Before you say, “but we celebrate Father’s Day, too!,” let me note the difference between the gifts retailers push for the occasions: for Father’s Day, men get grills and lawnmowers and sports equipment because being a dad is apparently all about stuff they do (in the summer, mostly). Women get jewelry, clothes, perfume. Because being a mom is what we are.
And we are a blessing, aren’t we? In fact, we are so dedicated to being moms that we do not even know how to take a break! Fortunately, we can turn to articles like this one, which, after reminding us that “being a mother is your most important job,” suggests fabulous compensatory treats like … taking a walk. Not sure about allowing yourself the thrill of reading a magazine in the park? “You deserve it!”
What’s extra galling about Mother’s Day is the way it uses praise to gift-wrap social pressure. To extol mothers as self-sacrificing and emotionally attuned, capable of multitasking and incapable of putting ourselves first even for one day is to imply that this is the way we should be. Whereas fathers are heroes if they manage to take a break from being guys long enough long enough to braid their daughters’ hair.
Mother’s Day deploys gratitude to assuage guilt. As if the massive labor imbalance in a typical family could be set right with enough candy, flowers and spa days. As if extoling motherhood could exempt politicians from funding child care. Why pay for something moms already accomplish so magnificently?
When our kids were young, I objected to the lopsided binary that Mother’s Day enshrines, because I wanted (1) my husband to be an equal parent and (2) my children to learn that both parents can apply a Band-Aid, fill out a school form, get dinner on the table and, perhaps most important, sometimes be too busy to do any of that.
Our own results were mixed. Every move toward equality that depended on my husband doing things — changing diapers, taking the kids to birthday parties, vacuuming — worked like a charm.
Every move that depended on my not doing things — not being available to my kids, not letting their schedules dictate my schedule, not putting their needs at the center of my life — did not go so well.
On a societal level, it is no better and maybe worse. Mothers still tend to take on more than their share of child care, housework and the “mental load” of keeping track of parenting tasks (appointment-making, carpooling, present-buying, camp-registering). Women are still far more likely than men to be parenting full-time. Even when both parents work, when someone has to take care of the kids — such as during a pandemic — women are far more likely to put aside their jobs and their careers.
In other words, we are still organizing our society in such a way as to require the maternal sacrifices that, once a year, we reward with brunch.
Over time, I have relaxed a bit about the whole thing. I no longer insist on referring to myself as a gender-neutral “parent” because I’ve learned how much the identity of “mother” — like a lot of identities we think shouldn’t matter — has affected how the world treats me and how I treat myself.
But I still believe that celebrating mothers as a special category of parent reinforces the cultural assumption that women can and should do more than their fair share. And that, in turn, conveniently explains why they do.
So, for Mother’s Day this year, I am wishing for an enlightened future in which gender has no bearing on the rights and responsibilities of parenthood. We deserve it!
And if someone wants to bring me coffee, I will take that, too.