Earlier this week, one of my Facebook friends posted this column by Anne Lamott from Mother’s Day weekend 2010 (May 8 of all days, the last day we spent with a healthy Hudson). Its title is “Why I Hate Mother’s Day.” I have been struggling to put into words all week why this column bothered me so much. I’m still not sure I know, but this is as close as I can get.
While I know that many friends and many, many others are huge fans of Anne Lamott’s, I can’t help but thinking the same thing about this column that I did about an article I read (and wrote about) back in the summer of 2010, not long after Hudson died, entitled “All Joy and No Fun: Why Parents Hate Parenting.” My reaction to both is this: if that’s really how you feel, then you aren’t doing it right.
Anne Lamott makes some valid points, particularly about the over-commercialization of Mother’s Day. Perhaps no one has been doing it right ever since the holiday was founded in the early part of the last century. Interestingly, the woman who founded the modern Mother’s Day holiday, in memory of her own mother, ultimately ended up opposing the holiday because of the way it rapidly became commercialized and turned into a “Hallmark holiday.” But does that mean that Mother’s Day must be a “Hallmark holiday”?
And Lamott is certainly right that Mother’s Day can rub so much salt in the wounds of so many women—those who, like me, have lost their mothers; those who, like me, have lost a child; those who yearn to be mothers but through many different circumstances beyond their control are not now and in some cases, may never be; those whose relationships with their own mothers, living or dead, are nonexistent, treacherous, or otherwise fraught with obstacles antithetical to the very idea of a “Mother’s Day.” But as a woman who has lost both a mother and a child, I don’t accept the proposition that this grief is cause to cast aside the idea of a “Mother’s Day” altogether.
The thing is, just like I didn’t recognize the parenting experiences described in “All Joy and No Fun,” I don’t recognize the Mother’s Day Lamott describes in her column. Yes, I remember the first few Mother’s Days after my own mother died, when I thought my head might explode if I saw another Mother’s Day card display at the grocery store or commercial on television, when I felt like no matter what I did, I couldn’t get away from it. And yes, I remember the crippling Mother’s Day after Hudson died, when all I could think about was how very gone Hudson was, how the Mother’s Day before was the last day we spent with her at home, all the fateful decisions we made that day and the next. And the Mother’s Day after that, last year, when Mother’s Day fell on the very anniversary of the day Hudson died. What, exactly, does one in my shoes do with that?
But a day that raises mothers above all other women as having superior value as beings? A day that raises the illusion that mothers are automatically happier and more complete? A day where mothers are forced against their will to take their mothers, mothers-in-law, and children to restaurants? A day where “non-mothers must sit in their churches, temples, mosques, recovery rooms and pretend to feel good about the day while they are excluded from a holiday that benefits no one but Hallmark and See’s”?
Maybe I’m naïve. And if this is the Mother’s Day world that you live in, I’m incredibly sorry, and my only advice to you is get out. But for me, I don’t see Mother’s Day as black and white as this. I don’t see it as either you are a woman with an awesome, living mother that you can parade around on Mother’s Day, or you are a woman whose mother died or abused you or abandoned you and therefore Mother’s Day is nothing but a black hole. I don’t see it as either you are a mother basking in the glow of the love and “reflected glory” of your children on this day, or you are a mother who gets dragged to a restaurant against your will. I don’t see it as either you are a woman who, as a mother, knows like no one else can what it means to love another person, or you are a woman who, not a mother, can never know that kind of love. Who really lives in these absolutes? Who wants to?
My Mother’s Day went something like this today. I slept in a bit while Ed got up with Jackson. I went downstairs to find them making pancakes for me and having colored a piece of art paper for me that said, “Mommy is the Best.” And yet, I felt wrong. I felt irritable and irritated for no reason that I could discern. And then Ed turned on some music, a mournful Adele song that immediately brought me to tears, at which point I understood what was wrong with me. I suggested we might need to listen to something more chipper. We ate breakfast and then went and picked strawberries and picnicked under a huge, old tree on a farm. We went looking for some things for Hudson’s garden, which we intend to “break ground” on tomorrow as we mark three years without her. We walked to town and back. We ate dinner at home, a simple meal of fresh tomato, basil, and mozzarella sandwiches and bruschetta, all of which I made myself. And then I sat down and made a collage of photos—one of me with my mom when I was a child, one of me with Hudson, and one of me with Jackson. While I was searching for photos, I sifted through some of Hudson that I had not looked at in quite a while, and I was overcome with longing for her, awash in fresh tears of missing her, in memories of the short and precious time that was her life. And now I am here, writing about it all.
What I have learned since my mother died, and to a much greater degree since Hudson died, is that nothing in life is a “Hallmark holiday.” And if we let it be defined that way, then we are doing it wrong. Life is not lived in black and white. It is joy in the midst of sorrow, sorrow in the midst of joy. It is amazing and awful in turns, and turns, and turns. Some of us have wonderful, lovely mothers who are still with us. Some of us have wonderful, lovely mothers who left us far too soon. Some of us have complicated mothers to whom it is hard to relate. Some of us have complicated mothers who left us before we could figure them out. Some of us have mothers who never loved us or who abandoned us or who abused us emotionally or physically. Some of us have many other women in our lives who play the role of mother, whether they be grandmothers, friends’ mothers, sisters, or simply women who we were lucky enough to meet along the way. Some of us have children, perfect and whole, to celebrate this day with. Some of us have lost our children, to death or to something else. Some of us never got to meet our children. Some of us have no children but long for them deeply. Some of us have children in our lives for whom we are a mother-figure of some kind. Some of us are perfectly content to have no children.
For some of us, Mother’s Day is easy and lovely. For some of us, Mother’s Day is hard and lovely. For some of us, Mother’s Day is hard and awful. For some of us, Mother’s Day this year is harder than it was last year. For some of us, Mother’s Day this year is easier than it will be next year, although we don’t know it yet.
To me, Mother’s Day is a day to honor that we are all someone’s child and that as women, whether we are mothers in the strict sense of the word in that we have children, we have most certainly mothered someone somewhere in our lives, just by offering our love and care to someone who needed it.
For some of us, Mother’s Day may mean honoring the fact that we survived our childhoods in spite of our mothers. For some of us, it may mean honoring the fact that we mother ourselves better than our mothers ever did. For some of us, it may mean that we spend the day with a mother we adore. For some of us, it may mean that we spend the day missing a mother we adore. For some of us, it may mean that we spend the day with children we love, whether our own or someone else’s. For some of us, it may mean we spend the day missing a child we love, whether our own or someone else’s. For some of us, it may mean honoring the fact that mothering someone else or someone else’s child may be the only mothering we ever get to do.
But whatever it is, it is a day for us to honor in our own way our own particular place in the world of mothers and children, whatever that place may be—painful, joyful, or some powerful mix of the two.
Life is only a “Hallmark holiday” if we let it be.
Happy Mother’s Day to all the women in my life. May this day honor you and may you honor it in whatever way is meaningful for you.