Saturday, May 12, 2012

Mother, the Verb

For about ten years while I was employed at my last job, I spent Mother's Day poring over the transcripts of about 2,000 seniors with eight other colleagues, locked in our office building together, deciding which ones of them would be able to graduate and which ones weren't.  It was a job that my husband would say, year after year, ought to be done by a computer, but somehow, never was; there were simply too many variables for a computer to understand, even if a student had been cleared to graduate pending successful completion of their spring term courses, and too many ways to make it either work or not work by changing majors to minors, or requesting transcripts from other schools, or any number of other things.  We would start the day with coffee (lots, and LOTS of coffee) and donuts, break it midway with a catered lunch, and stave off insanity during the late afternoon and evening with cookies, brownies, and any other form of sugar we could get our hands on.  We would work in pairs for most of the day, joking with our partners as we flipped through the pages again and again, pulling files, cutting ourselves on the paper.  It was a day when despite our differences, we valued each other, and we took care of thousands of students ... some of whom we would push out of the nest into the world in just four days, some of which we would spend hours trying to console, strategizing with them about what came next, trying to help them see the obstacle of not-graduating as just that: an obstacle, surmountable.  It was an intense day, followed by an intense week of both jubilation and many tears (and curses, and violent outbursts) in our office.  One of my colleagues likened it to being in a lifeboat, out on the ocean in a storm.

In a way, it was a relief to me to spend Mother's Day that way every year, because my relationship with my own mother was such a complicated one (yes, I love her, but no, she does not occupy a place on a pedestal for me), and then during the years of our pregnancy losses and my own infertility diagnosis, when I did it not because my job required it but because I was helping out former colleagues, it was another way to contain the day, not letting it take over.  And working gave me an excuse not to celebrate what I felt was an arbitrary day, like Valentine's Day was arbitrary ... when if what we felt was genuine, we should be celebrating motherhood every day, shouldn't we?

During the last two years, thanks first to a new computer system (which turned that day into a week) and second to my maternity leave, I no longer had the excuse of reviewing transcripts.  In 2010, I celebrated Mother Earth with photos of a walk along the canal towpath not far from our house.  Last year, in 2011, I was on the verge of resigning from my current position, and celebrated the mother within, and reminded myself that we should allow ourselves to be mothered by our innermost selves in that way.

This year, when my mother called me to ask me what we were doing, I confess I felt annoyed.  I have two beautiful children, and we are done family-building.  But honestly?  I didn't want to go out to dinner.  I didn't want to have to find a gift.  I wanted to tell her we were doing nothing, but how does one say that to one's own mother in this country, and not be accused of treason?

But perhaps that's precisely the problem.  Motherhood, as it's celebrated on Mother's Day, is bizarrely perfect--bizarrely, because we can't even agree on a single definition of what that perfection would entail.  Women are judged for having no children ("how selfish" or "just adopt!"), for having too many children ("oh, those welfare mothers!"), for breastfeeding ("those attachment parenting fools!"), for not breastfeeding ("they're poisoning their children!"), for sending kids to school ("those high-stakes dupes!"), for keeping them home ("those hippies!"), for going to work ("those cold bitches!"), for staying home ... especially with an advanced degree ("what a waste!").  I don't want to celebrate a holiday that pretends we don't make these judgements.  And maybe that's why I liked the Mother's Day at work so much; because we were all doing the best we could, together.

So what to do?

I'm going to remind myself that mother is a verb.

This year, I'm going to celebrate the imperfect mothers in my life, the women who do the work of mothering, which is not an achievement but a lifelong journey, even if we never have biological children of our own.  I'm tired of the judgment; part of not judging is accepting that we're all doing the best that we can, for our families, whatever they may look like, and for ourselves.  The imperfect mothers include my friends who are struggling to balance life with children (whether they work outside the home or stay at home), the women who are deep in the trenches of loss and infertility, the grieving childless not-by-choice who have mothered more people than they probably know, those who look like they're holding it together but are really just one second away from unraveling, and so many others.  And me.  I'm a work in progress, too.

For Mother's Day, I'm going to ask you to do something, too.  Write a letter to an imperfect mother.  Maybe it's your own mother.  Maybe it's not.  Tell her how she has touched your life, and the lives of other people.  And tell her that it's OK to be figuring this whole thing out as she goes.  Because there's no such thing as a single perfect apple pie, either.

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Jjiraffe said...

"I don't want to celebrate a holiday that pretends we don't make these judgements."

WORD. You've finally articulated my odd ambivalence/anger with Mother's Day, specific to this period in time. This is why I'll be quietly sitting this one out. Thank you for putting into words how so many of us feel.

N said...

That was a nice post. Sorry i havent commented recently. My work computer has been giving,me problems. Happy day.

Mali said...

This was beautiful. It made me feel slightly teary. And thank you for your last paragraph - what a wonderful idea.

(And oh, that pie looks good! Drool.)

Nic said...

This post really made me think, and has made me feel brave enough to say something that I know many will judge me for.
For years I have ignored Mothers' Day because I have no children, and I don't love my mother. Yes, I know that seems like an unthinkable thing to say, but it's honest. I grew up with daily abuse from her for years. I don't hate her, but I don't love her either.
But I think I should approach it as you suggested. And instead think of the imperfect mothers out there. The ones that TRY. Because I know what it's like when they don't.

jhl said...

Nic, this is a very brave thing to say, and I'm honored that you feel this is a safe place to say it ... I for one don't judge you, and I don't think anyone else here will, either. I'm so sorry that you had to endure such a painful experience as a child.

I have been lucky enough in my life to find some women who have nurtured me, loved me, and held me sometimes in ways that I wish my mother had. I hope that there are women like that out there for you, too, as flawed as they may be.

Thanks for your bravery, and your honesty.

jhl said...

Mali, sending my love to you ... and pie, if it helps. You are amazing, too.

jhl said...

N, no need to apologize! We're all doing what we can. :)

jhl said...

It's been a particularly weird year for this, hasn't it? I know that the political and social environment has definitely shaped my feelings about the holiday this year, more than before.

ana said...

This is my favorite mother's day post, and one of your best. Thanks.

Lavender Luz said...

How perfect to pair this with apple pie. I wonder if Chevrolet would sponsor this post to be included, too? :-)

I absolutely love this about the mother within: "we should allow ourselves to be mothered by our innermost selves in that way."

I think my letter to an imperfect mother would be to myself. Now you got me thinking.

Esperanza said...

I loved this post. I too felt oddly antagonist towards Mother's Day this year. I think the Time cover coming out had something to do with it. Perhaps it's the general war on womanhood, and reproductive rights in particular. I just feel, I don't know, like I'm not wanted in my own country. Like nothing I can do is right and people would strip me off my choices because they have no faith in my ability to make decisions. Woman are not revered in this country, so let's stop pretending they are with a shiny day made of colorful cards.

Sorry for the negativity. Thanks for this post. Thanks for all your posts.

Adele said...

This is very well said. I'm still ambivalent about Mother's Day, for many of the reasons that you outline. (And also the knowledge of how hard that day can be). And motherhood is imperfect. And messy. And, above all else, variable. But that's okay.

jhl said...

Not negative ... just frustrated. And understandably. Know that you are celebrated in my heart, my friend. Because you fight the good fight, every day.

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