Making peace with Mother’s Day

Earlier this week, my husband made the decision that we were not going to church today. I was totally on board with this, and very happy that I did not have to make the decision and the argument to go along with it. It’s not that we hate church; it’s just that the church in general worships mothers and traditional gender norms. The liturgy in our church has been more inclusive in recent years, but in general it’s just better for our mental health if we opt out.

So we did, and I had a fantastic day. The thing is, though, that correlation does not equal causation. Therefore while I had a chill morning of coffee and reading and thinking about planting flowers, the calm did not necessarily come from staying home from church. It’s all much more complicated than that.

It’s been five years since we decided to live life without pursuing parenthood, and seven years since we actively started trying to have children. Mother’s Day throughout those years has been tough. We are very thankful we have both of our mothers, but I’ve lost both grandmothers and my great-grandmother within the past 5 years. That grief plus the very intangible grief of infertility led me down a path of self-discovery that’s been often strewn with falling rocks, boulders, and paradoxically some of the most beautiful views.

I’ve been slowly finding my place in the world as a mid-30’s married woman with no children. You’d think that it’d be pretty easy to fit right in considering half the world’s population is women or people with a uterus, and my station in life really is not as marginalized as many I am acquainted with. However, in our arguably dominant microcosm of America, the pressure is on to be so many things all at the same time. Space is not held for those who want to tread their own path in life – we have to make the space ourselves, and usually that comes at a cost.

The cost for me, well, I’m not too sure what it’s been. Maybe friends. Maybe closeness with some family members. Maybe other opportunities. But now I’m at a point where I tell my story and make my own space. We had a “community circle” type of professional development recently at work where we had to answer the question, “What is a failure that you cherish?” Many people mentioned failures in school, in previous jobs, those sorts of things.

Whether or not people felt comfortable hearing it, I mentioned that infertility was a failure that I cherish for reasons that were shrouded in a fog of grief even a couple years ago. To this day I still can’t quite discern the reaction I felt from my fellow teachers – surprise, apathy, pity – but truly, I don’t care. I stated my peace while sharing just enough. A couple people told me “thank you” for sharing. I can’t say that I could have done it as gracefully a few years back. Maybe even as recently as six months ago. Self awareness and development is hard work, yo.

That’s how I feel every time I meet a new friend or new colleagues after being assigned a new work location. I’m always so glad people are meeting me at this very moment and not a minute sooner. I have more to offer that’s going to benefit other people. I don’t overshare. I really don’t give too many shits about what people think, but not in a self-destructive kind of way.

And that brings us back to Mother’s Day. Mostly today I felt like I was adjacent to the party, willingly hanging out on my own instead of feeling pushed out or shunned. That has a lot more to do with my own attitude and feelings toward this day than it does how people treat me. I think it was luck that intervened when I didn’t hear an ill-placed Mother’s Day wish, not people being mindful of whom they were extending Mother’s Day wishes. It was refreshing to not feel bitter or judge-y or torn-up. It was a feeling of, “I see you guys are having a good time celebrating your ability/choice to have children, but I’m not part of it and it’s okay. In fact, I’ve chosen to not go all in for this party.”

After doing hard work, I can be comfortable on this day. I can go out in public and not be walking on eggshells wondering how someone’s well-intentioned wishes may affect me by throwing off my whole day. If I do feel any ill effects, I lose minutes instead of afternoons or evenings. Most importantly, I’ve now mastered the training needed to hold space for others who feel othered.

On carnations and Sunday litany

Yesterday as I walked out of the sanctuary, it was the first Mother’s Day in years that I really felt like the sanctuary, was, well, a sanctuary. I’ve been pondering the litany we read together as a congregation, one that my pastor modified as he went in order to be more inclusive. It went something like this:

Leader: Mothers come in many different forms, and today we celebrate them all!
All: Thank God for mothers!

Leader: Everyone here is either a son or a daughter.
All: Thank God for my mother!

Leader: For those women who have joined God in Heaven and whom we miss dearly here on earth.
All: Thank God for the mothers of the past.

Leader: For every woman who is working day and night to raise her children right now.
All: Thank God for the mothers of today.

Leader: For all the women who are expecting, but aren’t quite mothers yet!
All: Thank God for the soon-to-be-mothers.

Leader: For the women who took in their own others’ children through adoption and foster care.
All: Thank God for the mothers with hearts so big.

Leader: For those women who have lost a child to death and must carry on.
All: Thank God for the mothers who are so strong.

Leader: For all the women who have desperately wanted to have children of their own, but chose instead to mother everyone else.
All: Thank God for the mothers in spirit.

All: We thank you, Lord, for the women who have influenced our lives in so many ways. We pray that we will honor them in everything we do. Amen.

Before the service, I was greeted with a carnation outstretched and a “Happy Mother’s Day”. This act makes me feel very uncomfortable. In the years since I’ve struggled with infertility, instead of just smiling, nodding, and taking the flower, I politely refuse and say, “I’m not a mother.” I imagine the person doing the greeting also feels uncomfortable. However, I’m at a point now where I’m okay with stirring the pot, making others aware of the grief that mothers-who-wish-they-could-have-been feel on a daily basis, and especially around a ‘holiday’ like Mother’s Day.

When I politely declined and said, “I’m not a mother” the immediate response was, “Well, but, you have a mother.” Yes, that’s true, but that does not replace the fact that we are unable to have our own children for unexplained reason(s) and that I (we) am (are) still actively grieving this fact and substantial change in my expected way of life.

Another assumption I take issue with is that if a woman on Mother’s Day is not a biological, foster, or adoptive mother, she surely has some hand in ‘raising’ the next generation. I personally do fall into this category of – I teach elementary school and volunteer with both elementary aged kids after school and older kids on Sundays.

But the assumption overall proves itself false. Take my middle sister, for example, who is staunchly childfree – always has been, always will be. She takes no interest in fostering (for lack of better words) her ‘maternal instinct’. I haven’t studied enough biology or anthropology to know if this is an actual trait that all women possess, but I know that there are millions more women like my sister who do not claim to have a ‘maternal instinct.’ Therefore, there’s a huge problem with blanketing an entire sex with a place in Mother’s Day sentiments.

I don’t want Mother’s Day to be abolished. I don’t want people to stop celebrating their motherhood on my behalf. I take part in celebrating my mother and the other women who have helped mother me throughout my life. I just want two simple things: an awareness of those who would love to be counted as a mother but cannot or don’t want to be, and a choice in the manner of celebration – an accepted choice to decline if I so wish.

A suggestion for a venue such as church would be to have a large vase with carnations placed in the entryway to the sanctuary with a direction to take one if she so chooses, rather than nearly forcing or attempting to rationalize the woman in question to partake in a tradition that makes her feel very uncomfortable. If I’m being vocal about not accepting a gift as beautiful as a flower, there’s probably a very good reason.