Apart from one day a year of orchid arrangements and mimosas, none of that worshipful admiration ever seems to translate into actual, real-world support for mothers.
On Sunday, May 14, millions of Americans will celebrate their mothers with gifts, elaborate meals, and flowery Facebook posts of gratitude and devotion. This annual outpouring of emotion can verge on performative, but for many of us it still expresses a powerful truth. It’s a day of recognizing and appreciating the hard work and sacrifice that goes into being a mother.
And I, as a mother, will be pissed off by all of it.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. I’m not about to turn down a good brunch, and I can get schmaltzy on social media with the best of them. I’m all about gratuitous displays of appreciation for the people who have shaped us, whether those bonds are genetic or chosen. What I can’t get behind is declarations of veneration for the very state of motherhood from a society that, come Monday morning, will be back to exploiting and devaluing women who parent like it’s going out of style (which, unfortunately, it never is).
American culture professes a near-religious devotion to the idea of parenthood – particularly motherhood, nurturing being constructed in our passionately binary worldview as a uniquely feminine skill. We are obsessed with the idea that children are the future and that mothering alone determines whether someone becomes a Nobel Peace Prize winner or a literal flesh-eating monster. Thus, mothers bear the brunt of transforming society for the better on a day-to-day basis. We tell women their accomplishments are meaningless if they don’t have children; that raising babies is the most important job in existence, and one that women are inherently qualified for despite its profound difficulties. We talk about mothers like they’re a cross between neurosurgeons and Mother Teresa.
But apart from one day a year of orchid arrangements and mimosas, none of that worshipful admiration ever seems to translate into actual, real-world support for mothers.
The only thing America loves more than imaginary, flawless mothers is tearing down real mothers for every perceived failing. We criticize women for working, for staying home, for breastfeeding, for formula feeding, for being “helicopter parents” or spending too much time on their phones. Meanwhile, fathers are praised to the skies if they can manage to spend an hour alone with their children and not set the house on fire.
Witness the shock and awe at all the male parents who were “left alone” during the Women’s March on Washington in January, who miraculously managed to display bare competence at skills that most female parents pull off every day, often without help. Single mothers, instead of being lauded for their juggling multiple demanding roles without a break, get blamed for everything from federal budget deficits to crime rates. And even partnered mothers tend to disproportionately shoulder the burden of parenthood, while fathers get to do the “fun” parts.
Mothers are financially penalized for having children and returning to work. In contrast, men’s salaries tend to improve after having children. Childcare is frequently either unavailable, unaffordable, or subpar. Paid maternity leave, or time off to care for sick children, are treated as privileges rather than rights. Oh, and the proposed replacement for the Affordable Care Act would allow states to opt out of providing coverage for maternity care, because nothing says “reverence for motherhood” like putting women into thousands of dollars of medical debt just for routine care during pregnancy. Given the many ways our society leaves mothers vulnerable and unprotected, is it any wonder that I sometimes think Mother’s Day is basically a bad joke?
It wasn’t always like this. Although there are holidays for celebrating mothers all over the world, the version of Mother’s Day we observe in the United States was originated by Anna Jarvis in 1905. Jarvis’s intention wanted to honor her mother, also named Anna Jarvis, with a national holiday inspired by the “Mother’s Friendship Day” pacifist events the elder Jarvis organized. But shortly after its inauguration, the reverent origins of the holiday were drowned out by those who saw it as an irresistible opportunity to sell flowers and candy. Jarvis was disheartened by the commercialization of Mother’s Day and spent the rest of her life fighting unsuccessfully to reclaim her creation.
Today, in an era of women-led political action and community organizing, the time may finally be right to bring Mother’s Day back in line with Jarvis’s vision. What if, instead of kicking back and enjoying our breakfast in bed next Sunday, mothers across the country spoke out against a culture that exploits and demeans us while pretending to admire us? What if instead of spa days, we demanded better public schools for our children, guaranteed paid family leave, and an end to the wage gap? What if we honored the first Anna Jarvis by marching for peace, universal health care, and clean air and water? What if we protested on behalf of the mothers separated from their children because of deportation and incarceration?
It’s startling that in a year rife with marches and protests, there don’t seem to be any high-profile political actions planned for Mother’s Day. Perhaps that’s because we’ve been lulled into thinking of motherhood as apolitical, but nothing could be less true. Conception, pregnancy, parenting, education – all of these are political battlegrounds, and our children and families are on the front lines whether we acknowledge it or not. These last few months have shown us that even in dark times, our voices raised together can make a difference. And if there’s one thing just about every mother has in common, it’s the desire to leave things at least a little better for our children. So let’s use this Mother’s Day as an inspiration to do just that.
Lindsay King-Miller is a queer femme who does not have an indoor voice. Her writing has appeared in Bitch Magazine, Cosmopolitan.com, Buzzfeed, The Hairpin, and numerous other publications. She lives in Denver with her partner, a really cute baby, and two very spoiled cats. She is the author of Ask A Queer Chick (Plume, 2016).