A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Sunday, May 8, 2022

". . . these mortals be."

This is my first Mother’s Day since Mom died in February.  

That sounds like the start for something maudlin, but it isn’t; Mom didn’t even like Mother’s Day.  Or, to be more specific, she said the second Sunday in May was a silly Hallmark holiday, manufactured by sellers of cards and flowers.

Do I agree? What does it mean, exactly, to celebrate mothers? 

This feels like an especially pressing question these days.  But even if we assume that the form of motherhood we’re celebrating is voluntary, rather than the product some kind of Handmaid’s Tale dystopia that would have utterly horrified my mother… I still have questions.

Are we setting up motherhood as an ideal of womanhood? 

I’ll assume no, because… ick.  Do I even need to explain, on behalf of those women who cannot or choose not to be mothers, why this is vile?  Do I need to mention all the kids lovingly raised by single dads, two dads, grandparents, or other types of families?  Moving on…

Are we celebrating a purified and perfect ideal of motherhood – ever-patient, ever-kind, ever-baking-apple-pies? 

Again, ugh.  Mythicizing mothers makes it hard to be one, and hard to mourn one. It leaves all of us actual human living breathing imperfect mothers with feelings of guilt, inadequacy, and boxed-in-stereotyped frustration.  This is… maybe not a positive theme for a holiday.  

Perhaps the holiday is not intended to mythicize, but merely to express our debt to moms, imperfect as they may be, for the monumental work and sacrifice associated with motherhood? 

Better.  But repaying mom with a plate of waffles seems… laughably inadequate.  More to the point, it seems off-kilter.  Parenthood isn’t a debt that can be repaid.  Such an effort would be Sisyphean, impossible, ludicrous.  Expecting it would be warped.  I don’t want repayment from my kids.  My mother did not expect repayment from me. 

Arguably, though, it still makes sense to say thanks.  Mothers should not be taken for granted, right? 

Now we’re getting somewhere.  And yet… at the time in all our lives when our parents’ work was non-stop, exhausting, and downright gross, we needed to take everything for granted.  An infant shouldn’t feel guilty about hogging all that breastmilk, a toddler is incapable of fully understanding that Mommy didn’t want to be puked on, and even a ten-year-old needs to feel that bandaging that oozing scraped knee is something a parent wants to do, lovingly.  No judgement, no payment, no running tab.  Being taken for granted is a crucial part of parental territory.

What about later, though? 

Well, yes.  As kids reach the teen and adult years, they should gain empathy and perspective, to avoid becoming narcissists and sociopathic monsters.  But once we’re mature enough to understand where, when and why a “thank you” is merited, we begin to realize that – in the case of our parents -- there is no “thank you” that will suffice.  Uncomfortable, maybe, but true.  There is not, and never can be, anyone on Earth who loved me the way my parents did.  I have a great husband, two wonderful kids, a fabulous sister and some stellar friends; I’m not isolated and I’m not complaining.  It’s just how things work.  It goes the other way, too; I love my own kids more than they will ever be able to love me in return – not because their love for me is inadequate or stunted, but because mine for them is so inexpressibly vast. 

But can’t we still use the day as a reminder to celebrate our mothers? 

Well, yes.  Of course we can celebrate our mothers – not motherhood, not conceptual beings crafted from a monolithic ideal, not Mother the Wise Woman, Mother the Caretaker, Mother the Earth Goddess, or Mother the Embodiment of Sacrifice -- but specific real people that you know. 

In the nuclear family of my childhood, we celebrated everyone’s birthdays with enthusiasm, as celebrations of an individual.  All four of our birthdays occurred during the prettiest seven weeks of spring, rendering additional celebration seasonally redundant.  But for those whose birthdays are in November or February or August, Mother’s Day seems like a reasonable excuse for, essentially, a second birthday. 

I’m not qualified to define the “right” way to celebrate Mother’s Day.  It depends on who your mom is, or was, or might one day become.  But I do know that for me – and perhaps for most people -- feeling loved is closely linked to feeling known, feeling seen, feeling accepted and appreciated with all my flaws.  Thus, the core question: who was or is your mom? 

If she’s gone – or fading, as my mother did in her last few years – perhaps one way to celebrate her is to teach something that she taught you to someone younger.  Pass on a story, an off-color joke, an amusing habit, a bad-ass skill.  If your mother is still with you, maybe celebration means deepening that knowledge, that connection, that seen-ness.  Ask her what she’d most like to do, and where she’d most like to travel.  Email her to ask her opinions about something.  What book would she like to read?  Check it out from the library for her.  What would she laugh at?  Text it to her.  Is she training for a 5k?  Cheer her on. By all means give her flowers if she likes flowers, but give her video games or a new cordless drill or a bottle of whiskey if she’d like that better.  Celebrate your quirky, flawed, hilarious, complicated, imperfect, very-much-human mother -- not by putting her on a pedestal, but by knowing her.

My mother didn’t care about Mother’s Day.  That hasn’t stopped me from thinking about her today, because I think about her every day.  I also thought of her a lot on April 23rd, her birthday.  So too, it seems, did her childhood friend Angela.  On the 24th I received an email from England:

“I was thinking of Janet yesterday.....her birthday which, when we were ten, she informed me was the same as Shakespeare's.”

I recall my mother reminiscing about all the male roles she played – petite physique and waist-length pigtails notwithstanding -- in Shakespearean productions at her all-girls British school. 

Yesterday, I auditioned for this summer’s outdoor performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Fairbanks Shakespeare Theatre.  Today, I got a call letting me know that I snagged a (small, comic) male role.  I’ll also pitch in with carpentry, costume-sewing, and flower-planting for the set.  I learned all those things from her, too.

There’s no Hallmark card that could capture my mother, on the second Sunday in May or any other day.  I know that.  I’m glad she knew that, too.   

All the same, happy Mother’s Day.

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