A few years ago what I noticed about Mother’s Day was that it had gotten bigger. I don’t mean just that more businesses wanted to sell more stuff on the grounds that somebody’s mother needed it. It got bigger in that women seemed to have decided to use it to boost each other.
This year Mother’s Day is shrinking. By mid-April multiple emails stacked in my inbox to offer temporary mute buttons I could use to block advertising for the holiday. Relief though this may be to some consumers, it is not an improvement.
Doubtless other people before and after my mid-1970s childhood observed Mother’s Day expensively. But for my siblings and our friends, honour due to one’s mother came in the currency of household help, schoolroom crafts, and affectionate gratitude. When I had children around the turn of this century, the loot seemed to have multiplied even though I hadn’t thought to request it. I have, however, had my moments: one church friend used to slip out of the pew a little early that Sunday every May to go to his parents’ house, where he and his sisters would plant something each year for their mother, and I have been a little envious on that count. But my dear children render offerings coined in a familiar realm, tea and toast and tulip-covered cards, mostly handmade. And with that I am content.
All in all, though, I have cared little about Mother’s Day, writing it off every May as a predominantly commercial occasion fit more for money-making and trite sentimentalities than substantial reflection on the worth of mothers and motherhood. A decade or so ago, then, when I noticed that other women were using Mother’s Day to boost and encourage each other, that seemed a great step forward. Sending a text with flower emojis or gold stars or waving across a parking lot or drop-off line to someone who was not your own mother showed a broad ripple outward in favour of empathy. It became normal for a while for moms to compliment friends or neighbours for doing what they themselves did and therefore were able to measure and admire. It was a good shift in manners, a Mother’s Day for girlfriends as well as for families. Mothering can be hard. One’s own mother merits honour—as I know, since my eighty-eight-year-old mother is the person for whom those “world’s best mother” cards were invented—but it felt like progress to use the day not only as an occasion for receiving praise but for praising others as well.
The market giveth and the market taketh away. Emails I have gotten lately from kitchenware and skincare and home-goods purveyors have politely offered to excuse me: “We recognize that this time of year isn’t easy for everyone.” If I’d just let them know, they promise to withhold Mother’s Day offers while keeping me in the loop for everything else.
I am tempted to click the opt-out button to see what would happen. Even if I were not leery of the other ads that click might prompt—solicitations from bereavement businesses or progressive-parenting sites—I would still hesitate. The move to make this holiday smaller rather than bigger goes in the wrong direction.
The advertising copy is right in some ways. Mother’s Day isn’t always easy. It can sting those who have lost mothers or children recently or long ago. Those who face infertility, abuse, or other difficult situations might experience a corporate reminder of Mother’s Day as a slap in the face. Seeing fewer happy-mama posts could surely spell relief.
American language around motherhood is about as spent and bone-weary as are many mothers.
American language around motherhood is about as spent and bone-weary as are many mothers. Decades of polemics, defences, redefinitions, and condescensions have worn it thin. Covid didn’t help. But the opt-out option counters the very healthy change enabled by the girlfriends’-mother’s-day model. Whatever the holiday is beyond an opportunity to sell more mother-directed merchandise, it is at least an invitation to consider motherhood in public. Because there is money involved, there is a chance to make that consideration serious. In any case, following the impulse to push mothers and motherhood further into the private realm won’t solve any problems.
Apple-pie clichés and calls for paid leave accompany the day every year. But those are not what I am looking for. What is wanted is a few moments’ reflection that every human being arrives in the world because a particular woman harboured that person in her body. Harboured, housed: the child in utero experiences comfort, bed, and board, better than some children have ever afterward in their whole lives. Harboured, nourished, carried, accommodated, awaited, wondered at, laboured over: somebody gives us all these things even before you or I or that guy on the subway ever presented as cute babies who might use charm to make it seem like we deserve to get what we need. Motherhood matters to our embodiment. The fact of ours came in conjunction with hers.
Motherhood matters to our embodiment. The fact of ours came in conjunction with hers.
There is a lot more to motherhood than birthing, and sometimes our culture does decently in honouring those parts, especially when we manage to take a break from our sentimentality and sarcasm. Recognizing the deep generosity of bodily care from our beginnings should tip appreciation outward. Of course we are glad that someone nurtured us, gladder if that person did it well and gave guidance and love throughout our lives. But we should also be glad that mothering exists at all, that our species requires one generation to give long care to another and that, in the main, people are willing to do it. We should be glad on everyone’s behalf that there are mothers. We should be glad when our culture and the cash registers ruling over it find ways to make that admiration visible.
If opting out of seasonal marketing helps someone, I endorse the offer and receipt of that choice. Maybe I’m wrong to give a gimlet eye to these gestures. Maybe marketing executives have had their own traumas with the holiday and are striving considerately to spare others pain. I share their desire to shield those for whom these May tidings open fresh wounds. I’d likelier credit their goodwill if they just skipped seasonal advertising altogether.