Ode to Women

IMG_6079On my way to yoga this morning, I noticed my heart aching with a familiar combination of sadness and indignation. It didn’t take many breaths to uncover the source: Mother’s Day. A national holiday to honor mothers created by a woman named Anna Jarvis in 1908, and later denounced by her as she felt increasingly disgusted by its commercialization. She actually spent the latter part of her life trying to remove it from the calendar.

There are many spokes to the wheel of my sadness:

1. While I know that mothers deserve to be honored (more on that in a minute), I also know how deeply painful this day is for: the millions of women who longed to be a mother and their childbearing time has passed; women who are in their 40s, single, and longing to meet a partner with whom they can have a child; women who are currently trying to conceive and long for nothing more than to see a positive pregnancy test. As mothers are being celebrated today, many of these women are suffering. They’re suffering every other day as well, but there’s nothing more painful that having your struggle publicly celebrated and plastered in your face. There’s the build-up toward Mother’s Day, where we see the words “Happy Mother’s Day” printed everywhere, then there’s the day itself. I’m connected to many of these women in my counseling practice, and I’m connected to the collective unconscious where the millions of others’ pain lives. On my way to yoga and throughout the class, I practiced Tonglen for and with them: breathing into their pain, and breathing out love, trust, spaciousness, fullness. Breathe in pain, breathe out love.

2. I have a knee-jerk allergy to the word “happy” being imposed on a holiday. Holidays stir up the whole conscious and latent pot of feelings for people – from sadness and resentment to joy and gratitude – so to place the expectation on us that we should feel only happy is a set-up for pain. Like all holidays and transitions, if we want to truly feel joy, we must allow for the sadness to be seen, felt, and experienced. Sometimes this is our own sadness, sometimes it’s the sadness in the collective culture, and sometimes it’s inter-generational sadness (unresolved pain in mother-daughter relationships that have been handed down through many generations). It’s not that we can’t honor our mothers when there is pain in the relationship – I know very few mother-daughter relationships that don’t include some past or present pain – but we can teach daughters how to name and honor the pain either the day before Mother’s Day or in the morning so that they can access true appreciation and gratitude.

3. “Happy Mother’s Day”, the culture shouts. But we know it’s a not a happy day for many. And even for those of us who are mothers, we know it’s not only happy. The path of parenthood will bring everyone to their knees at some point, at many points, and will call up every unworked emotion, every unresolved intergenerational pattern, every weak spot in a relationship, every pain that lives inside. And yes, it brings immense, untold joy and gratitude. But that’s how life is, not just motherhood. Life will call up what needs attention one way or another. A consciously lived life will bring us to our knees in pain and open our eyes to gratitude. Those of you struggling through the pain of anxiety and intrusive thoughts know this very well. Being a mother doesn’t make a woman any more special, fulfilled, or available to growth than a woman who isn’t a mother. But somehow, having a holiday dedicated only to mothers, can make us feel that way. If there was a national holiday for those who aren’t mothers maybe it would feel different.

And the spokes to my indignation wheel:

1. This culture has managed not only to commercialize what was intended to be a meaningful holiday (our country will spend $20 billion dollars today on cards, flowers, and gifts), but the idea that we have one day a year set aside to honor mothers rubs me the wrong way. Mother need to be honored every day through small acts of appreciation and gratitude. It’s even one of the 10 commandments: Honor thy mother and father! I don’t think that means honor mom and dad once a year. It means that, just as we honor our children, so we teach them the importance of honoring us, their parents. Motherhood is a privilege, yes; but it’s also hard, and it doesn’t hurt our kids to recognize the time and energy we pour into them on a daily and often hourly basis.

2. I’m not a fan of many holidays that seems arbitrary, and then impose a set of expectations for how we’re supposed to behave and feel. I don’t like the way many American holidays create a pressure-cooker situation where shadow is edged out. As I know from my work around transitions and relationships, when we refuse to honor shadow (that we will feel sadness during an engagement; that love relationships include fear), it demands acknowledgment and makes itself known sideways. The way this has played out in my personal life is that there’s been at least one meltdown most of the last eleven Mother’s Days that we’ve celebrated: either my husband and I have had an argument or one of my sons has a breakdown. Just ten minutes ago my little one started crying hysterically because he didn’t want me to be on the computer. I resisted the impulse to say, “It’s Mother’s Day! I can do whatever I want!” but of course that would be meaningless to him. Instead, I stopped what I was doing (writing this article), and sat with him on the couch to give him comfort and connection.

3. I feel indignant by the hypocrisy of a culture that extols mothers for this one day, but doesn’t offer extended paid maternity leave or any viable way for most women to live a life that integrates their career with their mothering. If we really want to honor mothers, how about taking a good, hard look at the numbers of mothers who are living below the poverty line and struggling just to feed their children.

4. I don’t like the way our culture divides women from each other, setting us apart as mothers and non-mothers. We’re all in this together. These national holidays that single out a certain type of person or family (the way Christmas glorifies the Normal Rockwell image of family and makes everyone else – which is basically everyone – feel inadequate) isn’t far off from the Dr. Seuss book, The Sneetches, which itself isn’t far off from the middle and high school social worlds that most people are only too happy to leave behind. Life is not a popularity contest, yet these types of holidays make it seem like it is.

The greater cultural message implicit in this holiday is that mothers are “better” in some way that those who aren’t mothers: more fulfilled, happier, more alive. It’s a great lie. Motherhood doesn’t create fulfillment and having a baby doesn’t make you feel alive or purposeful. We find fulfillment, aliveness, and purpose by doing our own inner work, and  learning what it means to fill the well of Self.

Honestly, I wish we could eradicate these manufactured American holidays that elevate one group of people above others for a day. Even though it’s only one day, they create untold and unnecessary suffering as they further a system of competition and comparison that is already deeply entrenched in the culture, especially during our early, formative years. But since these holidays are likely here to stay, the best we can do is band together under a tree of sanity that exposes the truth and ultimately says: if you experienced pain today, you’re not alone. There’s nothing wrong with you if holidays aren’t perfect. There’s no such thing as perfect. And if you allow for the grief, you will find the sparks of joy and gratitude that are always living in our souls.

16 comments to Ode to Women

  • Carebear167

    Wow Sheryl, I’ve been following your work for three years now and the insight you infuse in your writing continues to amaze me – Its often that in a post I read a sentence (or many!) that simply reverberates in my soul as the deepest of truths. It is clear through your writing that you live your messages. Thank you for not only sharing with us the enormous insight that is so impactful on our lives when utilized but also for growing, going deeper with us.
    I am 30 and am married but do not have children. I go round and round wondering if I want to have children. The thoughts that my anxiety clings onto the most is,”What if I’m not good enough to be a mother? What if my actions scar them psychologically or emotionally?”. These arose before I even met my husband, who was physically abused by his mother. I recently found out that my mom had these doubts about herself as well and married my dad because she thought he would be a good father. And then I just read an article where the writer echoed those sentiments before having children as well. I’ve wondered what you would say about these anxious thoughts and the decision whether or not to have children. (not to be presumptuous, I think a post on that decision would be very interesting!). I know that there is no way to be a “perfect” mom, and I don’t believe anyone is empty of childhood wounds but I also see after reading your post that part of being a good mom is gracefully growing and transitioning with them.
    Anyways I just want to thank you for the extreme honesty with which you write. It is against our culture of fitting in and it is so missing and needed in this society. I hope you had a conscious Mothers Day Sheryl 🙂

    • Thank you, Carebear. As far as how to decide whether or not to have kids, it’s really a process of self-trust more than anything else. Have you taken my Trust Yourself program? I’ll be running it again on June 11th and registration will open in a few weeks. And thank you for the conscious Mother’s Day wishes. If only we could change the holiday to: Conscious Mother’s Day!

      • Carebear167

        I have taken the Trust Yourself course and still continue to work through the material. My anxiety has gotten a lot better and I’ve since learned that I won’t let whatever I decide to define my worth in the world. For sure, the work has also led me into healing my relationship with my mother and childhood as well which I continue to work on and I suppose the realizations from that work will continue to come throughout my life. Thank you Sherly!

  • Megan

    Hi Sheryl,

    I can connect so much to what you said about feeling your heart aching on Mother’s Day. I have had a very difficult relationship with my mother for much of my life. It wasn’t until recently (after your course) that I have been working on breathing through the pain of my past to help heal myself and become a stronger person. I understand now a lot of the pain my mother has gone through in her life to have made her the way is. We all have our reasons, and although I have forgiven her I still wasn’t prepared to see her on Mother’s Day. It’s really difficult to see people brag on social media about their loving moms because I wish I could say those things about my mom. I also long for the day that I can become a mother and show my child unconditional love. It’s been really difficult for me this mother’s day, most years the day goes by, I don’t see my mom and don’t feel any pain. Since I have started working on healing inside and feeling the childhood pain – I feel even more of it! I welcome it, and I’m know I’m growing because for years I could just put walls up to feel anything. I have also noticed a connection between these inner wounds and my anxiety about my partner. At the end of the day yesterday I started having doubts again about my partner, and feeling real anxiety. I even started googling which I hadn’t for a while. I did some breathing exercises and focused on that pain in my heart – where was it coming from? Why, when I had such a great day with him, was I now doubting him? I understood that I was trying to deflect that pain onto him. He wasn’t the problem. He is the one who is teaching me about unconditional love – something that has been so foreign to me for much of my life. That is scary! I know my wounded self if just trying to protect me, especially on a day like mothers day – but I am so thankful for this pain. I’m so thankful to just be feeling; both pain and true love.

  • Kate

    Thank you very much for acknowledgement. I am one of the types of woman you described above and struggle everyday to find a sense of purpose without being a mother. Your articles always help me to find a way to swallow my sadness, pick my head up, and start another day. You and your work is truly appreciated.

    • Kate: I’m glad it was helpful. Make sure that you don’t just “swallow your sadness” but let yourself feel the grief. Then you can truly move into a different space for the rest of your day.

  • sarah

    Thank you for this, Sheryl. Yesterday was quite interesting for me as I connected to a newfound disgust for the holiday. It was particularly potent as I am becoming a mother and seemed even more ridiculous that we dedicate only one day to mothers. I noticed a longing to celebrate family (including chosen family) and a wish to celebrate the joy, and pain, of being at all, with each other.

  • Newly Married

    I was talking to my husband today how I do not like that they give more credit to mothers in their mothers day than to fathers, I think both deserve recognition and as you say we are all in these together and there would not be one without the other… I dont like that division ism and preference that I feel our culture, maybe its my perception but I feel as if culture favorites mothers…
    To me both parents deserve love, recognition.

  • Katie W

    Thank you for writing this. I don’t speak to most of my family of origin as they are negative & fault finding & do not like my husband or my 3 stepchildren who are with us 100% of the time due to her being an incarcerated drug addict. My teen from my first marriage didn’t bother to get me anything. Not even a card. She did post a message on FB at around midnight but I was hurt because she made a collage of pics of me for the post & chose a few VERY unattractive photos of me, including one using an app on her IPhone that makes you look like an old person! But she didn’t say it was an app & even my husband just thought it was a bad picture, not an app & I had to point out how I do not yet have all those wrinkles o my forehead. I felt humiliated as I’m sure some people thought it is just how I look now. I made her delete the bad pictures but was in tears all this morning. The little ones (4, 5,8) made stuff at school for me but I just feel that they gave it to me because their real mother cannot receive painted items in prison. I try very hard to be a good mom but I also have a demanding job. I feel my mother, sister , ex-husband have all worked so hard to turn my teen against me & it worked. She doesn’t respect me & is just looking forward to moving away for college. I was a single mom for most of her childhood & always tried my best & she was such a sweet child. Now she can’t stand me & wants to make me look bad. Sometimes I just want to run away & never talk to ANYONE again. Thank you for acknowledging that this & other holidays are not exactly sunshine & roses for everyone. I like normal days. Holidays almost always are horrible & painful for me for days afterwards.

  • Katherine

    Along with holidays, another time I have felt anxiety creep in unexpectedly is while on vacation. There is a lot of anticipation that everything will feel and happen perfectly while on vacation from the normal monotony of life, but really all of the same emotions and feelings follow you on vacation. I have realized over the years that I have to approach vacations differently and temper my expectations so they aren’t quite as high. This might sound sad, but it is actually an amazing thing and makes me feel so much more relaxed while I am on vacation. I can still get excited, but when I don’t expect something to be one way, I won’t be disappointed when it’s not – and in life things are hardly ever the way we expect them to be. That concept isn’t as scary to me as it used to be.

  • We're in this together

    So beautifully written Sheryl.
    Ode to women!
    Thank you 🙂