Every year my Facebook feed is fed with a piece of writing from Anne Lamott about Mother’s Day and why she hates it. The essay, uncharacteristically bitter, was originally published in Salon in 2010. I’m a fan of Lamott and always read the piece when it turns up, even though she sounds like Lewis Black instead of herself. In truth, I agree with most of the essay, but her vitriol is off-putting, and I disagree passionately with parts. By the end, I feel like I’ve been served what might have been a lovely soup were it not peppered with flies. It almost makes me want to throw out my dog-eared copy of her wonderful book Bird by Bird.
How can I explain? Let me try an anecdote. When I was in high school, I was nominated to be homecoming queen. (Please don’t hold this against me. That was nearly 25 years ago, and this will be the first and last you hear of it.) Anyway, when I ended up “winning,” for lack of a better word, I didn’t think I was better than everyone, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t feel good. The first thing my boyfriend at the time said to me when I walked off the football field was, “You can take that crown off your head now.” He looked disgusted.
That boyfriend made me feel foolish. I’m sure that was precisely the intent, to knock me off my high horse even though I wasn’t trying to ride one. Anne Lamott’s essay has that same feel. Don’t get me wrong: That’s not the only thing that bugs me about it. There’s something very modern-age playground about her message that rubs me wrong, too. I see an aspiration of equality that borders on dystopia.
I can’t NOT read the piece every year when I see it. I love giant chunks of it, enough that I want to overlook the rest. Why throw out the baby with the bathwater? Here is the part that reads like gospel to me:
“I hate the way the holiday makes all non-mothers, and the daughters of dead mothers, and the mothers of dead or severely damaged children, feel the deepest kind of grief and failure. The non-mothers must sit in their churches, temples, mosques, recovery rooms and pretend to feel good about the day while they are excluded from a holiday that benefits no one but Hallmark and See’s. There is no refuge — not at the horse races, movies, malls, museums. Even the turn-off-your-cellphone announcer is going to open by saying, ‘Happy Mother’s Day!’ You could always hide in a nice seedy bar, I suppose. Or an ER.”
Sing it, sister. Amen.
The thing is, I don’t believe that the answer is to lay waste to Mother’s Day. Trust me, I’m not just saying this because I can’t let go of a designated day to be woken up extra early by elated kids stomping on my full bladder, bearing undercooked scrambled eggs and wildly inflated expectations for all the fun I’m going to have with them from dawn to dusk. Nor is it because I enjoy figuring out the logistics of both having and being a mother that day. It’s because of precisely what Lamott says: It CAN be done a better way. Why not try?
Motherhood is big, complex, and many-tentacled. It comes in many shapes. It does have dark sides. It can cause grief. But in honoring those who have experienced that darkness and grief, I don’t think we need to diminish anyone else’s light and joy.
This all leads me to the show I’ll be participating in this Mother’s Day. The Listen to Your Mother Show bills itself as “giving motherhood a microphone.” Reading Lamott’s piece, I wonder what preconceived notions people might have about this show. Will they be surprised that at least two of the thirteen cast members don’t have kids? How could they anticipate the anything-but-sappy piece about one cast member’s complex and disconnected relationship with her mother? Lord knows I never anticipated so much of what I heard when I sat in the audience in the past, stories of miscarriage, infidelity, sexuality, faith, travel, hilarity, and all sorts of things that don’t neatly fit into any category or onto a Hallmark greeting card.
I’m happy to be part of such an inclusive Mother’s Day experience. I think it at least begins to answer Lamott’s call for a different way to do this thing (in ways that I agree have merit): It does not pretend motherhood is all one way or another. It does not pretend that those with kids are more important than those without. It shines light on the great mess of paths leading into and out of this THING that is so tangled up in our identities. I don’t know how anyone could feel left out. And that’s the kind of Mother’s Day I can be proud to celebrate.