Today, it’s Mother’s Day.
For countless reasons, the days centered around parenting are fraught with so much more than celebrating the people who raised us and those among us who are raising the next versions of “us.” As parents, we usually expect joy, flowers pulled up from the grass on the way home from running errands the day before, and pancakes that mysteriously taste like crayons. Instead, we get essays that amount to apologies to the childless women in our lives, and a reminder to them that “moms aren’t any more special (or unselfish) than you.” We get essays about the “impreciseness” of the day.
When did we get here? How did we get here? Nobody’s supposed to be here!
If I think long and hard, I probably have an idea.
As girls, many of us – maybe not so much our daughters, but certainly many of us – were told to idolize the bride and groom toppers, the white gown, the family life, the 2.5 kids, the husband who jets off to work and comes home to a steak and a potato with half a tab of butter and kisses you on the cheek for a job well done.
If we grew up in that kind of household, and our parents were good at hiding the frustrations of married life and child-rearing, we grew up knowing we’d marry a man like Daddy. We knew we’d be swept off our feet by a man who would earn all the money, and all we’d have to do is this…. thing… that our Moms made look so simple.
Or, maybe, our parents weren’t so great at hiding the stresses and struggles of permanent, monogamous, contractual partnership. Maybe they were constantly beefing – maybe it was always something – and maybe, it even turned violent. Maybe he took it out on her, and she took it out on you, and… well, we know that abuse is cyclical. Let’s leave it at that, for now.
For those of us who didn’t live in that kind of household growing up, sometimes the longing for it can be even worse – we don’t see what it’s like behind closed doors, we don’t understand how difficult it can be, and we view it all through the rose-colored lenses of what’s shown on TV.
That was me. Well, in a way, all of them were me. I came of age in a community where it was expected that we’d graduate high school (it was never in question), go off to college (with 93% of my graduating class going to college, this, too, was never in question), and find our partners there (this? also, was the expectation), where we’d marry and have our 2.5 children and join the family business and live in Aunt So-n-So’s house that she left the family and, and, and…
All these expectations, and no one making any space for my individuality, my humanity.
All these expectations, and no one asking me what would make me happy.
All these expectations, and no one asking me if I even want to marry.
All these expectations, and no one asking me if I even want to marry a man.
All these expectations, and no one asking me anything, at all.
Many of us are more than happy with the partners we chose and the paths upon which those partnerships led us. And, in the rigamarole of daily life – waking up at 6 to pee and brush our teeth before everyone comes barreling through the house asking Mom where all the matching socks are and why the toaster [that isn’t plugged in] is on the fritz and flinging rubber bands at each other and rushing everyone out the door to the car while you’re still in your pajama pants (it’s not like you’re getting out of the car or anything) – for us, it’s nice to have that one day where nothing else is scheduled except thank yous, appreciation, naps, and waffles that taste like crayons. We were made for this, built for this, and value the day where the ones we care for take time to celebrate that.
Many others of us cringe at the thought of all of that. Not being able to get up and go when I want? Having to buy diapers or shoes or boards for science fair projects instead of shoes or books or gummy worms? Having to answer to someone else? Being woken up every morning to be asked to open the jar of peanut butter or make breakfast? Many of us watched our mothers struggle with parenthood and partnership, and decided that it wasn’t for us yet, at the same time, we struggle with the fact that we chose against expectations. We chose something other than what we’re told should be for us, what should be our path.
And there’s a broad and vast spectrum in-between – women who resent not being able to take off with their careers because their children and working spouse impact their mobility, women who are childless who deeply desire them, women partnered with and married to other women where they next step for them is [another] child, and women who had the kids before the permanent partner who often have it harder than everyone – that we never account for, because we’re always working and thinking in binaries. It’s always “either…or.” There can never be a middle. Hell – some of us are both ends of the spectrum at the same time.
What we often miss is the idea that the expectations force us to pit ourselves against one another. Being among our tribe – other women who’ve made the choices we’ve made – in many ways validates the choices we’ve made. It also insulates us from other women who’ve chosen differently and, because of that insularity, affects our ability to empathize with the choices they’ve made. How could we possibly understand not stepping on legos to get to the bathroom? How could we possibly understand stepping on Legos to go pee — people take this on willingly?!
I’ve been all of these women in my life, and some days I’m all of those women at the same time. As someone who had her first child at 22, somehow surviving through to marriage at 28, being pregnant again at 31 and slowly coming to the realization that I will have spent 30 years of my life raising other human beings when everything is said and done….I’m good for telling women to not take on any part of this struggle until you are not only ready but until you are infinitely certain that the person you have chosen is ready, as well. And no one should be trying to shame you into acquiescence, either.
That works both ways, as well.
Mothering isn’t about sacrificing or selfishness, and we shouldn’t feel like we need to martyr ourselves, highlighting the sacrifice and the perceived selflessness, to get respect. We shouldn’t feel shame for choosing to stay home, or choosing to work while we have kids, or for choosing to have children before we have the long-term spouse. Our choice of who we love shouldn’t be relegated to whether or not we can (or did, or do) procreate with our partners (because, after all, marriage is about love and not, um, other stuff, right?) because foster parents are just as much needed and valued and any other.
Trying to force women who are unique into a binary only makes them resent that binary and anyone who represents it.
What happens when we remove shame from the equation?
What happens when we decide we won’t shame women who don’t give birth? What happens when we make career life more amenable to women who choose to give birth? What happens when we say to ourselves that we won’t judge other women for the sins of our mothers? What happens when we remove the need to remind married women of their biological clock? What happens when we stop shaming women who have children before marriage? What happens when… when… when?
Then, Mother’s Day becomes another day. Then, parenting becomes just one of many choices that women can make of their own free will, not hampered by corporate systems that devalue them for procreating and not overwhelmed by pressure to get on with it and pop out a few. Then, adoption centers finally start emptying out, and we finally find value in providing those children the services they need to thrive (at a lower cost.) Then, single mothers stop looking like “problems we need to fix” and start looking like “potential for community and love.” Then, we start to see that as much as we demand that women be granted choices, the outside world still restrains women in ways that force us to pit ourselves against one another.
Every year, I make a wish on Mother’s day. Not to anyone else, really, because it’s rarely about anyone other than myself. I’ll wish that I “listened to Mini-me more this year” or that I “focused less on chastising her and more on being a resource to her” or some other such lofty goals. But this year, I want to do it a little differently.
My wish, this year, is that we spent less time shaming other women for the choices they make, and instead empathize with them for doing what they believe best suits their lives. That, instead of spending the year snarking on other women for their perceived lack of what we have, that we instead shrug and say to ourselves, “Well, as long as she’s happy, more power to her.” That we respect a woman’s right to change her mind – our right to change our minds – and, do what we can to ensure that society respects that as a whole.
Maybe then, Mother’s Day can be fraught with less anxiety and angst, and more celebration of the women who molded and shaped us – including those who were more “motherly” than Mom. Less animosity, more pancakes that taste mysteriously like crayons.
Actually, let’s skip the pancakes entirely, k?