Tomorrow is Mother’s Day in France. I remember my grandmother saying that she knew the woman who had invented ‘Mother’s Day’ and that that person was extremely sorry she had, seeing as how it had been so commercialized. According to Wikipedia, the modern Mother’s Day began in the United States at the initiative of Anna Marie Jarvis who –recalling her mother’s prayer that someone begin a day to memorialize and honor mothers- commemorated the first anniversary of her own mother’s death by announcing plans for a memorial service to commemorate her mother for the following year. “In May of 1907, a private service was held in honor of Ann Jarvis. The following year, Anna Jarvis organized the first official observance of Mother’s Day… In the years after that, Anna Jarvis’ new holiday gained recognition in many states and spread to a number of foreign countries (… and) in 1914 President Woodrow Wilson signed a congressional resolution officially making the second Sunday in May the national Mother’s Day…” Wikipedia confirms my grandmother’s comment about Anna’s disappointment in her holiday’s commercialization. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ann_Jarvis) “In most countries, Mother’s Day is an observance derived from the holiday as it has evolved in the United States, promoted by companies who saw benefit in making it popular” comments Wiki wryly.
And now, Mother’s Day is celebrated all over the world but not necessarily on the same date. Norway leads the way on the second Sunday of February, while 21 countries –including Afghanistan, Bulgaria, Kosovo, Montenegro and Vietnam- celebrate their Mothers the 8th of March combined with International Women’s Day (heaven forbid ladies should get two whole days for themselves!) The United Kingdom and its neighbors celebrate Mothering Sunday which is linked to the fourth Sunday of Lent (or three weeks before Easter Sunday) on the Christian calendar and usually falls in late March or early April. Nineteen countries –including Egypt, Somalia, Kuwait, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates- celebrate their Moms on the 21st of March or the Spring Equinox linking them inevitably to the fertility of this season. Slovenia chose the 25th of March, Armenia fingered Annunciation day: the 7th of April which they call Motherhood and Beauty Day; Spain, Portugal, Mozambique, Hungary and three other countries have chosen the first Sunday in May; South Korea celebrates the 8th while Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador go for the 10th of May. The 2nd Sunday in May –being the original date- is the most popular with around 95 countries celebrating, the 14th of May it is commemorated in Benin (country I had never heard of and had to look up to discover it lies in the west of Africa), the 15th in Paraguay along with Día de la Patria –the National Day-; on the 19th in Kyrgyzstan where they speak Kyrgyz and the word ‘mother’ is Эне; on the 22 in Israel where it apparently is celebrated mainly in kindergartens with no commercialization, although –as one essay explains- “nothing in Israel is simple… not even Mother’s Day” which has now become “Family Day” in recognition of the social and cultural changes in the nuclear family (https://www.israel21c.org/the-story-of-how-israels-mothers-day-became-family-day/). On the 26th Poland checks in with its Matkas, on the 27th Bolivia and on the last Sunday in May 14 other countries, including France, shower their mothers with gifts, France having the peculiarity of moving the festivity to the first Sunday in June if Pentecost occurs on this day. Mongolia sees fit to celebrate зүгээр’s Day along with Kid’s Day (as if we couldn’t even go one day without them) on June 1. Only Luxembourg celebrates Mamms on the second Sunday of June and South Sudan pushes the date all the way to the first Monday of July (what was wrong with Sunday?)… Russia puts it off until the last Sunday in November a date selected by Boris Yeltsin and Panama chooses the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on the 8th of December for all those ladies with very ‘maculate’ conceptions. Indonesia slips their Ibu’s Day celebration in right before Xmas on the 22nd of December…
So, if you happen to be one of those mixed-nationalities, I-have-lived-around-the-globe and have-friends-in-every-country Moms you are likely to spend the year celebrating. I, for one, was congratulated on the first Sunday of May (my Spanish friends), the 10th of May (my children and my Mexican friends), the second Sunday in May (my son who lives in the USA and a couple of American friends on Facebook) and am looking forward to many a French felicitation tomorrow, the last Sunday in May, when I go to my coffee group where we are all mothers, grandmothers and one of us, a great-grandmother. That’s 4 x Mother’s day … and I wasn’t even a very dedicated one if I compare myself to my daughter and daughter-in-law, so the abundance of felicitations seems a bit ridiculous.
I can’t really say I chose motherhood or even really wanted it: it was just something that happened because that was the way of it. It wasn`t that I didn’t want to be a mother, of course I wanted to be a mother, because not-being-a-mother was connected with not-being-a-complete-woman, which in turn was being less-than-human: motherhood was what all women wanted (according to the belief at that time) and this belief, coupled with the fear that maybe there was something wrong with me that would prevent me from having children, made me want it even more. But, of course, no woman really knows what she is getting into until she is there, because the myths about motherhood (both positive and negative) cloud over the reality every time. I heard them all, though not from my mother who was more interested in my father, golf and bridge (in that order) than in motherhood and, although I admit to having more illusions about becoming a writer than about becoming a mother, I must have believed them to some degree because I went for it hook, line and sinker!
Strangely enough, however, I never looked on motherhood either as a terrible sacrifice or as a way to fulfillment so I am not quite sure what it is we are being honored for. Motherhood was something you did, something you shared with –at least- every other mammal on the planet –dogs, cows, pussycats, skunks and weasels included- whereas fulfillment came from doing something human (what men did) and receiving money or at least recognition for it. Fulfillment came from getting your first poems published in the University magazine not for having knit a sweater for your newly born daughter; seeing your first novel come off the press was human and noteworthy, whereas bearing very painful contractions so that the occupant of your body for the last 9 months could come out and get on with it on his own was simply obeying the inevitable laws of nature; getting an honorable mention in the Latin American Short Story Contest was something to brag about at every dinner party, while getting pregnant was something every woman was expected to do once she got married, in a way it was her obligation: if not, what did she get married for? Writing a novel was something one had to work really hard to do; changing shit-filled diapers was something one did as fast as possible and solely to stop the baby’s screaming.
I’ll never forget when a friend of my mother, upon hearing I had published a story in a magazine, cooed: “It’s sooo nice that you have a hobby like writing!” I looked her right in the eye and replied stiffly: “Writing is my profession; I do mother and housewife for a hobby”. I, like Adrienne Rich who wrote Of Woman Born, had to struggle sometimes to find those 15, 20 or 30 minutes in a day which would allow me to work on my writing even though I was fortunate and living in Mexico allowed me to have hired help to do most of the housework from the very beginning.
Don’t get me wrong: I loved my children and today I can freely adore them because they are on their own. As a mother, I did everything that was needed to insure they’d have a healthy and happy childhood, with which they were probably no more miserable than any other child trying to grow up and learn what it means to be human. I did it because that was what I was supposed to do and there was no one else to do it (when there was someone else to make them dinner, change their diapers, cart them back and forth to school believe me, I was delighted: I had no need to be indispensable to my children); I did it because if I didn’t do it, I felt guilty, a bad mother, a failure as a woman. I made the sacrifices every mother makes: I hugged them and fed them and changed them and put them in the stroller to go to the park; I coaxed them through the toddler stage until they could walk properly; I blew their noses and wiped their behinds; I gave them their daily baths. Later, I took them to school and picked them up; I drove them to kids’ parties, and to the doctor and to the dentist. I bought them ice cream cones and I think that once –never again- I took them to the amusement park. I tutored my son for his dyslexia for an hour every afternoon for more months than I can remember; I drove my daughter back and forth to a child psychologist until she accepted that she did not have dyslexia like her brother no matter how badly she wanted the attention she thought he was getting because of it; I suffered through hours at the dentist’s for my daughter’s braces and I carted my son back and forth to the orthopedist for his leg braces. And these were just a few things: as I look back now I realize how selfless I actually was even within my selfish desire to do my own thing.
There is no use itemizing all the things I did as a mother, for every mother has done the same or more and knows what I am talking about. So I was a mother because that is what I was supposed to be, but what I wanted to be was a writer, and the struggle to find time (very difficult) and not feel guilty (impossible) went on for at least 8 years (when they were both finally in school) and then some. But it doesn’t occur to me that someone should honor me because I did that: I did it for myself; I did it because they would have cried and yelled and screamed until I did and I couldn’t take the noise; I did it because it’s what I do to help any living thing –including spiders and snails- that I think is suffering not because I want to stop their suffering so much as I want to stop mine upon seeing them suffer.
It is this honoring the mother I am doubtful about. I look to my grandmothers, one I knew, the other not. My paternal grandmother (whom I did not know) perhaps should be honored. She came from a wealthy Spanish family and my grandfather was also very well off so there was always plenty of help in the house, including nannies and governesses. She bore 14 children over a period of 20 years (that’s one every 17 months), the last one when she was 43; she died at 57 of colon cancer leaving three of her children still under the age of 18. Should she be honored for this? She and my grandfather were fervent Catholics and, in accordance, refused any form of birth-control. They didn’t do this for the children, they did it in compliance with their God’s wishes to insure their place in heaven, they did it because that is what people in Jerez did in the beginning of the 20th century. Elsewhere it was different: The same year my paternal grandmother had her last child, 62 year old Annie Oakley, in a shooting contest in Pinehurst, North Carolina, hit 100 clay targets in a row from 15 meters. Annie Oakley was married, but she never had any children so she didn’t get to be celebrated on Mother’s Day; rather she was honored for a talent she had and worked on, a talent she shared teaching over 15,000 other women to shoot. She was an international star who performed for kings and queens of her time. Much of the money she earned was donated to charitable organizations for orphans so in a way she mothered many children. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Annie_Oakley)
After that digression, enter my maternal grandmother who was brought up in the same America where Annie Oakley was shooting clay pigeons and supporting orphans; she also came from a poor family. She married up and my grandfather made good money in the carpet business. She credited hardships in her childhood for her fervent atheism so she had no God to answer to as far as her maternal responsibilities. She had always wanted two girls and that is what she had. She had no more, undoubtedly thanks to whatever birth control methods were available, including abortions. She had no religious qualms about this and sincerely believed that people had children for selfish reasons alone. “With all the suffering there is in life, what would you want to bring a child into the world for if it weren’t for your own pleasure.” I tend to believe her. I have yet to hear someone say they want to have a child for the child’s sake. Rather it seems to be a deep-seated belief that a child will make the mother feel fulfilled; we do it for ourselves to feel more complete, to have someone that depends solely on us, to –perhaps, if we are lucky- experience unconditional love for once in our lives… and ‘unconditional’ is also questionable.
When we moved from an apartment to a house with three bedrooms and a study, I immediately appropriated the study for myself: A Room of One’s Own was my dream and Virginia Woolf my inspiration. My children were 7 and 3 at the time. When my daughter –the younger of the two- went into first grade, I started my four year career in Hispanic Language and Literatures in the National University of Mexico. I distributed my classes between one or two days a week so that I wouldn’t be absent from home too often and many times, after they had gone to bed I would work on my essays and reading and papers and investigations for my studies. When term papers were due, I would often be still at it when they got up in the morning to go to school. And yes, there were many afternoons that I would shut the library door telling them that only in the case of the house being on fire should they knock, and knowing full well that if things got unruly downstairs, someone would come and get me.
It has now been over 26 years since both my children got married. I close my eyes and try to remember: given all the time that passes between a child’s birth and their final moving out, there are precious few definite memories: A nurse placing a horrid, red, wrinkled creature with long black stringy hair in my arms and telling me it was my son. My daughter almost dying of pneumonia at two months old; my son at 4 announcing one night in the tub that he could kill God because his teacher had said that God was in his heart so if he put a knife in his heart he would kill God: just plain logic. The guppies and watching when the mommy guppy had babies; pulling my son around the park in a red wagon when he had the braces on for his knock-knees; my daughter running hysterically into the library crying: “Mommy, mommy: what is the boy rabbit doing to the girl rabbit?” and my explaining to her how they were getting married so they could have babies. And then, a few weeks later, her question: “Mommy, did you and Daddy get married when Peter was born?” and me so innocently pulling out the photo albums and showing her the pictures of our wedding and she so patient, waiting till I finished my explanation to continue: “And Mommy did you and Daddy get married again when I was born?” so that I might understand she was inquiring about rabbits and not ceremonies; the day I went to pick up my 7 year old son in school wearing curlers in my hair and he told me in no uncertain terms that he was very embarrassed and never wanted me come for him like that again (I never did). Their summer camps, first in Mexico and then in the States; my son sitting outside our locked bedroom door at naptime and wagging his fingers saying ‘naughty, naughty’ when we came out. My precious 7 year-old daughter dressed in a red flamenco dress with white polka dots for her birthday party; my son bringing home a tabby cat and begging to keep it; my little girl at a friend’s birthday party standing very still with a pigeon on her head that the clown had placed there. And as they grew: their questions about everything and my loving the sound of my own voice as I told them my truths: sharing what I had learned so far was the most fun I remember. Moments of laughter and love flash through my mind. As I spend time to remember, the memories come in little spurts and flickers, with an inner joy, love and a sweet nostalgia… if I had known then what I know now (the privilege of being a mother) I might have paid more attention, but I didn’t, did I? If had actually known that one was not sacrificing oneself for them, that what I was doing was a totally selfish and self-loving occupation, I might have enjoyed it more than I did. As a mother I wanted my children to be happy and successful because it proved I was a good mother and because it set me free to be myself. Today, I make no such demands. I am happy that they are happy when they are; when they aren’t, I can continue to be happy anyway because that is my responsibility: my own happiness, not theirs. My contribution to their happiness is not letting them think that they are in any way responsible for mine.
So I sit writing this piece about Mother’s day, only a few hours away from my 4th Mother’s day celebration, and feel the gratitude of having had it all: the marriage, the maternity, the literary recognition, the spiritual path, the holy solitude. And, yes: I am so grateful for my handsome son and my beautiful daughter today and their lives as they live them that I can watch from afar without feeling in the least bit responsible. They have both, undoubtedly, been better parents than I was but I know today that I did the best I could in that moment. Still, I can’t feel that there is reason for a commemoration or an act of gratitude just because I did what I had to do upon receiving the gift of maternity. For that matter, we might also create a Pet-Owner’s Day because –whatever the case- the reasons for having a pet are just as self-serving or selfless as the ones for having children.
Now, as I reread and plan to publish this post, I realize how poor it is in expressing anything meaningful about the miracle of living in a body that has gestated life at some time during its existence. I also notice I have said “gestate” and not “give”, for we mothers do not give our children life (although we can take it away from them and it is perhaps that –the fact that we didn’t- that they can be grateful for), they happen in us, we harbor them and then we expel them and then we care for them until we don’t have to any more. Then, sometimes, they care for us. A strange and marvelous cycle…