In case you managed to miss it, Mother’s Day was Sunday and the Internet was once again awash in cute photos of generations of women and their families. It felt like everyone I knew took a #Igetitfrommymama moment to pass on some seriously deserved gratitude to the mothers who raised them while also working through everything else that women (and specifically, mothers) contend with.
Imperfect Mothers, Imperfect Daughters
It’s not easy being a mom in America, and my own mom learned that firsthand. She was in a crappy, yet familiar immigrant situation. She gave birth to me during her final year of dental school, while juggling learning English, surviving off underpaid work and welfare checks, studying around the clock, and fighting with my dad. To top it off, I had colic, which means I cried and screamed for hours on end for about six months. Mothering didn’t get easier: I turned out queer, shaved my head, got a bunch of piercings, and dedicated my early teens to fighting with my mom, slamming doors on my mom, and disappointing my mom. I’m not saying she was perfect, but I am saying that my mom was human. And young. And flawed. And probably doing her best.
While I’ve posted to social media all “I love my mom, look how cute we are here when I was a wee thing in a funny outfit,” the more honest story would be, “To my mom, who sometimes sucked, who didn’t actually understand that body shame and guilt are toxic, that emotional abuse is abuse, or how to support me when I was clinically depressed. Thanks for feeding me and filling my cavities and telling me I am smart and capable. I guess I turned out okay, and now we can be in the same room and actually enjoy it! Happy Mother’s Day!” But obviously you don’t put that in a public Mother’s Day card, particularly when everyone else is writing these epic stories of how #flawless their moms are. (And why have we decided all Mother’s Day cards should essentially be public, anyway?)
WE Know Motherhood Is Complex…
Recently, though, it feels like more people are beginning to understand and speak freely about how complicated mothering can be. Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook and author of 2013’s Lean In (about women in the workplace), lost her husband to a freak treadmill accident in 2015. Last Friday, she released an apology to moms on Facebook wherein she admitted that when she wrote her workplace manifesto, she didn’t realize how hard single parenthood could be:
I did not really get how hard it is to succeed at work when you are overwhelmed at home. For many single parents, there is no safety net. Thirty-five percent of single mothers experience food insecurity, and many single mothers have more than one job—and that does not count the job of taking care of their children. A missed paycheck or an illness can present impossible choices. A single mother living in San Jose said that each month she has to choose between putting food on the table and paying her cell phone bill.
… Turns Out Daughterhood Is Complex Too
What was less obvious—until I chatted with some friends yesterday—is how for some grown children, the very basics of Mother’s Day alone can be stress inducing. One of my friends put it this way:
I have a complicated relationship with Mother’s Day. When I was a kid, I went all out for my mom, wanting her to know how special and amazing I thought she was. But as I get older, and my relationship with her becomes more complex (or maybe just more adult), Mother’s Day feels harder. I live miles away from my mom, and social media seems to be the medium of choice these days. So I spent fifteen minutes trying to write a post thanking my mom. First I couldn’t find a good photo of the two of us, then I didn’t want to leave out my grandmothers, but I don’t have a photo with me and both my grandmothers, and if I thank my step-mom, but not my aunt (who hates my step-mom, and also had a role in raising me), am I going to piss everyone off? So I end up doing nothing, and then I feel guilty. I feel like the heartfelt phone call has lost its social capital.
And her guilt was not for naught, because another friend’s mom was actually upset with the lack of public social kudos:
My mom is in a tizzy cause I didn’t write her an eight paragraph status on FB saying how awesome she is with a million pics. Apparently her friends got that and she feels left out. I really want to tell her to stay in her lane and not focus on other people… I could have given my mom the whole big thing but I was tired, and I tell her all the time how great of a mom she is.
One friend has a relationship with her mom that—similar to mine—isn’t exactly the kind of butterflies-and-heart-eyes Facebook posts that everyone wants sandwiched between photos of cute kids and their moms:
My mom was trying to keep us alive. She wasn’t very emotionally available and she wasn’t hands on, but she kept us alive and that was a big deal and not a given in our house, so every so often I pause to say, “Oh hey: thanks.”
Harder than any of it, though, are those mostly invisible people for whom Mother’s Day is a day of grief. What happy hashtag is there for a mother who has been deported (like in this heartbreaking image)? What status do you post when your mom’s passed on, and you can’t wake up without crying? How do you cope when, like another friend of mine, your relationship with your mom is just never going to be perfect—but our society, which allows men and fathers to publicly and privately fail often with little to no recourse—still shuns and shames women who mother imperfectly? What do you do when you feel like your mother’s failures are your secret to keep?
Social media is so fucking draining to me on Mother’s Day. Everyone is telling me what a perfect mom they had, and I’m like “I guess I really missed the boat on that.” I mean, my mom tried, and I’m very lucky in that sense. But mental illness stripped me of the chance of having a mother who was a protector, who always knew the right thing to say, or many of the other attributes we see mother’s praised for publically this time of year.
Let’s Be Honest: Mother’s Day Isn’t Always Easy
To me Mother’s Day isn’t any different from any other holiday. There’s sorrow, grief, guilt, resentment… even politics (like Obama coming out in support of transgender mothers). The truth is, Mother’s Day brings up each person’s emotions and histories around being a mother, having a mother, wanting to be a mother, and sometimes, losing a mother. Why do we pretend it’s as simple as a Hallmark card and fancy flowers? Why do we assume that everyone reading Facebook is feeling the same things?
The gratitude is necessary (and honestly, probably not enough to make up for how hard it is to be a mother the rest of the year) but let’s make some space for experiences that deviate from the story, and be mindful that some people around us might not be stoked to publicly swap happy Mom stories this week.
APW, Let’s talk about mamas (and Mama’s Mamas). How did you handle mother’s day? Is your story Facebook friendly? How real can we even get on social media (especially if our moms are on it?)