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Why I don’t hate Mothers Day

Tuesday, May 11, 2010 by Marianne Elliott

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I’ve just finished reading Anne Lamott’s searing article on ‘Why I Hate Mothers Day’ and felt compelled to respond.

I share many of her concerns about the lies that can infiltrate our popular thinking about motherhood. Yet I don’t hate Mothers Day. Why not?

Well, Anne hates Mothers Day because:

It celebrates the great lie about women: That those with children are more important than those without.

I agree with Anne that there is a widely held view, although many may not even be aware that they hold it, that women with children are more important that women without. But I also recognise the many ways in which women who are mothers are also systematically marginalised because of their motherhood.

The lie at work here is more damaging even than Anne suggests because the real lie is that any one of us is more important than any other.

I see women hurt over and over again by messages that suggest to them that the life they are leading is less valuable, less useful, less important than some other life. Those of us who don’t have children feel it, but our sister who are mothers feel it too. Mothers who stay home and parent full-time feel it, but so do mothers who work outside their homes. Mothers who run their own businesses from home surely feel it as well.

Our great challenge and opportunity, as women, is to find ways to remind ourselves and each other, every day, that we are all as important, as valuable as each other. What makes this difficult is that we have to make peace with our own fears about our own value (or lack of it) in order to create the space to feel true empathy and love for those around us whose lives may trigger our fear.

In her article, Anne Lamott goes on to explain the lie she objects to in more detail – and this is where I recognised something I’ve heard, seen and felt many times.

Mother’s Day celebrates a huge lie about the value of women: that mothers are superior beings, that they have done more with their lives and chosen a more difficult path. Ha! Every woman’s path is difficult.

Ah ha! Now we are getting somewhere. Every woman’s path is difficult, and there is extraordinary power in embracing the truth that we all have struggles. We don’t need to compete to prove whose life is harder, busier, more difficult.

Can you imagine how revolutionary that might be? If we all stopped competing to prove just how difficult our lives are? I know for myself that when I stopped trying to disprove my sister’s belief that my life must be a stroll in the park because I didn’t have children, it suddenly opened up the space for me to actually see what she needed from me, which was empathy and support for the ways in which her life was – indeed – difficult.

But none of that makes me hate Mothers Day. Celebrating motherhood doesn’t detract from the real challenges in the lives of women who are not mothers.

Anne didn’t stop there, though. She goes on:

I hate the way the holiday makes all non-mothers, and the daughters of dead mothers, and the mothers of dead or severely damaged children, feel the deepest kind of grief and failure.

This is an argument against Mothers Day that I can relate to. It pains me to see the grief, shame and failure that so many women experience around the whole issue of mothering. I’ve certainly experienced deep waves of grief over the likelihood that I will never be a mother in the way I always hoped.

But does Mothers Day make me feel that grief? I don’t think so. I think that the grief is there and needs to be recognised and allowed to be what it is. There are things that can trigger the grief, but those things are not limited to Mothers Day.

Just as we would be doing a pretty poor job if we only told the mothers in our lives how much we love and appreciate them once a year, we’d also be doing a poor job if we only paid attention once a year to how our assumptions about motherhood might affect motherless-daughters, bereaved mothers and women who are not mothers.

I’ve written about this before, about how thoughtless comments based on assumptions about parenting and motherhood can do unnecessary harm. You might remember my post on ’10 Things You Probably Shouldn’t Say to a Friend Who Doesn’t Have Children’. Number two on that list was:

You never really know what true love is until you have your own child.

This used to be the comment made by parent to non-parents that bothered me the most. Not surprisingly, Anne Lamott has something to say about it as well:

I bristle at the whispered lie that you can know this level of love and self-sacrifice only if you are a parent. We talk about “loving one’s child” as if a child were a mystical unicorn. Ninety-eight percent of American parents secretly feel that if you have not had and raised a child, your capacity for love is somehow diminished. Ninety-eight percent of American parents secretly believe that non-parents cannot possibly know what it is to love unconditionally, to be selfless, to put yourself at risk for the gravest loss.

I’ve often wondered whether people even think through the implications of this belief. According to this belief, Mother Teresa could not possibly know what it is to love unconditionally. Anyone on the planet who is a parent rates higher on the compassion scale than Mother Teresa and, given where I stand in relation to Mother Teresa, certainly much higher than someone like me.

This belief used to bother me. A lot.

And then one day I realised that I already have within me the perfect potential for unconditional, compassionate love. There is no need for a child to create that love. It already exists within me.

My journey in this life is to disassemble – through practice – the carefully constructed barriers that stand between my true compassionate heart and the rest of the world. I have no doubt that the love of a child can help in that disassembly, but it is not the only path. To suggest so is to relegate an entire portion of the population to living without true love.

But again, although I think this lie is particularly unhelpful – it doesn’t lead me to hate Mothers Day. Celebrating mothers does not require us to judge all other women (or men) to be capable of or worth less.

So how about Anne’s last argument against Mothers Day?

But my main gripe about Mother’s Day is that it feels incomplete and imprecise. The main thing that ever helped mothers was other people mothering them; a chain of mothering that keeps the whole shebang afloat.

Amen. At least, I say amen to the part about a great chain of mothering. Amen to remembering that it really does take a village to raise a child and that some of us – quite happily – play our part in that process without any real recognition. We pick up extra work for women who need to be at home with their children. We show up at gardening bees for parents with no time left for the garden. We baby-sit and cook meals, and we change our plans to suit mothers whose days are less flexible. We do it for love, and we love to do it. But we also accept that, in the West at least, our roles in the great chain of parenting will mostly be invisible and uncelebrated.

But it still doesn’t make me hate Mothers Day. It makes me want to celebrate the mothers around me in all their different forms. It makes me want to celebrate the mother in me and all the ways in which I am part of that great chain of mothering “that keeps the whole shebang afloat”.

Anne Lamott’s article did a great job of reminding us all to think about some of the unexamined assumptions that we might carry with us into a holiday like Mothers Day. But ultimately she left me with a taste of bitterness in my mouth. Because I believe that we can acknowledge that our worth is not limited by our ability or choice to mother and yet still celebrate mothers.

As my wise friend Randi Buckley said:

We don’t want our value determined by motherhood and yet we can still deeply value mothers and mothering.

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26 Responses to "Why I don’t hate Mothers Day"

  1. melissa says:

    Once again you write about a subject I’ve been thinking alot about lately and I love the way to address it. Amen!

  2. Pundelina says:

    Nice Marianne, you summed up my feelings about that bitter article so clearly. Thanks!

    🙂

  3. Jen Lee says:

    As soon as I read Lamott’s article, I immediately wondered what your response would be. Thanks for this post.

  4. Lindsey says:

    Brava – thank you for this thoughtful response. I read on another blog – a man’s – the assertion that “mothering” is a verb and not a person … a philosophy rather than a static identity. I like that. It is the whole chain of mothers that I return to, over and over again … certainly I have that in my life and I hope to provide it for my children, and I think many, many people “mother” in ways that have nothing to do with biological reproduction.
    But you are right: doesn’t mean we have to hate the day or in any way devalue the traditional meaning of “mother.”

  5. Nathalie says:

    I found it interesting that feeling you expressed about the fact that for some unconditional love is only known by mother.
    It’s funny because I just thought about mother’s day being a day celebrating unconditional love, but as I don’t have children yet, to me it expresses the unconditional love I have for my mother.
    You’re right in saying that the capacity of unconditional love is within everyone, whether we experienced parenthood or not. This love can be expressed for our siblings, friends, loveone and ourselves.
    So, yes for me celebrating mother’s day is to celebrate my mum and the unconditional love that binds us, so is father’s day.

  6. Emma says:

    Ah, thank you for another thoughtful and thought-provoking piece!

    I love what you are saying BOTH about stopping competing for the busiest, hardest, etc. life AND acknowledging the hard parts, struggles, and achievements in others lives. Clearly, those goes hand in hand. I’m going to think a lot more about this and how to live it.

  7. Mandi says:

    Thanks for such a thoughtful post. It felt like you were reading my mind exactly on this issue, and I’m grateful for your eloquent words!

  8. well said, friend.
    i prefer to celebrate the archetypal mothers: the women who hold up the world and offer nurturing and compassion, with and without their own children. you are one of those women.
    so much love.
    lisa

  9. A thoughtful and great response, Marianne. I loved that you were conscious of the gestation of your article in response to Lamott’s.

    I’ve been thinking about her essay. I wonder to what extent her words were a salve for guilt. The sense I got was that her somewhat hard edge was a subconscious deflection of the day-long distilled appreciation for moms, fearing other forms of mothering wouldn’t be nearly as acknowledged or celebrated. Or perhaps not.

    How thoughtful of you to quote me, my wise friend 🙂 Thanks for a great article.

  10. Alexis Grant says:

    I’m not big on Hallmark holidays, but I didn’t agree with Anne here. I felt like her main argument — that Mother’s Day excludes people — could be applied to every holiday.

    Thanks for sharing your thought on this!

  11. byPetaL says:

    Well said! I don’t have children but never once did i feel that mother’s day devalued my contribution to society. It would be like me feeling devalued on father’s day because i don’t have a penis, or at Easter because i’m not integral to a religion.
    My mother misses me terribly because i live in a different State. I know she was looking forward to Mother’s day for weeks because she knew i’d make a special effort to contact her and remind her how much i love her. So i didn’t care about ‘why’ Mother’s day exists or ‘what’ it all meant, all i cared about on the day is ensuring my mum was able to know, without doubt, that she is love unconditionally be me.

  12. patti digh says:

    thanks for your thoughtful response to her words. i love anne lamott’s writing and yet I disagreed with her almost completely on this issue. it seems that “mothering” is broader, and deeper, than she assumes (or than she believes is celebrated on mother’s day) – perhaps her interpretation of mother’s day is the “hallmark” version, which excludes most mothers i know. the feminine principle, the feminine energy–that’s what i see at the center of mother’s day. must i be a mother to celebrate that elemental truth? i think not. must every holiday honor every group? impossible. (and, like all of us are shaped by our own lives, i dare say her thoughts on mother’s day are likely also deeply influenced by her quite problematic relationship with her mom.)

  13. Helen says:

    Great post M. I totally agree.

  14. Elizabeth says:

    WoW. Well there I am … the up side down MoM …

    Honestly, I wasn’t mothered well as a child. I went on the hunt for nurtuing and found it with teachers, neighbors, aunties and friends of both genders. Deciding to birth my own children, I was determined to mother ‘better’ and be the oh so ‘good mother’.

    As two-out-of-three daughters tell it, I’ve been successful at the one thing in life I had hoped to change … I’m a successful failure as their mother.

    That said, they now get to run the ‘mothering’ experiment with their own kids. And happily, I am a child free, professional woman with good health,
    a generous spirit and an optimistic outlook.

    Thanks Marianne and Randi … I’ll tell those two daughters that ‘we don’t want our value determined by motherhood and yet we can still deeply value mothers and mothering.’ Seems to fit here! 🙂

  15. Helen says:

    Beautiful post, Marianne. So much to think on.

    H x

  16. Imohena says:

    Beautifully said.
    Much love from Goma x

  17. sas says:

    beautifully put!

    this makes me think about power and choice. its my choice to not have children, its my choice to be part of the the 2% that calls bullshit on the idea of unconditional love is an experience reserved for mothers, and its my choice to celebrate mothers day in a way that is generous, loving and meaningful to me: even though i am not a mother and my own mother is dead.

  18. Talia Klein says:

    I agree with most of you’ve said here, except (and this goes to the original author more than you) there’s a HUGE difference between the grief felt by someone who’s lost their mother and the “grief” (?) felt by those who don’t have children, or have disabled kids.

    As a 32 year old without kids (so far) who lost her mother last year to brain cancer (the subject of my blog), I can say one gives me grief, the other – not. Yes, Mother’s Day was hard for me this year as a daughter. As a potential mother – it wasn’t. Maybe I’m not old enough yet to feel “grief” for not being a parent.

    Anyway, this is a great post. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard so many of the claims here.

  19. Julie Daley says:

    This is such a wise and thoughtful response to Anne’s post. So many have already written intelligent comments here. The one thing that keeps coming back to me about her post, your post and Mother’s Day is that I think of Mother’s Day as a day to celebrate my mother. The fact that my mother birthed me. The fact I now know she did the best she could. Everyone is included in Mother’s Day because we all have a mother. There is no escaping that fact. It’s an opportunity to give thanks for my life, the fact I am living because she birthed me, and she raised me the best she could.
    There is so much pain around ‘mother’ for all human beings it seems…at least from the aftermath of Anne’s post. Pain that can be healed if we are willing to look into our own hearts.
    THe great chain of mothering, the feminine principle and the big mother, earth, are part and parcel of this healing.
    Thank you, Marianne, for this intelligent, heart-centered post.

  20. woweeee!!! your thoughts and responses completely resonate with me – as someone who possesses all the “mothering” in her, without the biological offspring. i chose my path as an auntie and i feel nothing but love, fulfillment, and gratitude, as i watch our “village” unfold as it teaches us lessons we still haven’t learned.
    Sadly,
    although i don’t seek out those “friends” in my life, i have one or two who are in that 98% mentioned. it just saddens me – for THEM…..because, i get it. i get that Mother’s Day is just one day. a day to celebrate a little extra, all our mothers, and that things come up to be healed, so why not take healing opportunities in whatever form they show up?
    anyway, i am rambling and i couldn’t say it any better than you did, sweet Marianne. thanks for sharing this <3

  21. Lovely post. As a 30-something, I am constantly reminded that there must be something wrong with me because I don’t have children yet. But it doesn’t make me hate Mother’s Day. It just makes me realize that the choice to have children is a huge one because it’s a day that I think about all that my mother gave up for me.

  22. I don’t think I could have said this any better. Loved it!

  23. Tina says:

    I know this year in Target when I was looking for my mother’s day cards, that they had cards for aunts and sisters and special women also mixed in with the mother’s day cards and I just thought that was so beautiful.

    Andrea from the Superhero blog posted this from her friend Jena Strong, and it just seems amazingly perfect “Whether or not a baby has ever miraculously come out of your body, you are a mother. You have helped mother me, or your sister, or your girlfriend, or your cousin, or your neighbor, or a stranger. You have wiped a tear or a bottom. You have given counsel. You have talked someone you love off a ledge. You have nurtured and natured and gently nudged her to keep going when she was sure she couldn’t. You have read a storybook, shoveled a walk, waved across the parking lot, not even realizing you were saving someone’s life.”

    Thought I would share, b/c it seemed to fit the whole topic.

  24. Alex says:

    What a great post! I agree with with you and your friend Randi, without getting into the “hate” part brought on by Lamott (although she is one of my fav writers). We can definitely celebrate and honor mothers without feeling undermined by it. It is a question of who we choose to celebrate, and I personally choose to honor all those who mother the world and those who have mothered me on the daily basis, whether they are men or women, with and without child. xo

  25. […] year I wrote a post about why I don’t hate Mothers Day (in response to Anne Lamott’s article on why she did hate Mothers […]

  26. […] year I wrote a post about why I don’t hate Mothers Day (in response to Anne Lamott’s article on why she did hate Mothers […]

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