Asking Some Hard Questions About Mother’s Day

Does this holiday really celebrate motherhood and honor women?

Yael Wolfe
May 9 · 7 min read
Photo by Rikki-Lee Wrighson on Scopio

I don’t love Mother’s Day. In fact, I kinda hate it. There are a lot of reasons behind this, from a complicated history with my own mother (that has largely healed over time, thank goodness) to the fact that I did not become a mother as I had hoped — all of which means I feel a little extra sting of grief on a day that celebrates motherhood with a fervor reserved for only the biggest holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that I don’t think we should have a holiday to celebrate mothers. And in fact, I don’t think we do enough to protect and appreciate mothers on the other 364 days of the year.

But yes, the month preceding this holiday and the day of are a little challenging for me and for lots of women, for lots of different reasons.

What makes this more difficult is that there’s very little room for this discomfort. Try to tell someone you don’t like Mother’s Day and the response that elicits can be pretty harsh — especially for those who feel sad on and around Mother’s Day because they weren’t able to become mothers as they had hoped. That’s almost guaranteed to inspire a harsh response that lacks any sense of compassion.

If you don’t like Mother’s Day because your mother has passed on or because you lost a child, you’re likely to get a little more sympathy, but there’s still not an open invitation to share freely.

I doubt anyone wants to step on a mother’s toes on a day like this, when it’s so important to take a moment and remember to show appreciation to the mothers in this world. But also…I can’t help but think that there are questions that need to be asked. I can’t help but wonder why, if motherhood and maternal love are so important, we don’t choose to honor everyone who contributes to the well-being of our children.

And if motherly love is defined by the quality of nurturing — why aren’t we seeking to make sure this holiday inspires that?

There is little that scares me more than publicly confronting how our culture deifies motherhood. In large part, this is because I don’t want to contribute to the cultural narrative that is always taking from women, rather than giving to them. I don’t want to contribute to the implication that the domestic and emotional labor that women perform isn’t as valuable as a man’s labor.

However, it’s also because mothers can be scary. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten comments or emails from women who have children who said, “It’s not the world’s problem that you didn’t become a mother. There’s no reason you can’t be happy for those of us who are mothers and deal with your pain on your own.”

I am not surprised by this common response from many women who have children. A lot of them buy into the Mother-as-Deity position our culture confers upon them. And why shouldn’t they? Why not take advantage of their social clout in a society that teaches us to see so little value in the Feminine?

However, I think there’s a challenge in this — an opportunity to look a little deeper.

Does another woman’s pain about Mother’s Day actually take away anyone’s joy or ability to celebrate in a way that suits them? Can there not exist the nuance that a woman can feel grief around Mother’s Day and still support and encourage mothers?

And do we really need to be so miserly about how we celebrate this holiday? Is it really necessary to insist that women who struggle with this day just sit down, smile, and shut up?

A few days ago, at a time on the calendar that is designated for the imbibement of the Mother’s Day Kool-Aid, Representative Cori Bush (D-MO) gave a speech about her pregnancy and birth experiences as a Black woman in a country where maternal and infant mortality rates are highest for Black people.

To put that into what I hope is glaring perspective, Black women are 2.5 times more likely than white women to die from maternal causes, and Black newborns are 3 times more likely than white babies to die during or soon after birth.

Representative Bush included in her speech her promise to “protect Black mothers, to protect Black babies, to protect Black birthing people, and to save lives.”

This is a critical issue — and should be particularly critical to anyone who cherishes their role as a mother.

Instead, for days following this speech, Twitter was flooded with angry women, mothers, and cisgender white guys (among others) who attacked Rep. Bush for using the term “birthing people.”

Responses seemed to focus on people’s opinions that replacing the term “mother” with “birthing person” was degrading and that divorcing the terms “women” and “mother” was a dangerous and slippery slope.

It should be noted that Rep. Bush never once argued to replace the term “mother” with “birthing person.” That term was simply used to be inclusive of trans men (some of whom can give birth), nonbinary people (some of whom can give birth), and other demographics such as surrogates, who don’t generally use the term “mother” to describe themselves.

Amid the firestorm of criticism she received following her speech, she rightly called this out for what it is: racism and transphobia.

If the hype around Mother’s Day in the U.S. represents our commitment to the welfare, protection, and celebration of all mothers, then why the hell is everyone wasting time arguing about the term “birthing people?” Why aren’t we talking about the systemic racism that is putting the lives of Black mothers, birthing people, and babies in danger?

I realize that I’m a little cynical, but I just can’t buy into the idyllic fanfare that surrounds Mother’s Day in the U.S. Honestly, I don’t really believe it’s about celebrating motherhood or protecting mothers. And it’s definitely not about honoring women.

As one of my favorite authors (who happens to be a mother), Anne Lamott, says,

“Mother’s Day celebrates a huge lie about the value of women: that mothers are superior beings, that they have done more with their lives and chosen a more difficult path. Ha! Every woman’s path is difficult… The illusion is that mothers are automatically more fulfilled and complete.

…Mother’s Day… feels incomplete and imprecise. The main thing that ever helped mothers was other people mothering them, including aunties and brothers; a chain of mothering that keeps the whole shebang afloat.”

In light of the things I witness around Mother’s Day, which this year included 40+ marketing emails from retailers I follow that featured blonde, white women in their 20s, heavily pregnant and frolicking in meadows with their man-bunned husbands and two blonde toddlers, and the backlash directed at Rep. Bush which completely ignored the critical issue at hand in order to focus on the (transphobic and sexist) false correlation between womanhood and motherhood, I can’t help but see Mother’s Day as an attempt to keep the illusion circulating — the illusion of motherhood as the gateway to purity, power, and cultural relevance.

In reality, of course, if we look past those gauzy, romantic photos featuring perfect white families and pregnant bellies that promise fulfillment and purpose, we can see that our culture doesn’t actually give a damn about mothers.

As author (and mother) Margaret Renkl wrote in The New York Times, “Mother’s Day is a saccharine invention, a national fairy tale in a nation that does almost nothing to support mothers.”

When it comes to Mother’s Day, what are we really celebrating? What do we really want out of this holiday?

Are we celebrating the role of mothers? And if so, shouldn’t that extend to everyone who contributed to our upbringing, as Lamott suggested?

Are we celebrating women? And if so, shouldn’t that include all women, which includes making space for those who have lost a child, who struggled with infertility, who didn’t get a chance to have a child, who lost their own mother, or any other struggle involving their relationship to mother- or daughterhood?

Are we celebrating motherhood, itself? And if so, shouldn’t that inspire us to get behind politicians who want to make laws that protect all mothers, all birthing people, and their babies?

And why is it that the only other holiday that out-markets this one is Christmas? Isn’t that worth looking at? Have mothers and birthing people been reduced to a marketing opportunity?

And how come Mother’s Day propaganda — oops, I mean marketing emails, blog posts, and social media graphics — only feature young, pregnant, heterosexual, presumably cisgender women, who are, in most cases, white? Where are the middle aged mothers? The grandmothers whose adult children also want to celebrate them? The queer mothers? The Black and Brown and Indigenous mothers?

Though I hate to begin and end this essay with questions, I don’t see a way around it. Sadly, I don’t have any answers. And I don’t think answers will be easy to come by.

But I hope we can start asking these questions and having these discussions and move beyond the attitude that people who are struggling with this holiday should “deal with their stuff on their own time.”

Mothers, and women, and all people who give birth deserve a lot more.

Please be sure to read the articles I linked to about Black maternal and infant mortality rates so that we keep our focus where it belongs. And take a look at GLAAD’s website to educate yourself about transgender issues and identity.

© Yael Wolfe 2021


I will write until I’m free.

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