Once a year in May, a single day is supposedly set aside in our culture to honor and celebrate Mothers and the role of motherhood. To be a mother is simultaneously a marker of personal and social identity, a job description, a set of culturally constructed responsibilities and expectations, and the marker of a lifelong transformation that forever defines us in relation to the lives that we create, nourish, or sustain. Motherhood is also woven with meaning, significance, and value that can’t really be extracted from the cultural and social constructs of mothering, and the expression of Mother’s Day as a holiday.
The social construction of Motherhood
Personally, I find Mother’s Day to be one of the most complicated days of the year! I lost my own mother nearly 11 years ago, a beautiful and complex woman whose life was cut short by cancer just around the time that I became a mother for the first time. With each birth of our subsequent children, I became a mother again- four times, in fact, for each our four living children. But my journey as a mother was also shaped by each of our four miscarriages- a radical act of creation that did not result in the outward performance of “becoming a mother” but forever left a mother-shaped hole in my heart.
Motherhood is also experienced within the intersection of the many facets of my own identity. I identify as a White woman, with economic stability, an able body, and all sorts of privileges associated with being in a cis-gendered, heteronormative, two-parent family structure. I am also a White mother of 4 interracial children the world often reduces to just simply Black. As I wrestle with the desire of all parents to pave our children’s paths for their thriving future and generally improve upon the conditions and experiences that each of our parents faced in doing their best to parent us, I recognize my inability to give my own children the racialized privilege that very much shaped my own upbringing and social constructs of motherhood.
I am also a working mother, simultaneously seeking to run a business, change the world, care for my children and family, and have enough left over at the end of the day to sustain my own bucket! I often struggle with the expectations I notice (including my own perceptions) about what it means to be a “good mother.” It is fascinating to explore how I have internalized messages influencing my performance of motherhood with so many impossible expectations and “shoulds.” Our culture has conditioned us strive for unattainable ideals- like having a perpetually clean and tidy house, well-behaved and delightful children who never fight, a fulfilling and satisfying career as well as home-cooked meals, and to make it all appear so effortless and natural!
I also struggle with the consumerism and marketing associated with Mother’s Day, such as a handbag (often made by exploitative labor conditions and/or child labor) marketed towards a mother so she can “carry it all.” Why should mothers be expected to “carry it all” anyway? Could it be that a handbag marketed as a Mother’s Day gift really just serves to divert our attention away from the fact that we are often disconnected from true social and community support that would actually help us as a society to carry and share the work of raising a family? Do we instead internalize the message that a SuperMom who does it all and carries it all is the most laudable expression of motherhood we should strive for (while making it look easy)?
Honoring the Work of Mothering
Mothers are givers and sustainers of life (for this connection to life and living things, we often refer to Mother Earth or Mother Nature). The work of mothering is often associated with the cultivation of safe and secure attachment relationships necessary for optimal development, with “motherly love,” as a type of caring relationship building empathy and connection that our society needs to thrive by creating belonging. And by the way, all humans have the capacity for this kind of “mothering” that leads to sustainable and life-giving creation in the world. Whether or not you identify as a mother, or even identify as a woman– research shows that we don’t care for people because we love them, we actually love them because we care for them. Humans are designed to be in relationships.
Mother’s Day (the holiday) is often marketed as a day for buying gifts (perpetuating consumerist cycles of buying things we don’t really need that accumulate in our houses as clutter, or in landfills), breakfast in bed (often quickly followed by dishes, laundry, household labor, or other emotional/invisible labor) or bubble baths/“faux self-care” (which doesn’t provide the actual systemic change necessary to address the burnout and fatigue mothers face).
Though these things are lovely and appreciated, truly honoring mothers involves recognition at the systemic level of the critical work of mothering and caregiving, through things like health care, a living wage, paid maternity leave, workplace flexibility, and affordable and accessible childcare. Truly honoring the work of mothering requires addressing gender based-violence and inequities (which are also often racialized) and looking critically at some of the systems which have collectively harmed all of us, like White supremacy (including racism), and toxic patriarchy and capitalism.
While not all of us may be mothers ourselves, our hope is that everyone has motherly figures and receives the gifts of mothering. Mother’s Day may be a complicated holiday for those who have separation or disconnection from their own mothers (whether by death, distance, or strained relationships). Many of us have experienced infertility, miscarriage, or loss of babies, or come to motherhood via a wide variety of pathways including adoption, fostering, or step-parenting. Many of us don’t look or feel the part to conform or fit in with externally-driven expectations around motherhood, rather than feeling a sense of connection, belonging, and community just as we are. Many of us struggle to balance the many hats we wear as working mothers where we navigate to meet the needs of our families/households, our children, ourselves, and our own careers/passions.
Our hope is for radical self-acceptance, self-compassion, and self-love for all mothers. Our hope is for healing if the mothering you received did not meet your needs growing up. May we all learn to mother our own inner children and re-parent ourselves, regardless of gender. Our hope is for all of us to grow in capacity to share “motherly love,” connection, and belonging with the world. May all of us nurture and sustain life in the world around us, regardless of gender. May we all work towards a world without shame, judgment, discrimination, or injustice towards any mothers (or any parent, for that matter!).
Our hope is for a world where mothers and mothering is truly honored and valued in action, practice, policy, and sentiment, beyond simply words and a single day a year designated a holiday!
Thank you to all who identify as a mother, or have shared “motherly love” with the world. You matter! Your work has value! We love and appreciate you!