Feminist Musings on Mother’s Day.

photo1Happy Mother’s Day!

Yes, I said it, but Mother’s Day invokes within me a certain hesitancy. Now before you say, “Well that’s because you don’t have children of your own so you don’t understand what it is like to be a mother or because your relationship with your own mother is awful, you hate the day.” I would respond that that is an unfair assessment of the situation. First, Mother’s Day doesn’t bother me because I don’t have children. (By the way, I find the idea that I don’t truly understand love or commitment and/or motherhood because I don’t have kids unbelievably condescending. Yes, motherhood can give one gifts and insights but those can also come from other areas of one’s life and/or other experiences.) I am also not hesitant about Mother’s Day because my mother and I have an awful relationship.  We don’t. In fact, it is quite good.

Rather, Mother’s Day bothers me for three reasons. First, it often seems fake. People seem to go through the motions because it is expected and not because they sincerely want to honor their mothers. Second, I often wonder if Mother’s Day isn’t just some consumer-driven, capitalist, patriarchal creation asking us to buy expensive cards and “remember” all our mothers have done for us this one very special day of year.

Third, what are we celebrating about mothers?  Most of the cards at the store and advertisements on television (if we would take them as research on what the general sentiments on Mother’s Day are) honor a mother’s love, support, guidance and acknowledge the child’s needs.  They thank mothers for all they do.  Some even had the word sacrifice in them.  It seems as if we are celebrating the patriarchal standard of motherhood filled with self-sacrifice, unconditional love, placing others before self and “natural nurturing and caring feminine” selves whose main contribution to society is the production of children.  Why would I celebrate that?  (On a side note, if I remember right, Father’s Day cards are very different.  It has been awhile so I will do the research in a month or so when they come out and get back to you.)

That is not the kind of Mother’s Day I will honor. If I am going to honor my mother on Mother’s Day, I will do so in an intentional mother-loveway that envisions motherhood differently. What follows is Mother’s Day proposed in a way that I can support as a feminist.

Mother’s day should be a day to acknowledge the reality of our lives, that our relationships with our own mothers are often less than perfect because of patriarchy.  Some people may not know who their mothers are and others may have been abused by their own mothers.  Some peoples’ mothers may be drug users who abandoned them.  Some people may feel slighted that their mothers were never home and others raised them.  While Mother’s Day is often presented in happy, joyful and lovely terms, for many people it may not be such.  Even if we have mothers of our own whose care was generally good, we still had a parent/child relationships in the midst of patriarchy and its expectations which can embroil them with conflicts, disagreements and disappointments. We have to acknowledge all of this to be truly present with each other on Mother’s Day.

Likewise, while traditionally Mother’s Day focuses on certain characteristics: care, education, guidance, creation, support and love, motherhood also includes strength, commitment, perseverance and (sometimes but not always) the pain of childbirth. Likewise, mothers are people whose sole duty and/or focus is not just their children.  They have their own needs, wants, dreams and life ambitions that they should be able to pursue as well.  In fact, the best mothers may be the mothers who show their children ambition, drive, determination, commitment and dedication to other pursuits and life goals in addition to raising children.  It is important to also note that some mothers may have never wanted children but, with patriarchal circumstances and pressures as they were, had to birth and raise them and some of the best mothering figures in our lives may never have been able to birth biological children but are mothers nonetheless.  Also, take into consideration the fact that there are some women who long so much to have children of their own and cannot that Mother’s Day reminds them of dreams unfulfillable or perhaps unfulfilled.  Acknowledging, embracing and cherishing all that motherhood is, all the ways ideals of motherhood can stifle and crush dreams, and all the various ways to be a mother on Mother’s Day is a prerequisite for any Mother’s Day celebration for me.

My mother and I at Disney in October.
Yes, a selfie of my mother and I at Disney in October.

Finally, and perhaps tangentially, I think Mother’s Day should honor the motherhood of G-d. So often, G-d is understood to be, even in our most liberal congregations and communities, in gender neutral ideology in order to supposedly counter the very long history of G-d as male, father and king. Spending the day (if not more than just one day) intentionally calling on G-d as She (rather than just through gender neutral terms) would add present-ness to prayer as well as topple patriarchal devaluations of femininity. I am convinced that we truly need more imagery of G-d as mother, the One who birthed the world into existence in pain, in tears and in joy. We should also hear about and experience mother G-d as nurturer, educator and care-giver because we do not celebrate these G-d characteristics enough and we still think because of their association with femininity that they are less than in our patriarchal society.

Conceivably one day we won’t need a Mother’s Day. One day we will live in a world in which women, females and values once associated exclusively with femininity will be honored and cherished the way they should be every day.  May it come in our lifetime.

Author: Ivy Helman, Ph.D.

Jewish feminist scholar, activist, and professor living in Prague, Czech Republic and currently teaching at Charles University in their Gender Studies Program.

8 thoughts on “Feminist Musings on Mother’s Day.”

  1. Very perceptive blog. I’m a double Cancer–one of those really motherly types. I agree that all the stuff about mom on TV and in greeting cards can indeed be condescending and patriarchal. If I were in charge, of course, everyone would honor the Great Mother, the unnamed mother goddess of 10,000 names, the grandmother of the standard-brand god. But I’m not in charge, and maybe it’s enough that each of us individually honors her or his own mommy. Thanks for writing this blog. People need to read–and absorb–what you have to say.


  2. I remember being in Germany once around Mother’s Day and I was really surprised at how subdued it was. Then a German explained to me that Mother’s Day was a huge celebration during the Third Reich. Hitler wanted German women to make lots of babies for his army, so he would award medals to women who had the most children. Mother’s Day was a big Nazi holiday. So, after the war, Germans don’t celebrate it much. They also don’t show their national flag too much (Hitler was big into flags). Usually you only see German flags when their soccer team is doing well in the World Cup.


  3. May it indeed! I hear you on the commercialized holiday! And though this is the day my Mother chooses to have us appreciate her….I choose to honor the beautiful gifts of womyn everyday!
    I enjoyed this post! Even though I completely jumped on the Mums day bandwagon ; )


  4. I find these patriarchal holidays annoying at best. This article was brilliant, a wonderful respite from the trite boring idiocy of heteronormative society run amok.

    I don’t have children, have no interest in them, and find the whole childbearing family thing boring beyond belief. One doesn’t have to have a rotten family to really hate this social structure, mainly because it seems fake to me, contrived. People seem to go in for these trite capitalistic holidays. Hallmark anyone?

    What I do find useful is to think about how relationships between different generations of women can be powerful, not motherly, but tender and well regarding. Because I so hated the entire hetero world for most of my life, it actually got in the way of me being able to see something that was of genuine value to me, or to feel a kind of love that was different.

    I’d say I feel this often now for young women whether they are lesbian or not, a kind of role of older person who supports the revolution for younger women. This non-heteronormative emotion should be explored more in feminism. Instead we are subjected to patriarchal and women’s patriarchal parading around of heteronormative privilege, and it will bring out the very worst in me. If you are in the evil malestream, that is womanhating and controlling, then don’t expect me to pat you on the back. I hate all those institutions, and will not celebrate these stupid holidays, but I will feel a very kind love for the young women of today who are remarkable— especially those rare young women who are adults now, but were raised by lesbian households–now that is amazing, and I bet they don’t have Hallmark cards for THOSE families.


  5. p.S. just when I am about to give up on this boring conformist church worshipping “liberal” mess of a blog, a nice gem of an article appears! What a relief!!!!


  6. I’m surprised that no one has added that Mother’s Day began as a feminist protest against war. In 1870 Julia Ward Howe asked women of the world to join together for peace in an “Appeal to Womanhood throughout the World. The opening stanza of this challenge went like this:

    Arise then…women of this day!
    Arise, all women who have hearts!
    Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!
    Say firmly:
    “We will not have questions answered by irrelevant agencies,
    Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage,
    For caresses and applause.
    Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
    All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
    We, the women of one country,
    Will be too tender of those of another country
    To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”

    Our UU church in Madison has rekindled this tradition by putting up peace poles on Mother’s Day, joining an international project that has begun to gain advocates. Do any of you participate in this project?


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