You’ve seen the images of the USA’s national day to honor motherhood. They could have been (and maybe were) painted by Norman Rockwell, presenting idealistic portraits of mothers receiving the well-deserved praise and gifts from their grateful husbands and children. But how many mothers actually dread Mother’s Day?
You’d be surprised.
The list of reasons to dread Mother’s Day runs the gamut of emotions, excuses, and circumstances. Whether one struggles with a mother’s absence, a child’s death, infertility, or an estranged relationship, the holiday can dump an extra dose of emotional pain upon women and their children alike. Horror stories abound regarding children feeling duty-bound to wear a smile and spout insincere words of love and appreciation toward mothers who heap abuse and bitterness upon their families. Other anecdotes draw tears as women mourn the miscarriages that thwarted their attempts at motherhood. Still more languish in memories of mothers who died, some of survivors lifting those women to pedestals no real women could truly scale. Articles—and the sheer number of them may surprise you—on dreading Mother’s Day mostly focus on those themes of rejection, abandonment, and loss. Few actually focus on mothers’ reasons for disliking Mother’s Day.
What about the mothers who grin and bear the holiday? Why do they resent Mother’s Day?
Mother’s Day typically heralds festivities, family gatherings, and other celebratory activities requiring advanced preparation as well as cleaning up after the party. In short, the holiday settles more work upon an already busy woman’s shoulders—work that she may not particularly wish to do on “her” day. Allyson Reynolds relates her tale of Mother’s Day woe as the wife of a doctor: “As thoughtful as my husband was and is (he always buys me a little something and attaches a card with sweet words of thanks), it seemed that every Mother’s Day during those demanding years he was either at the hospital or one of us had responsibilities at our church taking up a good portion of the day. In other words, I ended up with very little time for myself.”
Writing for Psychology Today, Peg Streep notes that Anna Jarvis, the woman responsible for convincing President Woodrow Wilson to sign into law the “national sanctification of motherhood,” never married nor had children. She did, in fact, come to resent the commercialism associated with the holiday she bullied the president into recognizing. The National Retail Federation’s annual survey noted an expected $23.1 billion dollars in holiday-related spending, which equated to an average of $180 spent per person in 2018 for Mother’s Day. Individuals from the ages of 35 to 44 are the biggest spenders; and 31 percent of consumers will purchase Mother’s Day gifts online. Equating matriarchal reverence with dollars spent flies in the face of the sentiment Jarvis intended.
Mother’s Day expectations inevitably set women up for disappointment. “Lucky” moms might get breakfast in bed, but then they have to clean the messy disaster in the kitchen and probably change the sheets and wash the blankets of spilled food and drink. In past decades, “lucky” moms often received household appliances that only affirmed their place in the family as maid and cook for everyone else. Moms employed by restaurants found themselves scheduled to work on the busiest day in the food service industry—not much of a holiday.
The National Restaurant Association confirms the truism of Mother’s Day being the most popular holiday for restaurants: “In fact, 32 percent of mothers surveyed say having a meal at a restaurant with their loved ones is the best gift they could receive. And their families know it; Mother’s Day is the most popular dining-out holiday, followed by Valentine’s Day and Father’s Day.” In 2017, the National Restaurant Association estimated 92 million Americans (37 percent of consumers) would dine out.
Although relieved of the responsibility of cooking a meal and washing the dishes, mothers still go home to housework and laundry and planning what to cook for the next meal. Those who would give their eyeteeth for some peace and quiet find themselves surrounded by their families every minute of the day and expected to show their enthusiastic appreciation for the cards, gifts, and extra attention received on their special day.
Mothers, especially those who don’t work outside the home, rarely hear that thoughtful question: “How would you like to celebrate Mother’s Day?” They receive questions about what gifts they want, where they wish to dine, or what family activities they’d like to do. Mother’s Day offers husbands and children the opportunity to give special recognition to wives and mothers, but does not take into account the wishes of those wives and mothers.
Mother’s Day reminds women of their primary societal importance: motherhood. Pick a culture, any culture, and the emphasis on a woman’s value rests upon her capacity to reproduce. That emphasis overshadows every other facet of a woman’s purpose and identity. No matter what she accomplishes, no matter what her interests, her biology and biological purpose rule the day. People forget, especially on this day commemorating motherhood, that women can be and often are so much more than mothers.
Mother’s Day is here to stay, so wishing it away does no good. For those who dread the extra work and the heap of additional expectations, think about expressing your desire for something else, like solitude or like someone else to clean the house and watch the kids. Speak up. Take the opportunity to take care of yourself. In other words, dedicate at least part of the day to yourself.
Dr. Claire McCarthy addresses those for whom Mother’s Day brings pain instead of joy: “[P]art of what helps is acknowledging that it will hurt—and planning for it.” She advises women in the sisterhood of motherhood do something self-indulgent: “Eat only ice cream all day if you feel like it. Buy yourself a gift. Spend at least a few minutes of the day being beholden to nobody but you.”
Mother’s Day celebrates the gift of giving life. By changing the focus from birth, a woman can ponder upon all the ways she gives life. In HuffPost, Seth Adam Smith notes that to be a mother means “[t]o love, strengthen, encourage, teach, and lift another.” Giving life encompasses the act of nurturing the life of others.
So, enjoy the flowers, the candies, the cards, and the well-meaning gifts and attention. Sometimes it really is the thought that counts.