Mother and Child (detail from The Three Ages of Woman) by Klimt, 1905
Last weekend was Mother’s Day. A friend of mine said recently that his mom is one of the strongest women he knows – she’s had 9 children, and has worked with children all her life. She ran a daycare for many years, and now that she is retired, she enjoys spending time with her numerous grandchildren. He said, “I have the best mom … and she thinks that Mother’s Day is a hallmark sham.”
I always find it sad that the more commercial a holiday is, the less meaning we find in it. Mother’s Day was created in America in the early 1900’s, to celebrate and honor the specific role of mothers in our lives. Interestingly, the woman responsible for promoting the holiday rejected it later in life, feeling that it had been bastardized from its original intent and turned into a tool of corporate manipulation.
In ancient times, mothers were celebrated and revered through certain fertility based cults, but these traditions have no tie to the Mother’s Day holiday. In our contemporary world, I feel that motherhood is not truly respected or valued.
Firstly, our work is unpaid, and in a capitalist society, there is a strong parallel between how we value something and how much money we attribute to the pursuit. In the United States, celebrities and sports stars are highly valued – and they are paid ridiculous sums of money. Women who become pregnant are usually eligible for 12 weeks of maternity leave, and are paid by their workplace via disability benefits that seldom cover the entire 12 week period. Afterwards, women are expected to return to work.
When a woman has a baby, she has limited options. Either she returns to work, and leaves her child in the care of others part of the time, or she does not return to work and cares for the child herself. The stay-at-home mother is a rapidly declining position for many women; it is not economically viable. For women who return to work, they face the substantial cost of childcare and a “second shift” outside of the home; mothering is life-work, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Secondly, the role of mother is a very complex one. There have been schools of psychology devoted to the idea that “mother” is to blame for our neuroses, our issues, and our problems. And while people such as Winnicott have inculcated the idea of the “good enough” mother, alleviating some of the pressure placed on women, the affect of a mother on her children is still a reality.
Beginning with inception, a woman is not only emotionally but physically tied to her child. And beyond the physical changes of pregnancy and labor, a woman must change her habits. There has been enough research and evidence for us to know that alcohol, smoking, and drugs consumed during pregnancy will negatively affect the development of a child’s brain in the womb. Many women give up these habits quickly and easily upon discovering that they are pregnant, but there is still a hard reality that lingers in our mindset – from the outset, before the child is even born, a woman can harm her child for the rest of his or her life.
After birth, women are then faced with the choice whether to breastfeed or bottle feed. This is a contentious issue, as divisive as some people’s feelings on a mother working vs a mother staying home with her child. Some people believe that if you do not breastfeed your child, then you are scarring your child psychologically and possibly physically for life. There is research that supports that breastfeeding has excellent health and emotional benefits, but that does not mean that a bottle-fed baby is doomed to poor health and neglect. Paradoxically, society is fine seeing a baby with a bottle, but many people still find a woman breastfeeding in public inappropriate, bordering on scandalous.
When a woman becomes pregnant, her life is forever changed. As a mother, a woman will constantly strive for balance between her role as mother and her role as a woman. Economics play an integral part in how we live and how we raise our children. Raising a child in today’s world is expensive, and the financial strain can be felt very acutely. If a mother has to go back to work for monetary reasons after her maternity leave, often she feels a tremendous amount of guilt.
I became a single mother when my younger child was not even a year old. I was lucky to live close enough to my own mother, and she helped care for my children while I worked evenings and weekends. During the day, I was a stay-at-home mom. I suffered financially, but the trade off was worth it for me. I enjoyed being with my children and nurturing their growth. During the times I didn’t have enough money to buy diapers, I used cloth ones. I made all of my own baby food. I made play doh with flour and salt and food coloring, and engaged my children in activities and projects instead of store bought games.
That worked for me. But that is not to say that would work for another. There are some women that feel that staying at home with their children would drive them crazy. And I do recognize that there is a lack of support for mothers; there can be a sense of isolation from the rest of the adult world. But I think that this lack of support and sense of isolation speaks more to how we value the task of mothering, how we view our sense of worth as mothers, and the perceptions placed upon us by society when we are challenged with the role.
I’ve always felt that being a mother is among the most important work I will ever do in my lifetime. But, I have also felt that being a full person is integral to the kind of mother I am. Being a mother is part of who I am, but it does not define who I am. And while I am aware that I am helping nurture the growth of two beautiful children, I also recognize them as independent from me.
I am the example, the guide. I am not perfect, but I am “good enough”. I have read many books on parenting and psychology, because I feel it is important to have as much knowledge and education as I can about this role, but ultimately I parent in a way that is organic and feels natural to me. I love my children, and I respect who they are. We teach each other; we learn from each other.
On Mother’s Day, I did not encourage my children to buy me gifts. They are the gift. My younger daughter gave me a card she made in art class, waking me in the morning to hug and kiss me. My older daughter wrote me a little note, saying I love you. Later, I asked them to help me work in the garden, and we spent the afternoon digging in the dirt, turning over the garden with compost, and planting seeds.
Though we are not all mothers, we are all derived from a woman’s experience with pregnancy and birth. Women hold the font of all human life, and it is sad to me that the role of mother and the experience of motherhood is so often disregarded and marginalized. On Mother’s Day, we collectively experience a wide range of emotions – sadness and loss, anger and disappointment, love and gratitude – towards the women who brought us into this world and did the best they could.
Today I wanted to share a short story written by Tillie Olsen in honor of Mother’s Day. The story is called “I stand here ironing.” Click here to read this thoughtful, heartbreaking, and powerful story.