There’s no shortage of commentary about Mother’s Day and I’m about to add a bit more.
I write this sitting in my bed on Mother’s Day morning. Birds are singing, the skies are blue, sun is streaming through the window, and from the kitchen comes the sounds of bowls clanking and the occasional squabble erupting as four children of wildly varying levels of gross motor capacity jostle over who gets to crack the eggs.
This is actually not all that different from a typical Sunday morning, just with a bit more bacon and the addition of a handmade pasta necklace. With our toddler still requiring boobs and cuddles overnight, our long-standing arrangement that I don’t have to be the one who gets up first in the morning is still going strong. My Sundays start with a breastfeed, a cup of tea, and a bit of a lie-in, until at some point the bed hits a critical mass of children and I seize the opportunity to go use the toilet in peace.
There’s a lot to love, and I am thankful. I (mostly) enjoy spending time with the tiny humans that I’ve made, and lazy pyjama mornings with them are good! As I type, the toddler has snuggled in beside me and is alternating banging on the laptop keyboard with singing about bananas and dispensing sticky kisses. And now it’s been announced that the special Mother’s Day breakfast is ready so off we go.
In recent years we have become better at acknowledging that the Hallmark tropes of Mothers Day Mothering™ are a very poor reflection of the rich, diverse and authentic lived experience of mothers (not to mention anyone who at any point has had a mother). We have started taking more care in respecting the complex emotional responses that Mother’s Day evokes – that enjoyment of one’s children and celebration of mothers is inevitably tempered by grief, sorrow, trauma, loss, and disappointment. And we have become more adept at using Mother’s Day as an opportunity to challenge our cultural narratives about women and motherhood, or to draw attention to specific disparities, experiences and invisible labour which are unfairly shouldered by child-bearing women.
Yet Mother’s Day is more than just an opportunity to discuss emotional labour – it is the very emblem of it. For Mother’s Day is the day on which our performance of Good Motherhood has the highest stakes. Oh sure, it’s a day on which domestic responsibilities are lifted from us. But it’s also a day on which we must be the most affirming of our children’s craft and the most graciously thankful when presented with a kitchen appliance. We swallow conflict and difficult relationships for the sake of family events. We organise a thoughtful gift for our partner’s mother. We spend the day acting as a reflection to the perception of others, so engaged in being celebrated for what our various aspects of existence as a mother means to others that we don’t have time to think about what being a mother means to us, let alone invest energy in allowing the day to be what we ourselves need or want it to be. Or perhaps there is just enough time to reveal the cracks in the dam wall before picking up on Monday morning where we left off.
I write now in the late afternoon, having returned from a glorious autumn walk and picnic with extended family. It was beautiful with lots of love and fun and I contributed almost no thought or effort to the food or organisation. But still, as we left the house, I found myself wrapping gifts (that I’d selected) for my mother and mother-in-law, finding hats and shoes in places where they had already been ‘looked for’, being the one responsible for remembering where the picnic site was despite the message having been sent to everyone… even on days when mothers are liberated from the visible aspects of the daily grind, the little unseen pieces of the mental load continue to default to the person who usually carries them, and on days with heightened emotional significance those unseen pieces tend to be bigger and heavier and even more difficult to explain.
Mother’s Day isn’t going anywhere and I don’t intend to dictate to anyone how to spend it or feel about it. I think it is perfectly possible to simultaneously enjoy and criticise different aspects of the same thing. But it does seem important to acknowledge that Mother’s Day itself is part of the expectations placed on mothers, and that our complex responses to it may reflect not just how we feel about our own experience of motherhood year-round, but also an acute sense of the contradiction of being centred while performing a role which fundamentally demands that we do not centre ourselves.