As Chris Gottlieb wrote for the NY Times Motherlode blog, even for women of privilege, mothering is a minefield of judgment—judgment which increases exponentially for women who don’t fit the Betty Draper picture of white, married, hetero, cis-gender, able-bodied, middle-class motherhood. I’ve had people at the bus stop ask me questions clearly calculated to find out whether I’m an unwed teen mother. A total stranger on the bus helpfully suggested to my fellow board member Shantae that she needs to “stay out of the bedroom.” Even celebrity mothers are subject to the “what kind of mother would…” second-guessing. So much for parenting being in the “private sphere.”
But if there is one thing that people love more than hating on moms, it’s hating on Mothers Day, the consumerist bonanza dedicated to appreciating the largely uncredited, unpaid labor of round-the-clock care work that makes possible the economy as we know it.
But motherhood, according to Mary Elizabeth Williams, is not a job, much less the hardest one. “So you’re a woman and you’ve had children. That makes what you do harder and better than anything Angela Merkel or Oprah Winfrey or Condoleezza Rice or Ellen DeGeneres or Ann Patchett, or for that matter, the Dalai Lama have ever done?” she asks, “I don’t think so.” The work of parenting can’t be that hard, reasons Amanda Marcotte, “16-year-olds find someone to impregnate them and raise kids. But you don’t see many 16-year-olds hosting their own talk shows on major news networks.”
Would we dignify such comparisons between paid jobs? Whose job is harder, the President’s, or the White House janitor’s? A firefighter or a public defender? After all, children used to—and still do in many parts of the world—work in mines, fields, and factories. More importantly, the idea that parenting is not a job, or is “simply being human,” is used to justify denying benefits to the poor or the elderly because benefits are tied to work in the market economy.
For as annoyed as people seem by the idea that mothering is a job, I have yet to see this messaging benefit parents in any material way. Having a child is a primary predictor of reduced income and poverty in women across the lifespan. Parents who were among the working poor before the recession hit have been shifted into the category of extreme poverty by the insidious combination of Clinton-era welfare “reform” and the economic downturn, many driven to desperate measures to care for their families.
We should resist the commercialization of Mothers Day, we should deconstruct the idea that people’s offspring are the greatest contribution they will make to society. We should take a page from the Strong Families Mama’s Day campaign and destabilize stereotypes about what mothers and mothering look like. But I refuse to begrudge the one day a year dedicated to thanking mothers for the work that they do. Instead, I take it as an opportunity to reaffirm my commitment to making sure that motherhood remains safe, supported, and voluntary.
In closing, I’ll leave you with my favorite poem about parenting, by former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins (transcript after the jump). Happy Mothers Day — it can never, ever be enough.
by Billy Collins
The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.
No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly—
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.
I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.
She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim,
and I , in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.
Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the worn truth
that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.