Mother’s Day Ambivalence

If you go to any big high school basketball game in the country and see a heavily recruited shooter miss a three-pointer with an air ball, you’ll likely hear this spontaneous cheer break out in the stands: “O-ver-rate-d, clap, clap, clap clap clap.” It’s a smart-mouth slam from the student section, and it continues until the next good play or until another player makes an even more egregious mistake.

That’s my first reaction when I think of Mother’s Day: it’s overrated. This response may surprise some people in my life, primarily my three teenagers who believe that my world revolves around them. They’re fairly typical examples of their demographic, I’ve found.

The second thought that flashes across my brain’s ticker tape when I see that Mother’s Day is about to roll around again is that it’s a made-up holiday. I don’t know why I find this offensive, really, since every legally recognized holiday has to start somewhere. This one was dedicated in 1914, thanks to the efforts of activist Julia Ward Howe. Ms. Howe championed quite a few worthwhile causes; jotting down “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” is an impressive legacy even if she never lifted another philanthropic finger for the rest of her life, in my view.

I love that Julia Howe was particular about the holiday’s apostrophe. She wanted to honor each mother within her own home. That accounts for the singular possessive spelling. I like that. She never intended the holiday to be a big “We Are The World” mother solidarity statement. She was aiming for a much more humble homage to ordinary women like me who clean up vomit when our kids are sick, nag them to do their homework, and wait up until curfew time to make sure they arrive home in one piece—in body, soul, and mind.

It didn’t take long for the seeds of commerce to sprout. Mother’s Day became a red-letter day for greeting card sales and potted plant deliveries, a day followed a month or so later by Father’s Day which, somehow, isn’t nearly as big of a deal. For many mothers, Mother’s Day means breakfast in bed inexpertly prepared by her children or Sunday lunch with extended family members. There are gifts involved, too. They often feature children’s handprints and badly written poems containing odd, mother-inspired hyperboles like, “Mama, I love you more than chicken fingers.”

Mother’s Day prompts phone calls home from grown-up children, emails, texts, and a heartsick longing for mothers who no longer walk the earth. In Alabama where I live, there was a television commercial for South Central Bell years ago that starred Crimson Tide football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. In it, he asks customers, “Have you called your mama today? I wish I could call mine.” She was long gone, of course. No one who saw it ever forgot it.

Raising children is the hardest work I’ve ever done in my life. I liken it to work in the local rock quarry. There isn’t much glory in it either. There are no paychecks, health benefits, or retirement accounts. In fact, from the moment the hospital shoves that swaddled bundle of joy into your arms and nudges you out the front door, you are virtually guaranteed a life of sleepless nights, college-fund worries, and at least eighteen years of working as a short order cook, chauffeur, fashion consultant, tutor, spiritual advisor, coach, nurse, financier, and, occasionally, a prison warden.

It happens.

It’s hard to grow people from the lima beans you can barely see on the sonograms in your obstetrician’s office into responsible, kind, tax-paying adults who can take care of themselves and those less fortunate than they are. Sometimes, I feel like the whole world is working against me. Motherhood requires vast reserves of patience and unselfishness. The potential rewards are great, but children are such a long-term investment that it’s hard to keep the finish line in sight when you’re lost in a round of parent conferences, cheerleader tryouts, broken hearts, and losing sports seasons.

Every once in a while, though, something happens that makes my job seem worth the heartache and the penny pinching. One afternoon, one of my kid’s friends said these words to me: “I wish I lived at your house.” He meant it. I could tell. Another time, one of my teenagers made a good choice in a downright dangerous situation, not because it was the right thing to do, but because he was afraid of me, his mean mama. Clearly identifiable moments like those don’t happen often, but when they do, I fall into bed that night knowing I made a difference in the world, a small difference, to be sure, but a difference, just the same.

Moms matter. They really do. Mother’s Day—not so much.


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3 responses to “Mother’s Day Ambivalence

  1. Phyllis

    Momma and I enjoyed the article, but we needed a hanky!

  2. Marissa

    I agree, Melinda. It’s a very commercial day sandwiched into a hugely busy month. But still, I love that Bennett made a blue rose out of clay for me and that Lydia recorded for all time that she thinks I’m 25 years old and that Brant’s footprint and two handprints make a sweet butterfly. Also, did you know that BellSouth commercial you reference was done by my daddy?!?! My parents still have Coach Bryant’s directors chair from that shoot somewhere up in the attic. The very best part is that Coach Bryant add-libbed that last line. That’s why it is such a wonderful commercial – because you can see his pain. Makes me tear up every time! Thank you for sharing that link – I’m so proud of my daddy.

  3. I love Mother’s Day, too, but then I’m a bit of a sap. (You remember that I’m a Valentine’s Day fan, too, right? Yeah. I really am.) I have every handmade project my kids ever made–although some of them are in tatters! I had no idea your dad was the genius behind that commercial. I have always heard that the last line was add-libbed, but I didn’t really know for sure. Great to get that tidbit! I’m not a bit surprised, however. What a talented family you have!

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