Featured in Capital #83 Subscribe to get the real thing here
For all their efforts Mums are given just one day of thanks. Melody Thomas investigates why Mothers Day can be little problematic and asks what Mums really want.
The mother is a complicated and contradictory figure: simultaneously divine and domestic, devalued and sentimentalised, and to her children a source of both the greatest comfort and sometimes the deepest pain. But come Mother’s Day, the mother is given a Disney-style glow-up, crowned in fresh-picked flowers, and sent cards that celebrate her unwavering patience, kindness, thoughtfulness, and wisdom. On this day, no-one mentions how she yells when overwhelmed, never reads the school newsletter, and forgets her children’s birthdays when filling out forms. For 24 hours, Mums are given our full, rose-tinted attention, before we return en masse to a normal which would falter and fall apart without her, but where her efforts are resolutely ignored.
Before I continue, I know that fathers are incredibly important, and that they, too, must sacrifice much on the altar of parenthood. I’m aware that many families have two Mums, two Dads, some grandparents, and resilient aunts or uncles, and that single Dads exist, as do shitty Mums. But as a society, our expectations are still formed along gendered lines and the things mothers are simply expected to do are the same things for which fathers are heaped with praise. It’s why women minding their kids are parenting whereas dads are “babysitting”, why a woman who spends time with her children is just a mum but a man who does is a good dad, and why, despite huge strides in increasing the number of women in paid employment and narrowing the gap between their pay and that of men in the same jobs, the “housework gap” hasn’t narrowed in any substantial way since the 1980s.
Which is why, for me, Mother’s Day can bring some complicated feelings.
As my own children come into my bedroom bright-eyed with pride over a wobbly breakfast tray, I can’t help but think of the mum of three I met at a party, who told me she gets up all through the night with the baby and at 5am with the toddler because her husband “isn’t a morning person”. Of the women I see in Facebook parenting groups begging other women for advice about how to get their partners to contribute, who cook every night of the week, including weekends, even though their partners also have two arms and, presumably, brains enough to follow a recipe; of the ones who “give” their partners sex to keep them from nagging; those forgoing a haircut or a pair of nice boots because the kids need shoes more; and the ones who always seem to get sick first, so they’re stuck nursing everyone else before they are fully well. We may have come a long way, but there are still too many women for whom motherhood means a kind of indentured servitude which allows no space for them to grow, play, create, explore, or simply rest with the company of their own thoughts.
I’ve said before that mothers need active encouragement from their partners when it comes to reclaiming themselves after babies, as the expectations heaped on them can mean that stepping away even for an hour brings about debilitating guilt. But we also need to get better at advocating for ourselves, and what better time to do that than Mother’s Day?
Do you need rest? Go to bed. Fun? Go out dancing. Time to paint or write or wander aimlessly around the coast looking longingly to sea? Give the kids to somebody else, go get what you need, and refuse to feel guilty about it for even a second. Yes, you are a mother, orbited by precious little satellites who rely on you to thrive, but you are also a person. You deserve a life that feels full, which leaves you satisfied, and where you are listened to and seen; and your children will only benefit from seeing you make that a priority.