Like many of us, I have mixed feelings about Mother’s Day. As a person with mixed feelings about how I was mothered, the annual Prosecco-and-cupcakes fest stirs up a confusing swirl of resentment, guilt, sentimentality, anger, and nostalgia. Against the backdrop of what has been a devastating year for mothers everywhere, I doubt I am alone in this.
One year into the coronavirus pandemic, more than 2.3 million women have left the workforce in the US, dialing women’s labor participation back to levels not seen since 1988. In December alone, women accounted for 100% of jobs lost to the pandemic. Many of them the mothers of young children, who had fallen through the cracks of the COVID childcare crisis.
According to a recent Atlantic piece, some, the lucky ones with partners to support them or who can afford to work part-time, are welcoming “the shift to fewer paid working hours.” But for the vast majority of low-income working moms for whom “leaning out” is not an option, the shockwaves of this lost ground in the fight for workplace gender equality could be felt for generations to come.
Established in 1907 by social activist Anna Jarvis as a holiday to honor “the person who has done more for you than anyone in the world,” in 2021 the original Mother’s Day message feels sentimental at best.
Rose-tinted spectacles well and truly mangled by events of the past year, and in the words of Adrienne Rich in her seminal Of Woman Born, it is just another example of the “hypocritical and palliative reverence” accorded to the patriarchal institution of motherhood.
The stubbornly persistent vision of motherhood, that is, that frames childrearing as every woman’s “natural” role and the path to her ultimate fulfillment—while having been instilled with the express purpose of ensuring men’s “possession” of their heirs and insuring the succession of their patrimony, while severely restricting women’s influence beyond the home.
Surely, to truly honor those who do more for us than “anyone in the world” (as individuals and as a society), would mean implementing extended and flexible periods of paid parental leave; would look like free, universal childcare; would include healthcare for all, and easy access to abortion and family planning to ensure no mother’s material resource, affection, or attention is ever spread too thin.
It would mean raising the status and remuneration of care-work across the board; and it would also mean validating women who, for whatever reason, decide that motherhood is not for them.
All of which is front of mind as Mother’s Day comes around again this year.
And not because I am mother myself; but because I am one of a rising tide of women from across the spectrum of race, class, and economic status who are opting out of motherhood in our droves. A societal shift that some believe will come to define the 21st Century. The WHY of which I am diving deeply into while writing my new book.
On a macro level, this means looking at the lasting and ongoing impact (or not) of the Women’s Liberation movement, in terms of education, workplace opportunities, and sexual freedom. It means examining the impact on family life of increased economic inequality. It means addressing very real panic about the future of the planet. And it means exploring shifting attitudes to gender, aging, freedom, family, and success.
On a more personal level, it has also meant reliving the conflicted, destabilizing, and ultimately liberating experience of being mothered by somebody who embodied of the schism inherent to the women of her generation.
The lady Boomers, for whom marriage and motherhood remained her highest aspiration and her greatest (read: only) hope for material stability—while the message that she could, and should, be an independent woman, and do whatever she wanted with her life, appeared before her in futuristic hieroglyphics.
For those of us born in the 1970s and 1980s—now in our 30s and 40s, the prime of our “mothering” years—the impact of this legacy cannot be underestimated. Our mothers were the first to catch a glimpse of what real “freedom” from the patriarchal institution of motherhood might look like. As their daughters, it makes sense that what we internalized is: there’s more to life than this.
Mother’s Day is not a holiday we have ever celebrated in my family. For starters, I was raised with a mistrust of anything overtly commercial; any occasion that came with specially branded cards and boxes of candy was held in high suspicion. In the UK, where Mother’s Day is celebrated in March, it also falls close enough to my mum’s birthday for the Jo Malone scented candle she ekes out to make it last all year count for both.
Not that the mothering we celebrate on Mother’s Day looks much like the mothering I—or either of my parents—experienced. My mother has, undoubtedly, done more for me than any other person. She gave me her body, her blood, her cells. She gave me life. She sacrificed the prime of her years as a sexual being to raise my brother and I, along with the nectar of her intellectual life.
She also gave me hand-baked, wholewheat bread, homeopathic everything, and a healthy appreciation for a holistic approach to wellbeing. Above all, she gave me the grit and the graft of her labor as a single, working mom.
But the circumstances of her own upbringing, her strange non-marriage, and her financial situation, meant she was incapacitated when it came to giving me the consistent attention, validation, and unconditional love that we associate with the idealized vision of motherhood. As is the case for many of us. And this was before smartphones began to bite four-hour chunks out of the average adult’s day.
A couple of years ago, I learned about something called “childhood emotional neglect” (CEN). This is what happens when, usually through no fault of their own, a person’s primary caregivers are unable to attend to and validate the emotional life of their kids.
Those who experienced this in childhood can grow up with an indefinable sense of something being missing; low self-esteem; perfectionism; a high sensitivity to being rejected; and the pervasive yet impossible to pinpoint notion that something is inherently “wrong” with us.
Which speaks pretty neatly to lots of what I have learned about the root causes of addiction in my work with Sober Curious. Meanwhile, even a cursory glance at the topics trending among social media psychologists—from the concepts of “re-parenting” to co-dependency and attachment theory—point to a yearning to understand our collective emotional wounding in this area.
It makes sense that this is erupting on Instagram: the dynamics of the platform itself having been developed to prey precisely on the primal insecurities of our un-seen and unvalidated inner children.
In a little book from the School of Life titled How to Overcome Your Childhood, the authors state that: “the sign of being a good parent is one’s child having no interest in being liked by large numbers of strangers.”
Given the intense fear and loathing many of us feel towards the fluctuations of our “likes” and follower counts, could it be that we were all a little bit emotionally neglected as kids? That, thanks to the sheer effort of simply existing in a dog-eat-dog society marked by rampant inequality, a significant number of the humans currently on the planet have not had the benefit of being “properly” mothered?
The same School of Life Book also breaks down the concept of “emotional privilege,” which could be considered the opposite of emotional neglect, and which consists, among other things, of a parent being able to: “put their own needs aside for a time to focus wholeheartedly on the confusions and fears of their offspring; shield (their children) from the worst of their anxiety; (not) set themselves up as perfect or, by being remote or unavailable, encourage us to idealize or demonize them.”
Considering the extent today that kids are “parented” by the internet, that realm of righteously moralistic “rights” and “wrongs,” this one also struck a chord: “can teach us that all humans deserve compassion and understanding despite their errors and compulsions.”
In my copy of the book, I have scribbled a sad little “no” next to all but a few of the “emotional privileges” listed. Not that this means I received “bad” parenting; if this were the case, all parenting would be bad. It does makes me wonder though: just like there’s a superrich 1%, is there an emotionally privileged 1% out there, too?
Not one part of me “blames” my mother for her imperfect mothering. If anything, I’m thankful she never tried to hide how hard it was to raise my brother and me. Part of me has known from as early as age five that that I did not want to be a mom. That my talents lay elsewhere, and that what was most important to me was to live life on my own terms.
If I also grew up feeling like I was the only one, then the latest stats about America’s staggering population slow-down (reflected across every demographic and all around the globe) tell a different story.
And this is the tip of the iceberg.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve watched the final holdouts of my generation bite the bullet and sign-up for “last-minute motherhood”—the celebrity cool-girls I grew up with, Chloe Sevigny, Rashida Jones, and Cameron Diaz, having all become pregnant in their mid-forties.
Biology is real, and there comes a point when the fence you’ve been perched on (what am I missing out on if I miss out on motherhood?) can no longer sustain the weight of indecision.
Now, as us Gen X’ers surpass the last of our feasible childbearing years—let alone as more and more Millennials hit 40—I believe we’re in for an insurgence of older, wiser, and more powerful ladies without babies. And, as a result, an entirely new vision for what it means to be a woman without kids.
And besides, what if all we are missing out on is more of the conscripted, patriarchal version of motherhood? An oppressive, cookie-cutter motherhood that, as Adrienne Rich also writes, has resulted in: “the mutilation and manipulation of the relationship between mother and child, which is the great original source and experience of love.”
What if, instead of pinning all our hopes for happiness and fulfillment on the future generation, we turn our focus to loving ourselves and our fellow human beings instead?
Kids do best when their parents are genuinely interested in who they are, and genuinely want to spend time with them. This is different from making your whole life about your children (as idealized by the Mother’s Day version of motherhood); if this is done from a place where you’re projecting your own need for fulfillment, for love, onto them, they will grow up equal parts entitled and insecure.
A person’s suitability for the psychological vocation of parenting (material stability aside) comes down to personality, and to an individual’s desires and expectations for their own life. Desires and expectations that have been equally “mutilated and manipulated” by a capitalist society that confuses STUFF with LOVE. That has trained our brains to go after easy wins and quick dopamine hits; the antithesis of the slow-cooked “satisfaction” of raising kids.
Just as not every woman is CEO material, not every woman is equally suited to parenting, and that’s okay. The really sad part? Like far too many mothers, my mum lacked the emotional support and the financial stability to be able to give the role her all—when all she ever really wanted was to be a mom.
That, and an artist.
In the grips of a recent bout of burnout, I told her I was fantasizing about quitting it all and doing a Fine Art degree. “Oh darling,” she swooned, “that would be just wonderful.” Out of concern for my own well-being, sure. Despite it being all she could ever have modeled to me, I’ve always worked too hard for her liking. But equally because it’s exactly what she would have wanted for herself in an alternate life.
Those mixed feelings about Mother’s Day?
What I see being celebrated is a mirage of motherhood; one that does not reflect the way the vast majority of us are raised. That sentimentalizes familial ties worn thin by the struggle. We need to get real about this, which means we need to stop pretending the lack of REAL financial and emotional support that’s available to mother’s everywhere, is okay.
And not just to make it easier to be a mom, or to encourage women to have more kids. Politicians everywhere may be freaking out about the economic implications of a steadily aging population, but the answer to the world’s problems is NOT to throw more people into the mix. If the children are our future, they won’t be able to “fix” anything if we’re just passing our old wounds down to them.
And anyway, even in the most “pro-family” societies, places like Germany where people literally get paid to have kids, the birthrate is also falling off a cliff. The writing is on the wall: the daughters of Women’s Lib know for sure that there’s more to life than having kids.