First, don’t worry about my credentials. As the son of a mother, I’m totally an expert on motherhood.
Patriarchal society’s picture of motherhood is deeply disturbed, but also so deeply ingrained in us that it is hard to completely remove it. Mother’s Day continues to be the closest thing America really has to a Woman’s Day (There is an International Women’s Day, but it remains a partisan and activist focal point rather than a culturally anticipated celebration). For many people, woman=mother even if only subconsciously. Charlize Theron once summarized a classic quote by saying “Why do we have to be only one thing, a good mother or a hooker?” This is the standard. A proper woman is a mother. Anything else is corrupt and aggressive. As the Apostle Paul predicted, “women shall be saved through childbirth.” And indeed, in his culture as in ours, they are.
Because once you hit that marvelous goal of motherhood, you are promised a little creature that will practically worship you unconditionally. There’s a reason beyond lack of birth control why girls in misogynistic societies have children earlier — because the child is expected to be their salvation and provide their emotional support. The first disturbing thing we see about motherhood is that women are invisible or evil without it. The second disturbing thing is that when woman go into motherhood looking for it to complete them, it puts a giant package of emotional responsibility onto a literal newborn. The mother looks for validation from the child, and has the power to make the child suffer if the child does not provide it.
In this hierarchical world where women are below all others except small children, the small child is the only one not allowed to develop their own feelings about this mother. Rather, the proper love and adoration of the Madonna is insisted upon by society. A child who has any feelings other than warmth and appreciation for his mother is a bad child, regardless of the home situation. Any negative feelings are a sign of something not just unfortunate but practically diabolical, and are frowned upon and scolded until the child learns to actively suppress them. The child is supposed to be angelic and grateful and exist not as an individual but as an emotional support for the mother, who in turn is supposed to be angelic and grateful and exist not as an individual but as an emotional support for the husband. And too often when society calls a woman a good mother, it means someone who fits into that cog.
When the child grows up, the suppressed negative feelings can come out in two ways — either as rage against their own mother or generalized rage against women. A typical boys especially is taught that women are there to support him. His anger at this broken promise (“ I supported my mother, not the other way around!”) is sometimes allowed, and in that case the mother being something less than perfect is reduced to being a pure villain. But sometimes the young man continues the charade that his mother was perfect, it’s all these other women that don’t live up. He is still looking for the perfect mother figure he was taught he is entitled to and emotionally has already “paid” for (through sacrifice of his own feelings as a child), and when he doesn’t find someone to fulfill that for him becomes frustrated and hateful. It is absolute that it is no one’s ultimate responsibility but his own to delve back into his past and fix himself, but patriarchal society really did lie to him about what he was supposed to do and what the reward would be.
And so we have children taught to view their mothers in a dichotomy of hero or villain and women who are taught that the determiner of their worth is their approach to the mother ideal — either as a mother or as a mother-figure to the men who expect all women to mother him.
In such a culture, it’s very difficult to know how to properly navigate mother’s day. Motherhood predates culture, predates the rise of the human species. But what culture has added on to it and expects it to be makes for a thorny maze. Do we for one day appreciate the emotional labor that mothers do, even though by limiting it to mothers we risk negating the emotional labor that sisters, daughters, coworkers, and even bosses do on a daily basis? How do we celebrate the women as individuals without inadvertently celebrating the cultural norms of motherhood? How do we celebrate mothers without implying that their motherhood is all we celebrate them for? How do we make sure we aren’t subtly implying a superiority of mothers over other women? How do we allow for nuance in depictions of motherhood so that such a large mass of women are not categorized as either angel or demon? How do we encourage the emotional autonomy of children and young adults to feel what they really feel regarding their mothers? Mothers are an important lynchpin to any mammalian species and its impossible nor would it be beneficial to try to deny or change that. But how do we free Motherhood from normative discourse and move toward a world where women are unique individuals who define their own roles rather than be forced into them? A world where Mater is not subjugated to Pater. What would “Happy Mother’s Day” mean once free from patriarchy?