Sunday is Mother’s Day (don’t worry, you’ve still got time to grab a card). I have mixed feelings about Mother’s Day, for many of the same reasons that I have mixed feelings about Valentine’s Day and other commercialized holidays. Like those holidays, Mother’s Day seems to emphasize buying stuff – cards, flowers, jewelry. And perhaps most depressingly, it encourages us to make a one-off special occasion out of something that we really ought to be doing every day, which is appreciating the women who brought us into the world.
When I was growing up, Mother’s Day meant bringing my Mom breakfast and a card in bed followed by lunch with my grandparents. And when the weekend was over, everything would go back to normal. Breakfast was served at the table, and we stopping going out of our way to tell Mom how much we loved and appreciated her. Now that I’m a little older, I realize that, practically speaking, one day a year probably wasn’t enough for her, despite the effort my sister and I put into those handmade cards. It’s not that I don’t approve of special occasions, it’s that I wish that the kind of celebration and appreciation that we see on Mother’s Day weren’t special occasions, but ongoing and ever-present. I wish we could, as individuals and as a culture, take more than one day out of 365 to say thank you to women who do the hard and often thankless job of raising children.
For all the glorification of motherhood in our culture, American mothers still get a pretty raw deal. At least 157 countries offer paid maternity leave, and the U.S. is not one of them. Childcare is expensive, sometimes prohibitively so. You can be kicked out of public places for breastfeeding. Not to mention the pay cut women take when they become mothers – according to MomsRising, mothers earn 27 percent less than their male counterparts, and single mothers earn between 34 percent and 44 percent less. So while Mother’s Day is an opportune time to tell your Mom that you love her, I wish that we, as a culture, could sustain the sentiments of that one day, and direct them into improving mothers’ lives year-round.
I also wish that Mother’s Day didn’t exclude all the wonderful women in
the world who aren’t mothers. Childless women cop a lot of scorn and derision in our culture, from accusations of selfishness to suggestions that they simply “forgot” to have children. But just because those women don’t have children (a totally valid choice, and sometimes a matter beyond their control), doesn’t mean that they don’t devote time and energy to caregiving, mentoring and teaching. All these roles are associated with motherhood, but unless you perform them for your own children, it seems, you don’t get any official day of thanks. There’s no Mentor’s Day, or Mother-Away-From-Home Day. But those of us who have extra mothers — or as Mia Freedman calls them, “sparents” — know that those women play essential roles in shaping our lives, and they deserve to be recognized and thanked, too.
You only get one mother, mine used to tell me when I told her to stop embarrassing me in front of my eighth grade friends. You don’t pick your parents, my father used to say when I complained about my short chubby arms or my poor math skills.
Mom was right that you only get one biological mother. And mine is amazing. In addition to having the good sense to bring me into this world, my mom is a sister, a daughter, a wife, a doctor, an executive, a mentor and a friend. She’s smart and (mostly unintentionally) funny, and she’s truly inspiring. She’s a woman who dreams big and doesn’t take “no” for an answer. She’s the woman who taught me how to go after the things I wanted, and how to learn from my inevitable failures. She and my dad raised me with so much feminism in the water that I was shocked to discover that there was any alternative. I am in awe of her, grateful for her, every day, and I don’t say so as often as I should.
But as for not picking your parents, I’m not so sure. True, we don’t pick our biological parents, and if we get stuck with stumpy arms and a complete inability to do long division, well, that’s the luck of the genetic draw. But what about our sparents? What about the families we create for ourselves, to complement, supplement and in some cases replace our biological ones?
When I moved from Sydney to the States almost five years ago, I was young, scared and very far from home. I have some family here on the East Coast, and for the last five years, my aunt and grandmother have stepped in to perform acts of mothering that my mother can’t do when we’re on separate continents. And they’re not the only ones: When I was a sophomore, a second-cousin invited me to her Mother’s Day brunch. When I was a junior, a long-time family friend let me crash with her for weeks at a time and sent me walnut brownies when I had mono. When I was a senior, my thesis adviser and my mentors watched me collapse into anxious, exhausted tears and assured me, in between counseling me on how to tweak my methodology section, that everything was going to be fine. And now that I’m done with college and out in the real world, I still rely on all those people, and on the mother-hens among my girl friends, to fill the gaps between my me and my mother that Skype, email and yearly trips home can’t fill. Without these women and their support, I wouldn’t be able to handle living so far from home and from my biological mother.
It isn’t fair that mothers only get one special day a year. We ought to be thanking them far more often for their love, hard work, sacrifice, excellent hugging skills and all the other things they do for us that we’re probably not even aware of. We also ought to be working to counteract a culture that values mothers and motherhood in theory, but in practice so often gives them the shaft and scorns women who choose to remain childless. But as long as we are thanking them, we should also remember to thank our sparents, our mothers-away-from-home, our mentors, teachers, single fathers and other loved ones who step in to fill the gaps that our real mothers, for various reasons, sometimes leave. And of course, sometimes our sparents step in just to give our real mothers a break. Which, given that they only get one special day a year, they have most certainly earned.
If cards and flowers aren’t your thing, consider giving money in your mother’s (or sparent’s) name to a Global Giving project that benefits mothers around the world.