She scorned the holiday, but even so, society said she was Mother, and she got gifts on Mother’s Day. I am old enough to remember the era of ashtrays. Back in the 1960s, this was a school project — making an ashtray in the shape of your childish hand pressed into the clay, baking the sad object in the kiln, glazing it in color. Everybody’s mother needed an ashtray, and so did everybody’s father; either they smoked themselves (45 percent of Americans did in 1965) or else they had company who smoked.
If not an ashtray, it was a different school project (Popsicle sticks, anyone?) or else a present bought with my own money, pretty reliably something she didn’t want. And every year when she got those gifts, she thanked us, gamely — and reminded us about the Hallmark-schmaltz connection, called it a holiday made up by the greeting card industry. But as we grew up, though we called and sent cards, I think we respected her desire not to make too much fuss about a day that she kept telling us was not her holiday.
I have three children of my own now, all grown up, and though they love ritual, we never, as a family, evolved any particular Mother’s Day routine. No one ever proposed bringing me breakfast in bed, and since I wasn’t the kind of mother who did all (or even most) of the cooking, there was no song-and-dance about how it would be a treat if someone else did it. I got my share of school arts and crafts projects, and to tell the truth, I treasured them.
My own children tend to be traditionalists; as they got older, they learned that brunch was supposed to be the Mother’s Day meal. My mother would probably have said it was the restaurant lobby conspiring with the greeting card companies. I don’t think my children believed it was a holiday I cared about deeply, but I don’t think they thought I objected strenuously — that was Grandma.
And I enlisted the children in the game of teasing Grandma. As she got older, and we were in the adult-daughter-aging-mother relationship, especially after my father died, I made Mother’s Day into something of an annual tease — insisting on taking her out to brunch, ordering cocktails, threatening her with a corsage or a bouquet (my mother did not believe in cut flowers: “They’re just going to die”). And she went along (especially after the cocktail), but she never failed to hold forth (especially after the cocktail) about what a ridiculous fake holiday we were celebrating.
Part of this, of course, was that my mother was self-conscious about any attention, any expenditure, any attempt to make much of her. If you had asked her how she wanted to celebrate her 80th birthday, she would have made a face; why would anyone celebrate such a thing? But at least a birthday was a real holiday; she would have allowed you to sing, she would have blown out a token candle.
Mothers are complicated, and so is “mothering,” if you like the verb (my mother didn’t, neither do I, and for that matter, I’m not so fond of “parenting” — after all, I’m her combative daughter). I understand a little better now why the capital-M-Mother, hearts-and-flowers, jewelry-and-perfume advertising rush of Mother’s Day set my mother on edge.
My mother would certainly have agreed — as I do — with all the arguments about what it might mean to really celebrate mothers and the work they do: paid generous maternity leave, universal prepartum and postpartum health care, breastfeeding support, excellent and available child care.
And as a pediatrician, when I’m feeling grouchy, I might say I object to the homogenization of all that is richly complicated, interestingly difficult and profoundly individual about the complex experience of motherhood into an ideal that seems calculated to make lots of people feel they’ve somehow fallen short or missed out.
But mostly, I appreciate my own mother’s need to be complicated, difficult and individual.
The irony of my mother’s aversion is that I find myself particularly missing her on Mother’s Day. If she were still here, it would be my great pleasure to tell her, I’m taking you out to a very expensive brunch at a fancy restaurant. I’m bringing over presents and flowers. I’m choosing the perfect card. That’s what you’re supposed to do on Mother’s Day, I’d say.
And she would say, I don’t believe in Mother’s Day. It’s a made-up holiday. I miss hearing her say that.