Last year on Mother’s Day, I did not behave well. I herded the family uptown for brunch with my mom and made sure that children put their cell phones away and kept their voices at a non-eardrum-shattering volume and stayed with their butts in chairs. Mom then asked if we wanted to take a walk together. I blurted out, “No, I want to go home and have my Mother’s Day!”
This was churlish and bitchy. I am grateful to have a mom I find awesome, especially when so many of my friends have moms who are no longer alive, who are in super-fragile health, or who are—not to put too fine a point on it—toxic. I’m also grateful to be out of the toddler trenches, with relatively self-sufficient older children who do not constantly cling to my various body parts like lichen.
But in terms of small tiresomenesses, Mother’s Day rankles when you’re both mother and daughter. You’ve made the transition from the time when the holiday was all about your mom to the time when you’re encouraging your own spawn to call Bubbe and Nana and managing their needs and schedules and trying to make sure no one feels slighted by your divided attention. My kids are past the age of coming home with crayoned and finger-painted drawings that my husband can quickly repurpose as a Mother’s Day card, and I don’t think my Mother’s Day should be my husband’s responsibility anymore, anyway, the way it was when our kids were teeny. He should be focused on calling his own mom, who lives in his Midwestern hometown while her kids are in California and New York. It’s a huge bummer for her, I’m sure, to want to stay close to her own home while also wishing her kids were closer. My kids, at 11 and 14, should be showing me their perpetual gratitude and unending devotion by letting me sleep late … though I can’t sleep late because we have to go out for brunch with my brother and his family to celebrate my mom.
Man, I really do sound like a spiteful little wench. I know. To my own surprise, Mother’s Day matters to me.
I never cared about Valentine’s Day, the other mandatory flower holiday. My husband and I had our first date on the 14th of February (many eons ago, when the Amalekites still ruled the land of Edom), after being friends for a long time, and I could actually feel him oscillating slightly with anxiety all evening about the import of the date. “Dude,” I finally told him, “this is an invented, goyish holiday. We’re going to pretend it does not exist.” At first he seemed to half-suspect that this was a test, like that whole business with the gold, silver, and lead caskets in The Merchant of Venice. But I meant it. We still don’t celebrate it and never did with our kids. (I went to Jewish day school, so I personally never experienced the mishegas of valentines and candy hearts at school, with all the attendant Charlie-Brown-esque grief and stress about not getting any or not getting enough or getting them from the wrong people. Seeing my public-school-educated kids get thrown into this ugly popularity measurement contest bothered the heck out of me.)
Valentine’s Day is supposed to symbolize romantic love, which is just dopey for elementary-school students; and for people who actually are in love, what, you need a reminder to show appreciation for your partner? As I told Jonathan, I’d much rather get a random present on a random day than out-of-season, trucked-in roses at a predetermined time, sold at a stratospheric one-day markup. I also quickly came to appreciate the way my husband showed his love, which was not the way Valentine’s Day told me was the correct way: He didn’t do poetry and love songs; he did the installation of more memory on my computer, the spontaneous application of grout to leaky bathroom tiles, and the accession to my desire to buy kosher meat even though he was raised in Wisconsin on bratwurst. It was romantic, in its way.
But Mother’s Day isn’t flexible in its expression. It is about one thing only: raising children who are not feral. Which is a really hard job. In the bustle of daily life, there is frequently a lack of time to express gratitude for the quotidian act of motherhood. Many of us live apart from our own moms—again, if we’re blessed to have them in our lives at all—so calling them to say thank you and just schmooze about life rather than listening with only half an ear while racing to get to the next thing is important. It’s the best gift we can give our moms. But we daughters who are also moms want acknowledgement for ourselves, too—this day is no longer only about someone else. (Though on Mother’s Day I do think of that apocryphal quotation usually attributed to Mark Twain: “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.” Becoming an adult—and particularly becoming a parent—tends to make one appreciate the challenges of bringing up children.)
When our kids were teeny, Mother’s Day was really for my husband and me. It was about acknowledging that we’d become a family, that there were not just two of us, that he valued me despite the changes in our lives. I often felt like a weepy, un-cute mess with boobs leaking all over the place. Mother’s Day, which in the early years involved Jonathan helping the kids make me breakfast in bed—and making significant, amused eye contact as our kids climbed all over me and chattered about how they’d helped Daddy dip the bread in the egg for french toast—was an acknowledgment that he and I were still a team, that he still found me pretty fabulous despite the changes in my body, my fractured attention, my confusion about who I was now that I was a mother as well as a daughter and a wife. Now that my kids are older, I want this day to be one in which they tell me I’m awesome without my having to fish for it. They’re too old to make me homemade cards with sticky, slightly grimy glued-on bits of lace and dangling bent sequins, but I want a few minutes of their total, focused attention. And OK, that time when they got me a necklace with a water tower on it (my favorite bit of NYC iconography) at the cute gift shop on Avenue A was great, too.
I think my mom also cares a lot more about the focused attention than about the gifting. And she deserves it. She raised two kids who came out pretty good, who enjoy each other’s company, who have delightful families of their own. But after my little uncivilized snarl last year, she decided this holiday should be about me as much as it is about her. She called my brother and his husband and ordered them to choose a restaurant between her apartment and mine, and informed them that it was on them to make the reservation. No, it’s not hard for me to pick up the phone and call and reserve a table, but the symbolism of taking the job off my plate—because I’m a fellow mom—was important to her. I love that. And after we all have brunch, in a location convenient to both me and her, I am going to go home and lounge with my own family and read a book without guilt, and maybe go get a pedicure with Maxie (Josie hates them), and that will be perfect.
Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.