Who’s a mother?

There was a lot of talk about mothers last week. Everything around us – media, billboards, news stories, friends and colleagues—prompted us to remember our mother on her special day, often encouraging us to spend money, while also insisting that it was the thought that counted.

There are many reasons that I am not a fan of mother’s day. Its capitalist/consumerist nature is part of what I don’t like, but there’s more to it than that. For one thing, it creates a false narrative about motherhood that puts perfect (ie. non-existent) mothers on a pedestal while making the rest of us feel inadequate. As musician and mother Farideh Olsen writes:

“Like all moms, I want to do the job of raising [my daughter] perfectly. I want her to eat organic broccoli I’ve pulled with my bare hands from the garden. I wish her never to know the glow of a screen or hear the pum pum of the Netflix opening title. I want her teeth to sparkle, and her hair to be combed and braided to look like all the brightly polished children of Instagram.

“But I am not that parent and she is not that kid. I don’t grow a garden. We both love our screen time. I don’t always remember to brush my teeth, let alone hers. She likes her hair to look like she just stepped out of the wilderness – wild and unbridled just like her.”

When she posted a song admitting to her shortcomings as a mother, she received lots of comments from other mothers, relieved to know they were not alone in their fears of inadequacy, but she also received a number of hostile posts, including this one:

“u don’t prioritize ur children. Why even have them?”

Who’s missing?

This year, I found myself thinking about who is excluded from the popular narrative of mother’s day. What about when a mother, deep in dementia, no longer remembers her child? Is she still a mother?

What is mother’s day like for women whose role as mother has been ended:  a woman whose planned pregnancy ends in a miscarriage, who gives a baby up for adoption, whose child is stolen or killed by her father, whose child has cut her out of their life?

What about accidental mothers – women who fall into a mothering role with children who are not “theirs” legally, biologically or by intention?

What about reluctant mothers?

Esme, the protagonist of “The Dictionary of Lost Words,” struggles with how to define the word mother. Is a mother, she wonders, only someone who is a female parent, or is she any woman who has given birth to a child? Is mother solely defined by a woman’s relationship with a child or does it have a status independent of that?

She considers the words of a mother whose three sons have died in the war:

“It’s not just my boys I’ve lost. I’ve lost my motherhood, my chance to be a grandmother.”

Another character, having just learned as a young adult that she was adopted, ponders what a dictionary might say about mothers:

“Mother would be in there. Of course it would, though I have never had any cause to look it up. Until this moment, I would have thought that any English speaker, no matter their education, would know the meaning of that word, know how to use it. Know who to apply it to. But now, I hesitate. Meaning has become relative.”

What about mothers who started out as fathers? Aria Jones, a transgender woman celebrating her first mother’s day as a mother, says it’s complicated.

“Experts say that current and historic transphobia, as well as family conflict, can make it difficult for trans moms to feel loved and appreciated on Mother’s Day.”

 Jones was married and had kids when she came out as transgender. Her wife and kids have been supportive:

“I was a bit surprised, because she (my wife) had gone aside with the kids and asked them how they felt about having me celebrate Mother’s Day this year, instead of Father’s Day, and the kids were great with it. They thought it was a great idea.”

Where next?

Of course, not all species are as gendered as humans when it comes to parenting. In robin families, for instance, while the mother bird incubates the eggs until they hatch, both parents feed the ever-hungry babies, who happily present their open mouths to whomever appears with food.

In that spirit, I want to propose a re-think of mother’s day; one that will include all of us who perform mothering functions: non-bio as well as bio-mums; grandmothers and aunties who step in when needed; the next-door neighbour who keeps an ear and eye open when they are worried a child may be neglected or abused; mothers whose children are not here to honour them; folx who start out as dads and become mums; men who nurture and raise children either alone or with a partner.

I want us to honour mothers in all of their (our) inadequacies and imperfections. As Olsen’s song says:

“I am a good mom/Not a perfect one/I’m always making mistakes. . . /I can’t be everything/And that’s okay.”

We can start with a simple name change: from mother’s day to mothering day.

As for this year, I plan to watch Netflix’s newest offering: “The Mother,” timed, of course, to coincide with mother’s day. It stars J. Lo., so it’s off to a good start, who plays a military-trained assassin  “who comes out of hiding to protect the daughter she’s never met from ruthless criminals gunning for revenge.”

A killer mum with a kid she’s never mothered – what could be better for mothering day?

One thought on “Who’s a mother?

  1. I really like the idea of mothering day. My daughter and her husband were unable to have children but they are super parents to two dogs.

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