On 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.