7 Things I’ve Discovered About Motherhood & Mother’s Day

7 Things I've Discovered About Motherhood & Mother's Day

Photo credit: Kate Gilmore

I recently delivered the keynote address for Stuartholme’s Mother’s Day event. This post is based on that address.

If you told me a year ago that I’d be giving a speech at a Mother’s Day function, I would have laughed out loud… derisively. 

Because while I am a very proud mother of three twenty-something young men, I have never celebrated Mother’s Day. It’s not some radical left-wing stand against the grotesque commercialisation of celebrating motherhood for profit. Though I 100% think there has been grotesque commercialisation of celebrating motherhood for profit. It’s because motherhood and even the words mother and mum have always carried a deep-rooted sense of pain and loss for me. My feelings about Mother’s Day are not something I’ve ever really talked about before, except with my husband and, to a far lesser extent, my sons, but apparently, today is the day.

It should be the reasonable expectation of every child that their mother will be the person who loves them unconditionally, nurtures and supports them, provides them with a safe place to land when they fall, and keeps them safe from monsters. In the case of my childhood, my mother was the monster. I won’t labour on it too much except to say that there was extreme neglect and abuse. Behind the closed doors of our middle class, architecturally designed home in the suburbs, life was not normal. 

My mother was not a good mother, to me. She would swing between starving me and then feeding me – but telling me my food was poisoned. She would verbally and emotionally abuse me – every day. She would hit me and slash knives under my bedroom door in an effort to cut me as I used my body to brace the door to keep her out. As a child, I would wake to find her sitting on the end of the bed staring at me intensely, and in silence, or wake, gasping into the pillow covering my face, with her knee on my chest as she suffocated me until I stopped flailing. She would come into the bathroom while I was in the bath, plug in the hairdryer, turn it on, and swing it in a pendulum arc over the water. She would let it go, and until it clattered on the bathroom mat, I did not know if I would live or die. And like so many abusers, she would do these things to me, at least the extremely violent and life-threatening things, when no one else was around.

The abuse took many forms over the years. At sixteen, after having the harrowing and profound realisation that no one was ever coming to save me, I swallowed a bottle of pills in an effort to secure my freedom and die at my own hands instead of hers. I would have died but for the quick action of a classmate from Stuartholme who found me and, with help from her mother, got me to the emergency room. She quite literally saved my life, which I did not thank her for at the time – that took a while, but it led to me getting the help of a fantastic psychiatrist, who helped me process the trauma I’d been through, and create a life of peace, purpose and joy for myself.

And spoiler alert – my life has turned out fabulously well.

Before my father left and subsequently divorced my mother, I loathed the superficial acts of buying my mother presents and taking her breakfast in bed to mark Mother’s Day. She was not a mother worthy of celebrating. After my father escaped the war zone that was our home, leaving me behind, aged ten, I only marked Mother’s Day to the extent required to maintain my immediate safety until I would rescue myself from the situation by leaving, aged seventeen.

I had my first son, Joseph, at eighteen, and I quickly realised that the pain, loss, anger and betrayal that I felt on and around Mother’s Day were not going to magically disappear because I was now a mother. And so, by accident or design, I never really started celebrating Mother’s Day. And any incidental encounters with Mother’s Day activities, like receiving school-made cards from my sons, were more a reminder of what I had missed and been deprived of rather than the gift of joy my sons intended them to be. I did my best to hide it from them, but I know I was not always successful.

So, when the committee invited me to speak to you today at this Mother’s Day Lunch, I hesitated. But then it occurred to me that there are some things I’ve learned about Mother’s Day and motherhood. Insights it has taken me years of observation, contemplation, and introspection to learn and understand. So, hopefully, there might be a gem or two worthy of your time and attention today.

Like many mothers – I love a list. I love organising my thoughts into lists, I love writing them down, and I love re-writing them onto nicer paper or colour coordinated post-it notes, especially when done as a way to procrastinate and delay actually doing the things on the list. So, here is my Top 7 list of things I’ve discovered about motherhood and Mother’s Day – as someone who has been a staunch non-observer of the annual celebration for over four decades.

1. Motherhood is hard.

It just is. Anyone who tells you differently is a saint, a cyborg, a liar, or they’re trying to sell you something. 

Society has imposed some pretty lofty expectations for mothers. Many of these expectations are completely unreasonable. They are often fanned with the flames of heavily curated glimpses into the Insta-lives of ‘successful’ mothers who are managing to have it all. Please don’t buy into this bullshit. 

No one is showing you photos of the projectile vomiting or when the poop leaks through the nappy and then the onesie all over the cot. They’re not showing the private disagreements and frustrations with partners over whose turn it is to get up with the baby, stay home with a sick kid, or clean the kitchen. They’re not showing you photos of themselves choking back tears and gathering themselves in a toilet stall before walking into a boardroom to deliver a presentation having just been told by their teenager that they are the (all caps) WORST PARENT EVER exclamation mark!

Given time, money, staff and good lighting, anyone can make it look like they have it all. However, spend some time behind the scenes with people who stage these perfect-life shots, and you realise just how much of their real-life they are surrendering to create this Insta-worthy facade.
 
Many of the unrealistic expectations we place on women also fall into the category of damned if you do, damned if you don’t, impossible to achieve scenarios. Many mothers who want to stay at home as full-time mums struggle to afford to do so on their partner’s income alone. Single mothers have it even harder. We often expect them to look for work or return to work or study to retain financial support benefits, even if they can’t afford the childcare necessary to do it – all while solo parenting.
 
Many mothers who want to go back to work or study struggle to juggle the challenges of parenting and careers. For some, that’s the very real financial struggle of affording outside school care alongside the regular day-to-day bills. For others, it’s the constant doubt and self-loathing that comes from feeling they are falling short of expectations as a working professional while simultaneously falling short of being the parent they want to be.
 
Mothering is hard. And this is only exacerbated when women are pitted against each other, which leads me to Item 2 on my list.

2. Other Mothers are not the enemy.

Madeleine Albright had it right.
 
Madeleine Albright was a former Secretary of State in the US. She famously declared, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.” For me, a very logical extension of this is that there is a special place in hell for mothers who don’t help each other. There are a lot of individuals and entities out there who stand to benefit if mothers see other mothers, and different groups of mothers as the enemy. Do not be their pawns.
 
I’m a working mother. I’ve always been a working or a studying mother. Except that first year as a teen mum when I stayed home for a full fourteen months, because I believed the hype that it was the only way to be a ‘good mum’. It was one of the most frustrating and soul-sucking years of my life. Sorry Joseph. It wasn’t that I didn’t love him like crazy, it’s that I’m not designed to thrive as a full-time stay at home mum.
 
So I’m a working mum. Does this mean that I am at war with stay-at-home mums? Of course not. First of all, to all the stay at home mums in the room, I don’t know how you do it and remain sane. You have my respect. Does it mean I think all stay at home mums are 1950s wannabes with conservative and repressed social views seeking to set back feminism? No, that would be ridiculous. Do I think that all stay-at-home mums assume I’m an ambitious feminista (as though those words are both a bad thing) who loves money and my career more than my children? No.
 
But I can not seem to go a week without seeing a blog, an article, or a commercial TV or radio discussion panel fuelling the idea that there is a war between different groups of mothers. Stay at home mums versus mums who work outside the home. Mums who breastfeed versus mums who formula feed. Mums who support natural birth versus mums who opt for hospitals. Mums who experience pregnancy versus mums who become mums through surrogacy or adoption. And people who opt to terminate pregnancies and not become a mother at that time versus people who take pregnancies to term and then place their child up for adoption.
 
Don’t allow yourself to be persuaded that other women and other mothers are the enemy. There are people who will try to turn you against other women. In fact, for many of them, sowing dissent and creating tension and drama is part of their job. So it’s important you see the hype for what it is, and don’t get caught up in the superficial. For example, don’t believe that people who use the phrase ‘work outside the home’ to describe professional women are suggesting with sinister intent that they don’t also work inside the home and care for their children. Don’t believe that people who refer to ‘stay-at-home mums’ rather than work-at-home parents are suggesting through their word selection that you’re not doing work while at home raising children or that it can only be women who stay home. Ask yourself – why is someone trying to pit me against other mothers? And then remember – other mothers are not the enemy.

3. There is no one right way to be a great mother.

There’s just not. No mother is perfect. On the basis, they are humans and not cyborgs. You will have flaws. You will have failures.
 
Play to your strengths, and find others to fill the gaps. My kids learned pretty early that if they wanted someone to put a band-aid on a bleeding knee, tell them “there-there”, or be a shoulder to cry on – go to dad. If they wanted someone to review the situation, develop a strategy to solve a problem or take on an authority figure to demand change – go to Mum.
 
And while we’re here, please remember that motherhood is not limited to biology, and engaging in positive mothering behaviour is not limited to mothers. All of the best mothering I have received in life has come from people, men and women, who are in no way biologically related to me, most recently from a fabulously talented and insightful human who happens to be a 40-something gay Texan.

4. Mother’s Day is an incredibly complex day.

There is nothing one-size-fits-all or straightforward about it because no two relationships between a mother and their child are precisely the same.
 
It evokes the broadest range of emotions and responses. For some, it’s a day to celebrate your very own loving, nurturing, supportive and inspiring mother. A woman who was always there for you, a woman who never failed to meet the standards you felt mothers should achieve. You know – the mothers that the Hallmark greeting cards are written for and about. The Hallmark (can’t possibly be human) mothers. For others, it’s a day to celebrate your own very human mother, who has stumbled and struggled, but who never left you with any doubt that she loved you more than anything.
 
For some, it’s a joyous celebration shared in the company of mothers who are physically present. Others will spend the day celebrating mothers who are still alive but separated from them by geography or, more recently, COVID. And for some, it is a day tinged with sadness because they once had a wonderful mother, but she has passed away and is deeply missed on this day, perhaps more than others.
 
For those of us who have children, it might be a day to be celebrated as a mother. A wonderful mother. A passionate mother. And an authentically human and, therefore, imperfect mother. For others, it is a day of bitter sadness as they mourn their time as a mother to a child or children loved and lost. Or to mourn that biology, technology, resources, adoption waiting lists, bureaucracy, or financial or relationship circumstances have, to date, robbed them of their dream to become a mother.
 
Some queer mothers might be struggling to have loved ones accept their dual mother households. Queer fathers might have to deal with suggestions, overt or implied, on or around this day in particular, that their parenting is lesser than due to the absence of a female mother. And then, there are people like me – whose personal experience with mothers has been abusive, neglectful, harrowing and deeply scarring.
 
Mother’s Day is incredibly complex. There is no one size fits all. So amidst your day of joyous celebration or quiet self-care, please take a few moments to do some good for others. It doesn’t take much. Jump on the internet and donate some time or money to an organisation supporting women who aren’t having a Hallmark Day. Show them that they aren’t invisible. The online design and publishing tool software company, Canva, recently secured me as a customer for life after sending an email acknowledging Mother’s Day is hard for many and providing a one-click option to opt out of their Mothers Day promotions. 
 
Ask yourself, what can you or your company do to make someone’s Mothers Day experience a little better?

5. There’s no one right way to celebrate Mother’s Day.

Mother’s Day has been around in various forms since the Middle Ages. It originally was a day set aside during Lent, when people who had moved away from their parents’ hometown were free to return home to visit their mother and their parish. In Britain, this transitioned to become Mothering Sunday, which continued into modern times.
 
Anna Jarvis of Philadelphia in the US started the modern version of the holiday we recognise today in May 1907. Anna’s mother was an inspiring woman, who organised women’s groups to promote friendship and health. Anna held a memorial service to celebrate her late mother and other mothers in a church in West Virginia.
 
The idea of celebrating mothers this way took off, and within five years, almost every state in the US observed the day in some form. In 1914 US President Woodrow Wilson declared Mother’s Day to be a national holiday. Anna Jarvis encouraged people to wear a white carnation as a tribute to their mother. This custom evolved over the years to promote wearing a red or pink carnation to represent a living mother or a white carnation for a mother who had passed away.
 
Over the years, the Mad Men of the advertising and sales industries took control of this simple day of honouring mothers and turned it into the holiday we think of today, primarily associated with sending greeting cards and the giving of flowers or gifts. I think it’s worth noting that Anna Jarvis spent the final years of her life protesting against the commercialisation of the day she had founded to honour motherhood and working to abolish the holiday she had herself brought into being. So please know that the way people mark this day has changed many times over the years, and there is no one right way to celebrate Mother’s Day. 
 
For some of you, Mother’s Day is the picture-perfect day of great joy. A day that looks like what the TV ads and product posters tell us it should look like. Your celebrations may be filled with greeting cards and presents. Maybe it involves handmade gifts and cards. It can include spending time with family or some well-deserved time away from them. It can consist of doing nothing at all and spending time exercising some quiet self-care and understanding. Or, if you subscribe to Anna Jarvis’ vision, you can simply wear a white, pink or red carnation.
 
And if you are a go big or go home, the bigger, the better, celebratory holiday in the Bahamas, high tea at 5-star hotels, skipping-jewellery-presents-is-not-an-option kind of Mother’s Day person, that’s great. You do you. And remember, you don’t need to rely on others. If you have the resources to celebrate your own fantastic motherhood efforts, then by all means – to quote Queen Beyonce -“The rock I’m rocking – I bought it, ‘Cause I depend on me if I want it.” And while we’re talking about independent women and getting what you want…

6. Tell people how you want to be celebrated.

This one pretty much speaks for itself.
 
If you want to spend the day in a particular way, with specific people – don’t have the unrealistic expectation that your family can read your mind. A secret expectation is a disappointment you plan for yourself.

And please, please, for the love of all things sane, don’t succumb to the whole ‘mothers should never ask to be recognised’ hype. Don’t lie and say, ‘I don’t need a gift, or ‘I don’t need to do anything special’ if you want a gift and you want to do something special. Especially if you’ll be unhappy or irritated if your family takes you at your word, gives you exactly what you asked for, and organises nothing. Which leads me to my final item – #7.

7. People who do Mothering well, deserve to be celebrated.

Mothering is not easy. Mothering is hard. Mothering is not automatic. It’s work, and it is important work, and people who do mothering well deserve to be celebrated.
 
So don’t feel even the slightest bit abashed or hesitant about telling the people in your life who love you how you would like to spend Mother’s Day. Instead, tell them what will make you feel seen, loved and appreciated. It’s not only great for you. I’ve realised in recent months that having open discussions like this with your children teaches them that there are different ways to celebrate and express love and respect, which will be a gift for future women and mothers in their lives.
 
So maybe take a moment later today to think about a new Mother’s Day tradition you’d like to start – big or small – and share it with the people who love you – or just take charge and do it for yourself.
That’s it. That’s my Top 7 list of lessons learned to date on motherhood and Mother’s Day. I hope it contained at least one nugget of insight for you. 
 
And as I wrap up, I come to the part of this speech where I tell you that after over forty years of not celebrating Mother’s Day… I’m changing my position. I’ll need to double-check with my sons, but I’m quietly confident that I’ve done a reasonably good job as an authentic, fallible and completely human mother. And so this year, and every year from here on in, I’m going to celebrate. I’m adding ‘celebrate my first Mother’s Day’ to a new to-do list. And spending this time today celebrating with you – is a massive step towards ticking it off as done.
 
Thank you.

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