the trouble with Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day has always made me uncomfortable. The festivities felt hollow. Forced, maybe. Too hallmark-y. But I could never put my finger on why I felt so squirmy, so I just brushed it off as some weird Jennifer-ism.

And then last week two things happened—or, rather, I made two observations—and it clicked.

First, at my children’s mother’s day program (which involved inordinate amounts of butt wiggling, lip-synching, and flowery moms-are-awesome prose), all I could think of was our two sweet neighbor boys whose parents are in the middle of a divorce and who are living with their Grandma and aunt instead of their mama. I don’t know any details, but I sense there’s a good bit of pain. So while I watched those boys bouncing around on stage, chorusing “We love you, Mama!” with all the other kids, all I could think of was the hole in their lives.

Second, all day long on Sunday, May 12, my Facebook feed was flooded with beautiful pictures of people with their mothers. It made me sad, a little, because my mom is so far away and we’re missing each other. But that’s okay—separations are sad and sadness is life and all that.

What struck me as odd were all the posts acknowledging the children without mothers, the mothers without children, and every possible combination in between. The posts were poignant and spot-on. Mothering is painful and rich and wretched and holy. How we have been mothered, or not, and how we have mothered, or not, hits our core, hard.

I’m glad that people are acknowledging all the ways a person can mother and be mothered. The definition of mothering should be broadened. I am grateful that in my church the mothers aren’t asked to stand on Mother’s Day.

In no other holiday do we spend so much time acknowledging and apologizing to the people whose hurt is extra pronounced because of that special day. The other holidays—Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, New Year’s, Forth of July, you name it*—aren’t about us. Those holidays are broader. They’re about something beyond us. We are invited to enter in, but we aren’t the reason for the celebration. Uteruses don’t have any say in the matter.

I love being appreciated as much as the next person, maybe even more. I’m certainly not above milking the day for all it’s worth (hello ice cream maker and deck furniture!). But why not celebrate our mothers on our birthdays? Because that’s the day—the day they pushed us into the world, or laid flat on their backs while we were evacuated through the sunroof, or signed the adoption papers—that’s the day that makes the most sense, me thinks.

I expect I’m an anomaly with my squirmy idiosyncracies (am I? am I??). I don’t foresee Mother’s Day ending anytime soon. So I’ll continue to accept my children’s handmade cards and savor the opportunity to put my feet up a little extra long on that Sunday in May. And every May I’ll feel awkward about all the mother honoring going on—not because mothering shouldn’t be celebrated—but because it’s done at the expense of highlighting other people’s grief and pain.

That’s all.

*I lump Valentine’s Day in the same boat with Mother’s Day: Hallmark-y and shallow. But there’s something different, more carnal, about the mother-child bond. You can pass through a string of lovers (though I don’t recommend it), but not children.

Ps. Excuse the semi-weird-looking photos of my younger daughter. My mother’s the one that pointed this out. She looks “a little sick there,” she said. Thanks, Mom.


  • Aili

    Ever since seeing the miracle of life up close and personal, JC's standard birthday greeting is, "Tell your mother I congratulate her on her amazing feat."

  • Jill McKenna/jillsifer

    Some of us do precisely what you suggest. All my life, my mother gave my grandmother a gift on her (my mother's) birthday, and I gave my mother a gift on my birthday. My son, lovingly taught by my mother, now gives me a gift on his birthday. Sadly, we lost my mother last June, but I will commemorate the tradition on my next birthday by giving a small gift to the wonderful woman who said, at my mother's funeral "You're our daughter now." She will never, EVER know how deeply those precious words resonated with me on a day I didn't think I could survive. And I love your blog. All the best to you and yours, jill

  • Rachel

    Yes, yes, yes. I ache for the friends I have who so desperately want to be mothers…and for those who have lost children. I can't imagine how painful Mother's Day must be for them, and so downplaying the "holiday" seems, for me, like a way of honoring them, too.

  • teekaroo

    I agree with you. I don't mind being recognized for being a mother, but all the hype ruins it for me. I totally forgot about Mother's Day this year until a friend was complaining about how her husband never does anything special for her. I thought I was just the strange one. I do love the idea of honoring our mothers on our birthday. I always intend to do something, but I never seem to get it done. Maybe next time… ten months to prepare!

  • Margo

    Excellent points! We usually ignore Mother's Day somewhat around here, but I always feel bad for my mother and mother-in-law, like they might feel unappreciated if we don't BUY them something or COOK them something. I love your idea of celebrating my mom on my birthday – that's brilliant.
    And, thanks to your post, I will forever think of C-sections as being evacuated through the sunroof 🙂

    • Jennifer Jo

      One of my girlfriends, upon meeting my older son for the first time, said, "Ah, look at you! You arrived through the sunroof!" I was feeling rotten about the birth, and her comment put a warm spin on a painful situation. Since then, c-sections are always sunroof births, in my mind.

  • Zoë

    I'm with you on all of this. We've never really celebrated mother's or father's day. I mean, maybe we are a little more nice to each other on the respective days but it doesn't really go beyond that. If the kids want to celebrate when they are old enough to do things for us, then fine, but I sure hope they don't feel the need to buy us presents just because everyone else is. Celebrate me (or anyone else) when you want to celebrate, not because mass marketers tell you you should.

  • Anonymous

    I'm not much for celebrating any holidays and, by extension, neither are our children. I believe it to be all hype created by marketing people in order to sell more stuff. Every day that I wake up and see our children's smiling faces and get to hug them is Mother's Day to me. I know they appreciate me; I don't need a special day for them to tell me that. Mother's Day, Father's Day, Valentine's Day – they all come and go without nary a mention of them and that's just the way I like it. And total truth be told, I'm not really good at celebrating Christmas, Easter or birthdays either. I think that something in me rebels at being told when to appreciate my own mother or father or when to celebrate my kids or my husband. Isn't it better to celebrate them every day of the year than just that one day? And I don't want a child to tell me that they love me because they feel like they have to.

    I'm glad you wrote about this. I used to feel like I was strange – was there something wrong with me that I didn't like Mother's Day? I am finally, at 42 years old, learning who I am and also to accept who I am and that more often than not, it goes against what the rest of the world thinks and does and Mother's day was one of those things. Vicki

    • Jennifer Jo

      I, too, rebel at being told when to celebrate, who and how. (Hey, let's claim a day to celebrate the Holiday Rebels and Hallmark it!)

  • Lynn Diener

    I've shared this same sentiment for Mother's Day for a while, but what's newer for me is holding out that same hesitation with Father's Day. I know there's less hype- they're men (grunt) they don't get all worked up over a silly holiday (grunt), but I'm more aware now of how that ache that's present on Mother's Day is there on Father's Day, and you're right- on Valentine's Day, too. And heaven help me, I saw "Family Day" on my calendar (when did that start?)- I can only imagine how complicated a celebration on that day would be.

    I'm grateful for those who've mothered me through my own mom-gaps and I plead with God to fill in the gaps I leave with mothering by others in my children's lives.

    It is no easy thing.

    The last couple years I've taken Mother's Day *off*. I leave, go have an overnight retreat for one. This year I stayed home and wished I'd gone away, not because of expectations met or unmet but because it comes with all this extra stuff and it sits there waiting all heavy and prickly and hard to navigate.

    You're far from alone on this.

    My kids, though, LOVE Mother's & Father's Day, but it's because they know it's a day to say how much they love us (which they are bursting to do– I'm lavishing in that). I wish it would stay so simple. Darn life.

    • Jennifer Jo

      My favorite Mother's Day gift is time alone!

      Re Family Day: when raising a family, every day is family day.

  • melodie davis

    I always am glad when mother's day is over. Just a thing with me. You put your finger on an interesting point the other "holidays are broader. They’re about something beyond us. We are invited to enter in, but we aren’t the reason for the celebration." I'll have to think about that some more. Thanks.

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