The Mothers by Käthe Kollwitz, 1919
Happy Mother’s Day!
or perhaps I should say … Happy Mother’s Day?
Mother’s Day has come and gone, and to tell the truth, I’m glad it’s over. It seems the older I get, the less I like holidays. I hate the gross manipulation, commercialization, and materialism that has become part of how we celebrate these “special” days. I hate how the original intent of holidays seems to be lost, how we substitute simple gratitude with gifts. Instead of honoring and celebrating the meaning of the holiday, these times seem to throw a glaring light on what is missing, what is lost or broken, what went wrong. However, I feel that it is both important and necessary to reflect on these days, and to try to find positivity and deeper meaning in our lives, extending to the whole of society.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a post on Mother’s Day and I had shared Tillie Olson’s exceptional story “I Stand Here Ironing” as part of my reading series, in honor of the day. I don’t want to repeat myself (you can read the full post here) , so I will quote a bit of what I wrote for context:
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.
We are all flawed people. Mothers are no exception. To be a mother is a complicated role and it demands all of who you are. And you will never be perfect, no matter how good of a mother you are. You will make mistakes. You will worry about the choices you make, and the path that you have created in which to nurture the growth of another person. Thanks to contemporary psychology, mothers have an added pressure of feeling total responsibility for the self-hood of their children. And while I feel that we certainly have a responsibility towards our children, it is impossible and unfair to expect mothers to claim the totality of the people their children turn out to be.
Right now I’m thinking of two quotes. The first is from Tillie Olson’s story I mentioned above: “Only help her to know – help make it so there is cause for her to know – that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron.” The second is from Kahlil Gibran: “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.”
What I’m getting at here is that children are their own people, and a mother’s influence on that is not as significant as we might think. Children come into the world through mother. They have their own personality, their own set of DNA, their own soul. A mother’s job is to nurture and guide her children, with the expectation that she is a flawed person and will try to do the best she can. Some mothers seek validation through their children. They think that if they have a “good child” then they are a “good mother.” And the same goes for the negative side. They forget that their children are not their own. They lose themselves in motherhood, instead of finding themselves.
More and more, I am seeing women reject the role of mother. And that truly saddens me. I’m not talking about working mothers or stay-at-home dads or divorce/custody arrangements or people with addictions or mental health issues who cannot care for their children. I’m talking about women who have children and then leave them. I truly don’t understand this, but I have tried, and I think that the expectation of what it means to be a mother has something to do with it. I think that economics and education play a role. I wish these women would know that we write our own rules. We define ourselves. Motherhood is challenging but it is also infinitely rewarding. It is possible to have your own life and to also be a mother. In fact, I’d say it is necessary.
The fact is, children will grow into who they are no matter what kind of mother they have, or even if they have one at all. My daughter has several friends who live with their grandparents, neither mother nor father taking the responsibility of parenthood. She also has a few friends who were adopted. They do not know their birth mothers but they have adopted mothers. Other friends have stepmothers, along with their birth mothers. A couple of people she knows have had their mother’s die, an incredible loss to a young person.
I’ve known many people who have complicated relationships with their mothers. They weren’t loved enough or they were loved too much. They were neglected or they were smothered. I know people in their adult life still blaming mother for the problems they have and for the people they are. This is a two way street, mothers and children. The expectations are high on both sides. And I think it is important that we take a step back, and understand the most crucial part of motherhood: mothers are the vehicle in which children enter the world. That can be taken both literally and figuratively. But, as Gibran says so eloquently, “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.”
The way I think about motherhood is that children are a gift. A precious gift that is entrusted to you for a short time. To mother is to care for, to nurture, to guide, to give space, to let go. To know that your role is limited and flawed. It is essential to retain your sense of self outside of or in addition to the role of mother. It is necessary to care for yourself first and foremost in order to be able to give freely and lovingly to your children.
I have always been honest with my children about my role in their life. I have never tried to pretend that mother knows all, or mother knows best. I tell them that I make mistakes, too. I tell them that I am not only a mother, I am a person in the world. In a way, I’m trying to alleviate the pressure on both of us, mother and child. And so far, it seems to be working. I have a great relationship with both my children, a relationship that evolves and changes as they grow. The relationship that I have with my children is a relationship for life. Sometimes that can feel like a weight. But in reality, it is love. It is quite an honor to bring another person into the world, and to have that bond be the cornerstone of your relationship, beyond infancy and into adulthood, throughout both of your lives.
On Mother’s Day, I went onto facebook briefly. And I can usually judge how things will go on facebook by the first few posts I see. That day, I first saw a post saying how mothers are all special and should be cherished and loved and pampered. The next post shared sadness at not being able to biologically have children, and not being able to adopt a child when she was young because she is a lesbian. Further on, another person wrote about how she chooses not to have children and feels pressured to be a mother because she is a woman. Still further, someone wrote something to the effect of “if this day is hard for you, know that I’ll be feeling the same way on father’s day.” Lastly, there were the pictures of happy families, gifts received, people showing off their moms, their kids, their enjoyment at having a mother or being a mother on this day.
I was overwhelmed. I got off facebook. I decided to read a story that one of my friends, a beautiful person and excellent writer, had posted in honor of Mother’s Day. I read “Falling to Earth: A Memoir of Sorts” by Eros-Alegra Clarke, an amazingly sensitive and beautifully written piece about her experience with her own mother, and how that shaped the woman and mother she had become. I cried.
I turned off the computer and spent the rest of the day relaxing at home with my children and my boyfriend. Then my boyfriend left to visit his mother’s grave in the cemetery, his first mother’s day without her. A little later, my daughter told me that her friend was feeling sad, and asked if she could come over. I know that the girl’s mother had moved out of state when she was a baby and left her to be raised by her grandparents. We didn’t talk about that. “Sure,” I said, and her friend spent the afternoon and evening with us. My older daughter and I made cake pops. I took my younger daughter to our favorite Italian specialty store to pick up some food. My mom also doesn’t really care about gifts or fanfare on Mother’s Day, but she joined us for a simple dinner. Afterwards, I took the girls to the beach. It was windy and getting cold and we laughed as we ran to the water and then back to the car. We came back home and all did our own thing. That night, I wrote. It was a wonderful day. It was mother’s day and I was conscious of that, but it was just like any other day in my life. And for that, I feel tremendously grateful.
I put a few links within this post, so I am going to recap them all here, in case anyone is interested in further reading:
“I Stand Here Ironing” by Tillie Olson
“Falling to Earth: A Memoir of Sorts” by Eros-Alegra Clarke
Reading Series 5.1 May, 2012