mine, he started laughing. Hysterically.

When I was on Tinder, a guy asked me via text, “Are you pretty laid back?” I considered his question over the course of several days, I discussed the merits of various responses with friends on Facebook, I did some research on the subject, and I replied in a lengthy message about conviction, assertiveness, and gendered assumptions about women. I never heard from him again. I should have saved us both some time and replied, “No.”

One of my ex-boyfriends told me I was “high strung.” He paused dramatically, then clarified, “Like an Irish setter.” Sure, he was a one-legged convicted felon who lied to me about his identity for several weeks when we first met, and he was high pretty much 24/7. But he was a good judge of character.

I try to remain calm, and most days I succeed. When I am well-fed, rested, and stress free–or, successfully ignoring the creeping demands on my time–I am pretty chill. The summer is better, because the email tide at work stops rolling in, and I can catch my breath. But if I am honest with myself, I contain my anger because it is in my vested interest to do so. Blood sugar, tiredness, and stress are contributing factors, sure, but the most important variable in whether or not I lose my shit seems to be whether or not I can get away it.

My friends know me to be an intense person, but few of them have actually seen me mad. They have seen me assertive, they have seen me bitchy, but they have never witnessed the fulsome power of my rage. If they had, they would not be my friends anymore, because I have a knack for identifying lines that people never knew they had and crossing them with the cold determination of a Panzer division. I have great capacity for empathy, and I pride myself on being able to understand other people’s perspectives. It’s part of what has made me a successful teacher and scholar, and it affords me some measure of redemption. But in moments of anger, my emotional sensitivity allows me to zero in on what will hurt the other person most. If I know them at all, I can level them. I see it in their passive, broken faces as they endure the onslaught of my words. In that moment, the only thing they hate more than me is themselves. There is no going back from that.

I have had two meltdowns in the last two days. In both cases, I was absolutely justified in feeling anger, if not in how I expressed it. In the first instance, an unleashed, 50-pound dog attacked my 12-pound little sweetheart (who was leashed), grazing her leg with teeth marks that hinted at how close we both came to catastrophe. (I am pretty alone in this world; if there is no dog, there is no me.) The owner, a neighbor with whom I have had some issues–namely, that he hits on me when his wife isn’t around–stopped the attack but then proceeded to slam his own dog to the ground and bash her head into the dirt with both hands. Both the attack on my dog and the man’s attack on his dog were terrifying. I literally ran away. In the second instance, a driver hit my parked car with some force during an aborted attempt to parallel park. Rather than assess the damage and leave a note, she left and parked elsewhere, thinking no one had witnessed the accident.

In both cases, a little voice in my head whispered, “Don’t do this.”

“Don’t open the door to your neighbor’s wife, who is undoubtedly here to apologize and inquire about your dog’s wellbeing.”

“Don’t get out of the car. Don’t follow the other driver.”

I didn’t listen.

Compelled by my rage, I invited both confrontations. My neighbor was so flustered by my obvious hostility when I opened the door that she refused to come into my house. I hectored her on the porch and watched her collapse inside herself as I issued an indictment of her dog, her husband, her marriage, her childrearing, and what I termed her “simpering apology.” I was probably right on every count: Her dog is a menace, because they failed to socialize it properly as a puppy and because her husband is abusive to it. Her husband is a menace, because he gets handsy with female neighbors when she’s not around, and he beat their dog like a savage. Her marriage–well, it seems like she puts up with a lot, and the way she bowed to my rage makes me suspect it’s not the first time someone has cut her off at the knees. And her childrearing–I’m sure she’s a good mother in many important respects. But her behavior during the attack on my dog and her husband’s attack on their dog makes me wonder. The last words I said to her were, “If you think that kind of violence is normal, I fear for your child and I fear for you.” Then I slammed the door in her face.

The young driver who hit my car didn’t know what hit her. She claimed she was going to return to my car, but I am skeptical. Still, Rational Me would like to give people the benefit of the doubt. But this morning, overtired and stressed about being unprepared for an exam just minutes away, I hit her with both barrels when I found her. Irresponsible, incompetent, immature–I don’t remember exactly what I said, but my spontaneous alliteration was positively Sorken-esque. If I were on the receiving end of one of my tirades, I might think, “Wow, I didn’t know people could talk like that in real life.” And then I would burst into tears. She stammered an apology that was profoundly inconvenient to my assessment of her as a person without remorse. I wasn’t having it, and she left in tears.

In both cases, I was shaking and shaken. Then, once the adrenaline dump subsided, I was overcome with shame and regret. When I picture what I must have looked like from the outside–course and loud and raving–I am mortified. That is not the person I want to be. That cannot be the person I am.

But it is.

I accomplished nothing with these confrontations. My neighbor–a woman who might very well be living in an unsafe home–will never again regard me as a decent person, let alone a friend. They will change nothing in how they correct their dog, because I have zero credibility as a person of restraint. If other neighbors hear about my outburst, they will be shocked and appalled. (Just today, an elderly neighbor brought me cookies with a note thanking me for being “the perfect neighbor.” When I think about her witnessing my outburst, it makes me want to die.) In the case of the young woman, I taught her nothing about maturity or accountability, squandering my spot on the moral high ground for a chance to roll around in the mud.

I think there is something wrong with me that I can hurt people this way, yet I manage to hide this terrible skill from most of the people in my life. I would never behave this way to someone who might physically overpower me, or someone who could get me fired, or someone whose love was not assured, or someone who could return my volley with anything approaching equal force. I only do this when I know I can get away with it. And that is a very grim assessment of my worth as a human being.

This doesn’t happen often, especially if I can avoid talking to customer service reps on the phone. It has been years since I really let go on someone in real life. That’s why these back-to-back confrontations have me so rattled. I thought I was doing better, but perhaps I was just stringing mines this whole time, and now I am tangled in the trip wires. I feel ruined, completely defeated, as if recovering from my own devastating knockout blow. I hope I wake up tomorrow feeling better about myself than I do tonight. What’s done is done, and there is no going back. All I can do is work harder in the future to keep it together, to see the other side. Be kind. Be still. Heed that little voice that whispers, “Don’t do this.”

And maybe ask for help.