Mother’s Day Humbug: I Don’t Need Gifts Just For Having Kids

To me, motherhood isn’t sainthood.

I am going to say something unpopular: I am a Mother’s Day Grinch. That doesn’t mean we won’t be visiting my 96-year-old mother-in-law on Sunday, with a card and maybe a pot of pink begonias.

I just don’t expect the same gestures at my house.

I have two kids—one adult, one alleged-adult—and being their mother has been, is, a rich and interesting experience. Like most any relationship though, motherhood is unequal parts joy and hell. And to me, motherhood isn’t sainthood. It’s a role, a choice, equally valid as any other. So why should I be venerated and applauded for it on the second Sunday in May?

I’m sure there are millions of mothers who will disagree, who enjoy the accolades, or at least feel it’s important to recognize the huge contribution mothers make to sustaining family life, to sustaining life, period. So maybe a collective “Yay for mothers” is in order.

Individually though, I wonder what’s being celebrated. Having given birth? Carrying out a role I chose (regardless of how well I do it)? Look, sometimes I get motherhood right. Often, I get it wrong. My husband tells me I’m too hard on myself as a mother. So maybe I recoil from Mother’s Day because I can’t accept praise for a job I don’t always feel I do well. Though perhaps that’s part of what Mother’s Day is about: acknowledging that motherhood is a job we often mess up at, but the effort is commendable.

Either way, I know that I don’t need for my sons—now 18 and 22—to make a big deal Happy Mother’s Day for me, because all year long, there are moments when I know: They’re glad I’m their mother. All year long, there are also moments when I think: Do I have to be their mother today, right now, in this or that situation? And I remember, yes, yes I do, that’s the role, the choice. Cards, flowers, candy, or dinner out on Sunday will never change that and also won’t make it easier when the next hard mothering moment comes along. What makes it easier is that I remember I chose it.

To be fair, my boys never ignore the day. They hug and kiss me, say Happy Mother’s Day with affection—and then we all move on. In our house, extravagant gestures and lavish gifts are rare—a combination of finances and a shared conviction that every day matters. We observe birthdays, but remember that being born is not a reason to be put on a pedestal. Neither is giving birth. If I wasn’t getting love and respect from my children throughout the year, then an overpriced card or overcrowded brunch on a Sunday in May wouldn’t do a thing for me. I wouldn’t trade a single Mother’s Day gift for the steady, ongoingness of having my young adult sons plop down next to me, without invitation or expectation, at the kitchen counter and linger over a bagel for a half hour, talking.

I do like when my husband acknowledges the day in a way that says he remembers what it took to make the words father and mother a reality in our house.

While it may seem logical that I learned this pragmatism from my own mother, nothing could be less true. My mother adored any holidays, Biblical or commercial, Hallmark or federally decreed. On Mother’s Day, she expected the biggest card from the top row in the greeting card rack, preferably with lace or sequins, or one that played a song or came with its own tulle covering. Flowers. A gift in a box, with a bow, hopefully something from the list she kept near the kitchen phone. Also: dinner in a special restaurant. Jewelry from my father.

I won’t delve into the psychology of what makes a woman want or need material affirmations for mothering children—and I say that with compassion; my mother was a product of the depression, a bigamist father, true poverty that forced her to quit school at 14, a mother-in-law’s shunning, and other harsh circumstances. I always suspected that what she wanted for Mother’s Day was what she hoped might fill other gaps.

She asked me, every year, when I phoned her to say Happy Mother’s Day across 2,700 miles, what Frank had bought me, where he was taking me, what presents the kids gave me. Occasionally, I lied. What was the harm in her thinking we were heading out for a big meal (when my menfolk were manning the grill); that I’d received an expensive sweater (when I preferred to choose my own clothes); or a new pair of earrings (OK, I collect earrings, and that would have been nice). Mom was so happy to hear what I was getting, that it made me happy, as if there was one more thing I was giving her that day.

Sometimes small children ask—often on Mother’s or Father’s Day—”Hey, when is kid’s day?” and an adult replies, “Every day is children’s day.”

Every day is Mother’s Day for me when my son, at college 200 miles away, calls me every night.

Every day is Mother’s Day when my high school senior son lets me kiss him goodbye each morning before he walks to school.

Every day is Mother’s Day when my husband of 28 years tells me, not every day, but often, that he thinks I did a great job with whatever current child-related conundrum is in play.

But every day is also a kind of Mother’s Day when I make a big fat mothering blunder that disappoints one of my boys, causes him anxiety or worry, makes something worse for him instead of better, puts him in any kind of harm’s way (even if it’s only minor emotional harm).

If I want to be applauded for motherhood, I have to be willing to be booed on occasion. That’s part of every mother’s day, too. While it’s true that mothers must learn to forgive themselves for mistakes made along the way, especially when we were less experienced, it’s also true that we must learn to acknowledge our missteps. To say to our children, “I’m sorry,” or “I messed up, I didn’t mean it.” That’s what makes a mother’s day some days, too. That makes us human. Not super mothers. Just humans who are mothers.

If my children can accept and love me every day, even on my worst mother’s day, that’s more important than the second Sunday in May.

Lisa Romeo’s essays have appeared in the New York Times; O The Oprah Magazine; Brain, Child; Babble; Skirt!; Inside Jersey, and other places. She teaches writing in a graduate program, and lives in New Jersey. Find her at Twitter, or on her blog for writers.

Other Links: