Mother’s Day and Toxic Positivity

For a lot of folks, Mother’s Day is bittersweet or even just bitter. Anyone who has lost their own mother or a child may find the day upsetting, but plenty of other women—particularly those who have chosen not to be mothers and are bombarded with the social expectation that all women should want to have children and women who are experiencing fertility challenges—may find the day to not be so happy at all.

I have hated Mother’s Day ever since my own mother died when I was 12. For most of my life, I ignored Mother’s Day as much as possible. Seeing the Mother’s Day card displays in stores and being asked by random strangers what I was doing to celebrate my mother activated my fight-or-flight reflex, so I learned to avoid malls and the part of the grocery store that carried cards for most of spring. It was harder to avoid those random strangers.

My late husband was a big believer in honoring mothers on Mother’s Day. He couldn’t remember a birthday to save his life, but he always knew when Mother’s Day was. He agreed with me that Valentine’s Day was bullshit and he thought Father’s Day was pretty lame, but he could never get behind the idea that life would be better without Mother’s Day.

He insisted on celebrating it. He understood and respected that I hated the day, so he mostly kept his celebrating low key, but he always made me an elaborate breakfast that day or took me out for brunch, and when possible, invited his own mother, too. The only time he ever gave me flowers was on Mother’s Day.

Mother’s Day is fraught for his mother, too. One of her sons died in his early 20s on Mother’s Day, forever tinging the day with loss. When my husband died, that made two sons she had lost.

This year, she and I observed the day together by sitting on the bench commemorating my husband/her son. We laughed and cried. We remembered some of my husband’s antics and she talked about her older son who died. It wasn’t the kind of Mother’s Day celebration ever featured in brunch advertisements or Hallmark cards, but it was much more meaningful to both of us than a fancy meal.

Crying on the bench with my mother-in-law was a highlight of my day. People may hear about what we did and think, “How sad! Someone should have taken them to brunch!” But if we’d wanted to go to brunch, we could have taken ourselves. What we wanted to do was sit on that bench and miss my husband and his brother.

What my husband liked about the day was the honoring of mothers, which I respect. What I hate about Mother’s Day is the admonishment to make it “happy,” and the accompanying implication that happiness and value for women are somehow reliant on being a mother. The day is filled with toxic positivity: the urge to brush aside grief and loss and complicated maternal relationships and just be happy!!!

What if we recast Mother’s Day to be more like Veterans Day? Nobody says, “Happy Veterans Day!” There’s no implication on Veterans Day that veterans are better humans than those of us who have not served in the military. There’s no ridiculous pressure to make a brunch reservation that day.

If anyone wants to start the petition to make Mother’s Day more like Veterans Day, I’ll sign it. Until then, I am issuing myself a personal challenge to not use the word “happy” in relation to Mother’s Day.

It’s hard. I was appalled to find myself on Sunday saying “happy Mother’s Day!” to strangers. Some weird muscle memory seems to take over on the day and I find myself singing out the words before I even realize I’m doing it. I became the random stranger I spent so many years trying to avoid. But in the year before the next Mother’s Day, I am going to practice saying these phrases until they feel as natural as “happy Mother’s Day”:

  • Wishing you love on this day.
  • How is your day going?
  • What do you need this Mother’s Day?

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