Mother’s Day celebrates what mothers should be, while actively ignoring an absolute truth: Many of us harbor deep sensations of ambivalence toward mothering, pregnancy, and our children.
Martha Stewart’s website is bursting with Mother’s Day craft ideas that engaged co-parents can make with their children. Gifts that will find their way into the sheets after you’ve been granted permission to sleep-in. Gifts that are a perfect partner to the anticipated child-made pancakes that are offered up as (in)edible “thank yous” for raising these children that gather around expecting us to blush with pride and gratitude over the hand-painted dried macaroni necklace that is already flaking paint onto your pajamas.
Mother’s Day is complicated and problematic, not least of all because of its garish commercialization of parent-child relationships. It stinks of cis-heteronormative partnerships, privilege, unrealistic representations of children, and seems almost purposeful in its erasure of single mothers and fathers, not to mention non-parents who “mother” or nurture in ways that don’t meet the greeting card standard of “the maternal.” Women who live childfree out of choice find entire stores littered with gift sets dedicated to the multiple ways that, according to this biologically essentialized holiday, they have failed at being a woman.
Mother’s Day is triggering. It is a day celebrating what mothers should be, while actively ignoring an absolute truth: many of us harbor deep sensations of ambivalence toward mothering, pregnancy, and our children. No one is making a card for that. Instead, Mother’s Day, and everything it prescribes about mothering, is foisted on us, masking the lived experience of many mothers.
Although Mother’s Day is a mushroom cloud of maternal myths and expectation, mothers aren’t free from these expectations and stereotypes during the remainder of the year. Stacks of “ladies journals,” websites, and social media teem with articles telling us how to behave as mothers, how to appreciate our dear children, and how we should pamper ourselves when we are lucky enough to have some free time. Gents also appear to be full of concern for the holy mantle of motherhood; articles like this do more than proliferate misogyny by providing a shopping list of behaviors we should exhibit while raising children, notably: kindness, nurturing, selflessness, quiet beauty, dependability.
Ambivalence isn’t something that we are coached to expect when raising children, instead we are told to expect the opposite: that unconditional, unquestionable “love” of our children is being a mom.
In 2015, a mother can garner fairly transparent information about what is likely to happen to her body if she carries and births her baby, and you can even dig up some reliable recommendations for dealing with mental health issues that often visit mothers due to hormone fluctuations and maternal stress. But, when motherhood is packaged in the inherently sexist sparkly packages of gushing love and “bond with baby,” that creeping feeling of “ack, I don’t really actually want to be doing [insert expected mother duty here]” isn’t afforded a platform. Instead it lives like an unseen ghost in the parenting experiences of many mothers. Quiet. Haunting. Sometimes constant.
Our role, and the subsequent expectations, has been outlined in etiquette books since the Renaissance, and continues to be a profitable topic. But, with almost each title, the chapter on “Ambivalent Motherhood” appears to be missing. Experts fail to give us the permission to hate breastfeeding, co-sleeping, and the endless selflessness that is absolutely expected of mothers. We don’t offer parenting courses for dealing with the “meh” and the “I am not quite sure that I love you” feelings that many women experience.
In our deeply connected culture of immediacy, where we share ourselves with an easy flagrance on Twitter and Facebook, mothers are targets for missteps and any perceived disregard of their kids. If we are using our phones while out with our kids, our selfishness is noted; if we offer packaged lunches instead of homemade banana bread, we are sent admonishing letters from school administrators; if we focus on our careers instead of on our fledglings, we are called all of the Shakespearean slurs. Thus, in the context of dudes sharing their experiences in the toilet, mothers feel incapable of speaking out about our hesitancies toward motherhood. Instead, we hide our doubts about this role, guarding these feelings behind palisades of self-imposed shame and guilt. Because, as a woman, we are supposed to want to be this mother.
The western world’s love affair with purity culture locks mothers into stereotypes of lily-white, gentle, angelic, innocent, domestic homemakers, resulting in problematic intersections for mothers of color who, by merit of their skin alone, are viewed as suspect and less deserving of the “mother” title, no matter their parenting capabilities. In addition to race issues (please try to find even one mother of color in the greeting card section of Hallmark), this rarified image of motherhood that is replicated in everything from parenting literature and advertising to social media and pop culture, leaves no room for a blemish like ambivalence. We are not allowed to hate this, we are women and this is what we were meant to enjoy. When we stumble and admit to the possibility that we don’t naturally love being a mother, we are heartily turfed from the club; instead of being pulled closer and offered support, mothers who defect from our culturally acceptable version of “mama” are turned out on the step.
We rush mob-like to attack mothers who demonstrate shades of ambivalence because of deeply internalized worry that we may be outed for our own dislike of lengthy hours of playing with trains or dolls. That if we raise our voice to support a fallen comrade, we too will be judged wanting in our mothering, which, as a woman, there is no greater crime.
But, let’s pony up, here. We don’t love it all the time. Do we? We don’t. Not really. And it isn’t just the body exhaustion and complete arresting of our personal identity. It isn’t just that we suddenly become desexualized and our options for meaningful careers end up swirling around the toilet bowl. Maternal hesitancy isn’t rooted in any one simple soil; ambivalences are as unique as the mothers experiencing them.They can be grounded in anything from the simple dislike of repetitive and mindless busywork or our own experiences as children, to a lack of awareness around the realities of mothering or a personality clash between ourselves and the child we are raising. For some, these feelings may fluctuate, ebb and flow with stresses or levels of happiness. For others, maternal ambivalence may be long lasting and require a dedicated commitment to constant self-care and resource sharing.
I love my child. I do. I love parts of mothering. But, if I could have less of it, if I could snap off perhaps a quarter of this sickly sweet chocolate bar of parenting, I would enjoy what you’re force feeding me just a little bit more.
Mother’s Day needs to be more honest. We need more cards depicting us in states of postpartum anxiety, covered in our child’s shit and our own breastmilk. We need to see the 3am sobbing because our partners don’t understand why we still aren’t quite ready to fuck them even though we pushed this kid out seven months ago. Where are the honest depictions of the mother sitting lonely alongside a troop of nannies dreaming about the job she left for the drooling kid that sits in the sandbox? Where are the cards for that?
And if not cards, how about human understanding? Accepting and honoring the mothers who didn’t know what they were getting into, or who have had enough. That’s who I am celebrating this Mother’s Day.
Feminist Activist, college educator and writer, Lyndsay Kirkham is the co-editor of Gender Focus and reviews poetry for a number of literary publications. Living between the UK and Vienna, she has the life goal of collecting more cats than tattoos. Find her quoted on CBC, NPR and Wired. Her creative and non-fiction works are in many digital and print publications including, Kiss Machine, Canadian Women Studies Journal, Rabble and Women Write About Comics. You can also find her on Twitter.