Mother’s Day Rhetoric

My mother and I circa 1987-88, prior to my christening
My mother and I circa 1987-88, prior to my christening.

My mother died on May 8, 2009—23 days before her 56th birthday, 9 days before I graduated from my undergraduate institution, and 2 days before Mother’s Day. There are few occasions where I find myself angry that my mother is dead. Guilty? Sad? Totally overwhelmed? Of course.

Mother’s Day makes me angry.

Like many holidays, Mother’s Day is one day out of the year where everyone buys into the idea that we should celebrate something, if only for 24 hours. There are cards sold, flowers bought, fancy brunches made, and lots of competitive Facebook statuses posted: Happy Mother’s Day. My mom is better than yours.  

Part of what makes me so angry is that, for the longest time, I bought into that rhetoric. The idea that my mom should only be celebrated on one day. The idea that I needed to show her that I appreciated her with material things.

My mom and I went through an extended mother vs. teenage daughter period.  By the time she was diagnosed with Stage IV ovarian cancer, I was 17 and about to graduate from high school. At that point, we were not even close to being out of our contentious period. If anything, the fact that she was so sick for so long, the fact that I was scared and she needed me to not be, added to that tension.

Enter Mother’s Day. Even when we were at our worst, I would stay up the night before Mother’s Day, cutting out hearts or flowers that had sayings on them and posting them all over the house so she would see them in the morning. Since neither my brother nor I knew how to cook, my dad would make my mom breakfast, and we would get her gifts—just like we were supposed to do.

My mom and our dog, 2006.
My mom and our dog, 2006.

Once my mom was sick, Mother’s Day was harder for me. Its generic features no longer fit our situation. Hallmark doesn’t sell a card that says, “Happy Mother’s Day. If you die tomorrow, I want you to know that I love you. I’m sorry for being such a jerk.” And four years of chemo make an already questionable brunch less appetizing. And upon realizing that my mom never used the gift cards I was buying her for pedicures—something she used to treat herself to—she told me that she wasn’t supposed to paint her toenails. Of the many things it affects, chemo also affects your toenails, and her feet and nails had become too sensitive.

Once she got sick, I began to realize how shallow Mother’s Day is. My mom didn’t need brunch or flowers or a gift card to a salon. She needed constant support, encouragement, and friendly faces who assured her that fighting was the best choice.

But Mother’s Day isn’t marketed as long-term support. Instead, it expounds a rhetoric of give-your-mom-your-best-for-the-next-24-hours, encouraging a be-extra-nice-just-today attitude. My mom needed more than one day of appreciation. She had (diagnosed) cancer for over four years, and she needed Mother’s Day to be every day.

In many ways, Mother’s Day is an opportunity to remind your mom that she means everything to you. For me, it is a reminder of how superficial Mother’s Day can be, how it is designed to be. And that makes me furious.

I’m angry that I half-assed Mother’s Day celebrations in the past without realizing it.

I’m angry that I don’t have any more Mother’s Day opportunities to spend with my mom.

I’m angry that we never had time to move past my cranky teenage years and into a stage of healing.

Most of all, I’m angry that the consumerist rhetoric that Mother’s Day supports turns this day into a competition to find the best card, the brightest flowers, the most awesome thing to say about our moms. And I’m angry that when Amazon starts reminding me about Mother’s Day three weeks in advance, it doesn’t take into account so many people who are hurt by such a callous reminder: people who have lost our moms, people who are estranged from their moms, moms who have lost children, women who are struggling to conceive.

I’m not against people celebrating moms everywhere, but I do question the idea that such a celebration should occur on a single, arbitrary day. I also question the corporate appeals that we must buy particular things and act in particular ways in order to do Mother’s Day right, to fully and graciously thank our mothers the right way. 

Moms deserve better than a one-day, corporatized appreciation fest. I know mine did.

My brother, mom, and I at Lake MacDonald, 2008
My brother, mom, and I at Lake MacDonald, 2008.

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