A lot has changed since I wrote this Mother’s Day essay eleven years ago for The Bay Weekly. I will be brunching without my girls this year, as one has to work and the other lives on the opposite coast. But I stand by my words; honoring our mothers should never have become an exercise in Facebook one-upsmanship. To all the young mothers out there, enjoy your day of rest as best you are able. To those whose babies have flown the nest, enjoy your best memories……………
Several years ago, I witnessed a remarkable Mother’s Day event: a mother duck hatching her ducklings right outside a busy restaurant. They were sheltered under a bench in a sunny corner, and one wet and wobbly chick struggled to gain control of his bulbous head while his siblings still struggled for their freedom. Their mother seemed available but unconcerned, like a good boss. There was no visual display of affection, yet it was evident from their proximity and eye contact that they were bonding. Mother duck checked on the progress of her remaining eggs in much the same way a baker checks her muffins for doneness just at that aromatic moment when they bear closest observation.
She seemed so poised and comfortable that I assumed she must have done this many times before. But perhaps animal mothers are just more in tune with what Mother Nature is telling them about the miracle and responsibility of motherhood. Unconcerned with layettes, feeding methods, toilet training, or the education and socialization of her chicks, she faced only one great challenge that I could see: crossing the busy road to the nearest water.
Human mothers have a much harder job, no matter how simple Dr. Spock made it sound with his advice to, Love ’em. Feed ’em. Leave ’em alone. Motherhood is an equal opportunity employer and the defining moment of a lifetime, without defining us. Therein lies the problem with Mother’s Day. It too often feels like a reason to bask in reflected glory or wallow in failure. We can thank Dr. Sigmund Freud for that, whose take on motherhood was so well summarized by the comedian Robin Williams: If it’s not one thing it’s your mother.
Thus Mother’s Day can feel like another skirmish in the mommy wars. Women are bombarded with romantic images of corsages and mimosas, sunny strolls through the park, flowering plants, flowery cards and homemade gifts from adorable children … on demand. Life just isn’t that simple.
So how does a mother with post-partum depression cope with the guilt? How does the neglected or abused child deliver on the breakfast-in-bed cliché? How does the mother of a disturbed teen deal with one day of indulgence following a year of rejection? If they are lucky (or not so lucky), there is a too-public brunch. Then again perhaps there is nothing at all: no visit, no card, maybe not even a phone call at the end of the day.
I have been party to all of the above, and I’ve come to realize that Mother’s Day is a contradiction. Mothers sacrifice. That’s their job. Kids take advantage. That’s their nature. Somewhere between childhood and adulthood, kids are expected to stop relying on Dad or some other relative to arrange the perfect day and figure out for themselves what Mom would really like. The inherent role reversal is tough on both parties, yet the hype demands that convention be obeyed. When they hit the mark it’s great.
But why do we have this ideal vision of one special day, and where does perfection fit in?
Motherhood is relentless hard work, and no matter the outcome no one should be made to feel like a success or a failure because of her kids, especially on Mother’s Day, because there are times when we will all feel like one or the other. Children are individuals with free will. They will or will not be all that they can be … both good and bad. They are neither our creations nor our reflections any further than can be explained by the mirror.
Mother’s Day should not be a Hallmark occasion but any day of the year when a woman’s children do her proud or she rises above her humanity to cope with the inevitable stresses of the job. When it is really given the status it deserves, this holiday will no longer fall on a Sunday, because most mothers today are working mothers and they deserve a real day off when the kids are in school. They would appreciate the opportunity to retreat with their peers to a place where they could whine and laugh, revel in their sisterhood and share the simple camaraderie of coworkers in any tough job.
So this year I recommend women everywhere take a tip from mother duck. Sit back, relax and just watch them grow. Only don’t let them wander into the road. If the day is a dud, remember this, too, shall pass. Whether they show it or not, they are bonding.