I ordered some bathing suits online in preparation for warmer months ahead. When they arrived, I had a mini-fashion show in my bedroom. The first two didn’t work, but when I wriggled into the third, I thought – not bad! I mean, perhaps not good either. But I felt good in this suit. I triumphantly turned around to show my kids – holding out my arms out in “ta da” fashion.
My 10-year-old looked at me sideways and said, “Really mom? You like this? I mean, I guess it’s OK. But you’ve got some bum hanging out in the back. And your boobs look all smashed in.”
As a parent, I look for teachable moments to demonstrate how words matter, and try to show my kids to think of other people’s feelings when they choose their words. Personally, I think this is one of my roles as a parent. But when they use unkind words towards me, I admit I don’t always say something. Could be fatigue, or under-valuing of my own feelings, or because I think “they’re just being kids.”
But in this circumstance, I chose to say something. When I was back in my clothes, I sat her down. I reminded her how she felt when she bought something new; something that made her feel good about herself. I asked her how she might feel if I was the one who made a negative comment to her. Then I reminded her that I am not a mother robot, but a human, and her words hurt my feelings.
She listened to me, teared-up, apologized, and gave me a big hug. I believe she was genuinely sorry and it was not hard for me to forgive her; the moment passed quickly.
But my thoughts about that interaction linger – in terms of how I treat my own kids, how I treat my own mother, and how collectively we treat all mothers. Because what happened in my home, I believe, was an indication of a larger social problem – the dehumanization of mothers.
Mothers are people. We might often be selfless, and we might even willingly make sacrifices for our families. But we also might chafe at those sacrifices. We are not unfeeling chore-robots who can perform unlimited physical and cognitive labor without malfunction. We like to be thanked. We have dreams and desires and feelings – and sometimes those feelings get hurt.
This seems so simple, so basic, it feels absurd to write about it. But based on how under-valued female-coded work is in our country, it is still a necessary conversation.
This weekend many of us embark upon another Mother’s Day. More than 50 countries around the world celebrate Mother’s Day on the second Sunday of May. And others celebrate Mother’s Day at other times in the year: Norway celebrates in February, the Middle East in March, much of Latin America celebrates mothers in August, and Malawi in October.
I admit, my own feminist interpretation of Mother’s Day is cynical. I think of Mother’s Day the same way I do International Women’s Day or Black History Month. By elevating one day/month on the calendar, we give each other implicit permission to slack off the rest of the year. The result can be that gestures (even with good intentions) can end up feeling more like tokenism than genuine appreciation. Why are we not showing gratitude the other 364 days of the year?
This moment in history is also significant. Two years into the pandemic when under-fives still don’t have access to vaccines and mothers everywhere are exhausted, stretched thin, and worn down – is another day’s worth of empty tributes really what we need? Are cards and bath products one Sunday a year really the best way our society knows how to support mothers?
In other words, if we know that caregiving and female-coded work is ridiculously undervalued, how can we correct this problem? How can we show appropriate support and appreciation to our world’s mothers? The chocolates and flowers feel a lot like banging on pots and pans at the beginning of the pandemic. Was that really how front-line workers wanted to be supported?
It is time we stop giving the gift we want to give, and give the gift that mothers want to receive.
In the wake of #PaidLeaveForAll and the Biden/Harris Administration’s struggling Build Back Better plan, many have argued that women do not want chocolates and flowers; they do not even want dinner out or the house cleaned. What mothers want (and need) is relief in the form of structural change: affordable childcare, equal pay, and reproductive health services. I whole-heartedly agree. To address the tokenism that Mother’s Day has become, we need structural change.
But lasting cultural shifts happen when we have a combination of both structural and social change. This leads me to ask, what can we each do, in our day-to-day lives, to make the spirit of Mother’s Day more meaningful? To give the gift mothers want to receive? How can we humanize our world’s mothers? How do we move away from the perception of mothers as tireless caregivers or chore robots, and truly see them as people?
On this Mother’s Day, and all the other days in the year, I encourage all of us to work towards humanizing mothers. And I suggest we start by asking some questions of the moms in our life. Not just questions about their role as a mother (we’ve answered enough of those) but questions about who moms are as people. Give them the opportunity to use their own words to describe their own feelings, and to truly listen. Here’s a list to get you started.
Sample Questions to Ask the Mom in Your Life:
- Who is in your core support network? Who do you lean on most? Who is there to get you through the hardest times?
- What do you wish you had more help with – physical chores or cognitive chores? Why?
- When do you feel most confident? Does that happen often? Why do you think that is?
- When do you feel more unsure of yourself, or most vulnerable?
- What hurts your feelings? Who most often hurts your feelings? How do you handle that?
- When was the last time you felt really, really angry? And what were the circumstances around that incident?
- What are your favorite parts of a typical day?
- Where are your favorite spaces? Where do you feel safest and coziest?
- What is the biggest challenge, or the biggest uncertainty, you are facing right now? What can I do to help?
- What has the pandemic meant to you? How are you feeling, two years later? Do you feel resilient, stable, unstable and/or exhausted? What can I do to help?
Let’s prove to all of our respective mothers, biological and chosen, that we know they are not simply conduits of care. We see them as human; we appreciate them, and we love them for their whole self – not just the part of them that mothers.
Kate Mangino is a gender expert who works with international organizations to promote social change. She has written and delivered curricula in over 20 countries about issues such as: gender equality, women’s empowerment, healthy masculinity, HIV prevention, and early and forced childhood marriage. Her debut book, Equal Partners, comes out this June.