The trouble with Mother’s Day

Last night my mother and I caught the first few minutes of A Prairie Home Companion while putting the finishing touches on supper, and we shared a chuckle at Garrison’s monologue: some B.S. about discovering that his mother had led a wild life in the few years before she got married, traveling the country with a circus and dancing on the backs of elephants. He made much of the discomfort this new-found knowledge supposedly occasioned.

The story may have been fiction, but I think the discomfort is real. A good friend of mine regularly complains about one of her grown sons who seems unable to keep his embarrassment at her unorthodox views and behavior to himself. Granted that I am only hearing one side of the story, it sounds to me as if he is unable, or unwilling, to grant her the full freedom of an independent person, demanding instead that she remain forever defined by her role as his mother. That’s not only selfish, but infantile. In his defense, though, I gather my friend went through some rather profound life-changes right around the time her four children were leaving the nest: the sixties were happening and she was in the thick of things, getting an advanced degree and then starting an academic career. So no doubt it was very difficult for him and his siblings to see their mom suddenly having such a wild time — not back in her youth, where it could perhaps be forgiven or at least ignored, but right in the middle of her life.

For my own mother, the transformation has been less revolutionary and more evolutionary, I think, but there’s no question that both my parents are very different from the people they were when my brothers and I were forming our first and most lasting impressions of them. Mom likes to say she’s getting more radical with age, and that certainly seems to be true. For example, I remember years ago she used to groan whenever Dad put on one of his Bartok records, preferring the more standard Bach, Brahms, and Beethoven. But thanks in part to our local NPR station’s endless and maddening parade of classical pablum, Mom now has a much higher tolerance — even craving — for the less conventional harmonies and rhythms of 20th-century classical music. I don’t remember her blasting Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and dancing around the kitchen when I was a kid, though I suppose it’s possible she waited until we were off to school to do that.

I’m also still learning things about her — though I have yet to uncover any hidden past life involving circus elephants, alas. Just the day before yesterday, she told me she thought that her interest in nature observation was really helped along by watching some bizarre flicker behavior when she was a young mother in Washington, D.C., pushing my older brother in a stroller through Rock Creek Park. “I was always interested in nature, but I think that was when I really started observing things and writing about them in my journal,” she said, adding that she’d have to try and find that entry in her Washington journal for the article on flickers that she’s planning. (Yes, she’s been keeping journals continuously for at least 44 years.)

This is a long way around saying that I am uncomfortable with this whole Mothers Day thing. Perhaps if the holiday had stuck with the pacifist vision of its founder, Julia Ward Howe, I wouldn’t feel that way — who better to end war, after all, than those who stand to suffer the most from it. But instead the holiday has become an excuse to promote (and of course commercialize) a one-dimensional view of mothers as self-sacrificing servants of their families, with negative repercussions for mothers and for children alike. Should children of alcoholic, abusive, or psychopathic mothers suffer a lifetime of guilt for their inability to worship at the shrine of Mom? Should new mothers struggle through the hell of postpartum depression because they don’t happen to find motherhood as immediately fulfilling and wonderful as the entire weight of our culture insists it must be? And what about moms who don’t fit the June Cleaver mold: those who are the primary breadwinners, for example, or perhaps the only breadwinners? I don’t think single moms should be scapegoated for social ills that have much more to do with endemic poverty and injustice. And I don’t think it’s fair to stay-at-home dads to associate the nurturing-parent role with femininity.

I realize I’ve been uncommonly fortunate in having stable, nurturing, and happily married parents who are also among my best friends. Perhaps it is that friendship that makes me resent the imposition of culturally approved scripts about parents and children. But I think there’s something more than a little patronizing about the way we treat mothers in general. Exhibit A comes straight from one of my mom’s favorite rants: “Mother Nature.” For some reason, good ol’ boys and developers just love to talk about Mother Nature, I’m not sure why. It always makes me flinch.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

19 Comments


  1. We ignored Mother’s and Father’s Day growing up. I think it was new enough for my parents to have seen them as impositions. My parents also gave their three children a healthy distrust of sentimentality (though I am probably the least resistant to it of the three).

    The more direct reason for our non-observance was my father’s dismissive “Japanese merchants’ holiday” remark when Mother’s Day or Father’s Day was mentioned. We dared not give gifts or even cards with him sending those signals. I guess the Chinese merchants are behind it all now.

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  2. great to hear you share like this about your parents, dave. thanks.

    a friend of mine, someone i think of as a great mother, says she doesn’t really enjoy Mother’s Day, but at her house they always celebrated Kids’ Day somewhere between Mother’s and Father’s Day, and they always had a great time!

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  3. Well said, Dave, both in content & style. My mother steadfastly refused to acknowledge Mother’s Day in her time & Emma won’t have it celebrated now (although she did become a tad emotional when Reuben & Rosie presented cards made at nursery!)

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  4. Ah, you may be right, but there’s nothing like an excuse for a homemade card from a kid–I got home from my long time away and my youngest promptly presented me with a homemade Mother’s Day card with a pop-up inside–a little fold-out basket with some just-picked grape hyacinths inside.

    Children can take something meretricious and make it real… Just like you did here, honoring your Mom-of-gusto.

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  5. my “issue” with Mother’s Day is more of the commerical end of things. I’m not much of a “consumer” and so I hate having to buy a card. I hate that the card says it all for you and so all one has to do is say “love, ______.” But my mom insists on it. She’s not for gifts — she knows I have no money. But she wants that damn card. So I get that damn card. But at least I write in it, telling her in my words why I love her so garsh darn much.

    Ugh – don’t get me started on Hallmark holidays.

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  6. Call me sentimental, but I like Mother’s day. Maybe it is just the ancestor worship thing. I really enjoyed your essay and the insights into your family. Moms have a right to grow and change. Yesterday my wife and I went to mass(Spanish) and the priest celebrating it was in town visiting his mother and sister. They are all from Morelia in Mexico. When the mass was over he and our regular priest went over to the Virgen of Guadeloupe shrine to the right of the statue of San Jose and kneeled and prayed in her honor. On the other side of the church is the shrine to the Vietnamese Martyrs. We went to a Thai and Laotian restaurant later.

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  7. I’m with you on Julia Ward Howe. For Mother’s Day we read her proclamation onstage at the Davis Whole Earth Festival — and had a bunch of moms in the audience, whooping. It was great. I was astonished at the text, actually — I had never read it carefully before.

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  8. Not only are you right about mothers and holidays, you’re right about classical radio. I hate it when they start playing Johann Strauss and that ilk. In fairness, though, I think they make excellent efforts to go beyond the old warhorses (and so have the CD companies). Listening to WQXR in New York as a child, it seems all I heard was Beethoven Brahms Mozart Schubert etc. Much more early m usic nowadays, especially.

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  9. Does Mother Nature spank?! I think she does…and we’d better not forget it!

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  10. Peter – Wow, your parents sound like real curmugeons – your dad, anyway. We always marked both holidays, and I imagine that was because my parents believe in the importance of helping kids to overcome their natural selfishness by learning to enjoy buying or making things for others at as young an age as possible.

    kasturi – That sounds fun. I think we may have raised the issue of a Kids Day a couple of times, always to be told that “every day is Kids Day.” Which was pretty much true – at least until school started, and our time was no longer our own.

    Zhoen – Thanks.

    Dick, marlyat2, and Gina Marie – Yeah, there’s nothing like a homemade card, I guess. That’s all we ever gave our parents – it never even crossed our mind to buy cards. Wouldn’t have seemed right. Now, holidays and birthdays are just an excuse to buy books for each other.

    Children can take something meretricious and make it real.

    You bet. Which is why the holiday has been so phenomenally successful, I’m sure. (True of Christmas, too.)

    Fred – I’m all for ancestor reverence – assuming the ancestors deserve it. I don’t know about worship.

    My brother Mark is in Venezuela right now, and wrote to say that Mother’s Day is huge down there, almost as big as Christmas. I suppose having a Mother of God at the center of one’s religion might have an impact on that. Anyway, sounds like you had a good time!

    Pica – I see that the author of the history appended to the copy of the proclamation I linked to, Ruth Rosen, is a professor at UC Davis.

    I’m glad to hear the proclamation went over so well. I was just saying to my dad the other day that I thought the internet – especially listserves and blogs – had given it a new lease on life.

    Richard – Well, our station, WPSU, may well be playing what a Central Pennsylvania audience can tolerate. But it still irritates me because, as the call letters suggest, it’s attached to a public university and has an educational mission. It wouldn’t kill them to have a couple hours of 20th-century classical music per week, as they did at one time.

    celeste – “Mother Nature” regularly slaughters large numbers of her offspring in earthquakes, hurricanes, and disease epidemics. But if the intent is to punish, with an eye to preventing future misbevior, I’d say she isn’t doing a very good job.

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  11. Here are the original Ten Paradoxical Commandments by Dr. Kent M. Keith. A slightly altered version is sometimes falsely attributed to Mother Teresa

    In defense of Mother’s Day, I’d like to add an eleventh.

    Mother’s Day is commercialized, over hyped and overpriced. Your mother may be loving or clinging, or she many be crusty, independent and impossible. She may say she doesn’t like the holiday and doesn’t need anything. She may seem ungrateful. She’s your mother. Celebrate it anyway.

    1. People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered.
    Love them anyway.

    2. If you do well, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives.
    Do well anyway.

    3. If you are successful, you win false friends and true enemies.
    Succeed anyway.

    4. The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow.
    Do well anyway.

    5. Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.
    Be honest and frank anyway.

    6. The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds.
    Think big anyway.

    7. People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs.
    Fight for a few underdogs anyway.

    8. What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight.
    Build anyway.

    9. People really need help but may attack you if you do help them.
    Help people anyway.

    10. Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth.
    Give the world the best you have anyway.

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  12. Ooops! I’m both Anonymous and suffering from after Mother’s Day brain deadedness. Sorry.

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  13. Joan – I’m all for celebrating it, but I do think it would be nice if we could change the focus of the celebration a bit, back toward the peace and justice orientation it had in the 19th century. A Million Mother March on Washington, for example, as someone suggested, sounds like a great idea.

    I hadn’t heard the Ten Paradoxical Commandments before. I like!

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  14. Dave, I think you should take a poll of mothers on that one. We don’t live in that century. Carey Nation was hot stuff then too. Mother’s Day is what it is, and it’s personal. Mothers can have all the marches on Washington, and Mother’s against drunk driving and Mothers against breast cancer etc. etc. which is fine but none of that will ever ever replace the feeling we get when our children come over, give us card, a flower, and a hug and tell us they love us. Mother Earth day was a couple of weeks back. Yesterday was my day and I like it the way it is. You can politicize Father’s Day if you want. (grin)

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  15. Mother’s Day is politicized one way or the other, because politics are inescapable as long as you’re living with other human beings. If you’re comfortable with its current emphasis on the politics of domesticity, that’s fine. I don’t think M-Day has to be one thing or the other, though. And I would dispute your contention that female-led activist movements are in the past: groups like Women in Black in the former Yugoslavia, for example, or the Mothers of the Disappeared in Argentina have had a strong, positive impact in recent times. To say nothing of Cindy Sheehan and the Gold Star Families for Peace… who had their “10,000 Mother of a March” on Washington today, I see.

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  16. I don’t see where I said anywhere that female activist movements were in the past. I said the 19th Century’s idea of what Mother’s Day should mean is in the past, and I’m not at all sure the florists didn’t have something to do with it back then. Mothers can do what they want and march for whatever they wish and more power to them (us?) And many props to Cindy. If I thought another march on Washington would do a whit of good, I’d have oiled up the old walker. However, I am at a loss to see why one day set aside for kids to be nice to Mom has rattled your cage so. When the ads come out for fishing poles and camp stuff for Father’s Day will we get exhortations for another million man march on Washington?

    My point, which I seem to be doing a really really bad job of making, is that to me, and I hope to at least some of your readers Mother’s Day is for children to show their appreciation to their mothers. There are 364 other days to be Activist Mom. This one is for kids to be kind to former/present/ future Activist Mom.

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  17. It’s interesting your idea of Mother Nature’s “spanking”–I would argue that, statistically, more people are “slaughtered” by fooling with Mother Nature(pollution, eating chemicals, contaminated water, farming with unsustainable methods) than by “acts of God”(as insurance companies call them–weird!!) earthquakes, etc(and politics kills a lot too). My idea of Mother Nature’s spankings are the consequences of messing with Mother Nature–100 years of Smokey Bear makes infernos, the Terminator gene that “may or may not” be contained, embalmed food, plowing prairies to make dust bowls, burning the rainforest, building in floodplains thinking you’ll beat the 100 year flood(or even the 10 year flood), feeding soylent green cows to cows makes mad cows. Stuff like that.

    Just sayin’, Nature(“Mother” figure/entity or not) does not protect us from the consequences of our bad choices in the uber-all to boost our self-esteem. On the other hand, if you take the time to know and understand Nature and live within it, you’ve got a dang good life(too, that just speaks to my own rabid-feral-psychotic preference for backwoods life over urban/suburban).

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  18. Joan – Maybe that’s why Sheehan and company decided to postpone their mothers’ march until the day after – they felt as you do. (I’ll spare y’all my tirade about florists.)

    celeste – You certainly won’t get any argument from me about the folly of thinking we know better than nature. It becomes increasingly obvious that introducing any novel chemical compound, or radically altering any natural ecosystem, will have dire consequences. I guess what I meant though was that the “punishment” is not impartial, because those who most profit from these alterations are the most insulated from their effects. Lately, for example, the climate change experts have been predicting that the people in the global south, who have contributed the least to global warming, will be suffering the most from its effects.

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