Half our holidays are punitive, at least for those left out of what the the holiday is supposed to celebrate. If you don’t have money for gifts and a thriving family life or just avoid events at the intersection of Jesus and shopping, Christmas can be unpleasant; Valentine’s Day sprinkles a little salt in the wounds of the unattached; and Thanksgiving thumbs its nose at Native America. Then there’s Mother’s Day.
Mother, like police, judge and father, is both a noun and a verb. Those are things that some of us are and some of us do. It’s noteworthy that the verb father means little more than begetting, while mother as both noun and verb stirs up a whole ocean of ideas about ceaseless love and nurture and caregiving. The ideal seems so lofty no mortal can live up to it, and while fathers are often praised for doing more than nothing, mothers are often castigated for doing less than everything and for not doing it perfectly. And perfectly, for mothers, tends to mean selflessly, superhumanly, relentlessly. Giving birth is as biological as it gets, but the job assignment from there on out seems to be for a deity or the Virgin Mary.
So I feel for mothers, but also, as Mother’s Day looms, for those with fraught experiences of maternity. The holiday feels coercive, as though it tells us what to feel and what our experience was, and it leaves out those who don’t fit its template. Some of us lost our mothers early in life or through immigration or imprisonment; some of us were adopted and might have felt we had two mothers or none; some of us rattled around the foster care system without anything much resembling parents of any gender (and some lucky kids I know are being raised by two fathers).
My friend Lara B Sharp, who grew up in foster care, wrote me the other day, “I have no close women friends who’ve have had good relationships with their mother. We’re all either daughters of demons, or the devoid. Those who’ve had a demon tell those who are devoid that they’re better off, but being entirely motherless is much more debilitating, because it’s a lifelong missing part. A demon fills a void, even if it fills the air with bile.”
Some of us – I was one – had mothers whose turbulent emotions made them feel more like the battlefield than the sanctuary. My paternal grandmother lost her mother early in life somewhere in the course of her family fleeing to this country a century ago, according to one set of family stories (or to a mental institution, according to another story). My maternal grandmother’s mother, also an immigrant, died in the course of giving birth to her, so she grew up motherless and so far as I can tell turned my mother into a belated substitute caregiver, and my mother tried the same thing with me.
I can see now how much internalized misogyny was at work in my mother’s expectation of a boundless healing love that would meet all her needs and improve all her feelings: it was a mirror image of what is often expected of mothers. But also, it was hell, because she was furious that I couldn’t do that job and that I kept my distance for safety. So mother as a noun was difficult for me, though as I got older I recognized the heroic work my mother did before my memories begin, all the feeding and cleaning and tending that got me through the first years of my life. She eventually drove me out but a whole lot of raising happened first, for which I’m grateful.
But there is also mother as a verb. Many years ago, out at the Pacific Ocean that is San Francisco’s western edge, I surprised myself by thinking “everything was my mother except my mother”, and the vast expanse of the Pacific, its sheer beauty and power, and the reliability of the ocean that would always be there, the waves that would always be rolling in, had long offered me refuge and comfort.
In recent years, I’ve thought about my mother, gone nine years now, on Mother’s Day, but also about what mothered me beyond her ministrations and limitations. I’ve thought about the places from libraries to forests, the activities and routines and rituals, the songs and stories and authorial voices, the kindness of friends and colleagues and public voices. Beyond those chosen things, of all the forces and processes that protected and provided for me.
And so on this holiday I annually wish those who are, in some sense, motherless: “May you locate the 10,000 mothers that brought you into being and keep you going, no matter who and where you are. May you be the mother of uncounted possibilities and loves.” And maybe wish that all of us can have mother the verb in our lives one way or another, as something we give and receive, whether or not we have or are mothers.
Rebecca Solnit is a Guardian US columnist. She is also the author of Men Explain Things to Me and The Mother of All Questions. Her most recent book is Recollections of My Nonexistence