Flowers, jewelry, cupcakes, and manicures. These are just
some of the more clichéd gifts
American businesses want us to lavish on our mothers and grandmothers this
weekend, thanking them for everything they do for us, for all the sacrifices
they make and have made. Spas
and department stores are opening their doors and slashing prices, encouraging
moms to flex their capitalist muscles and get pampered, while restaurants trot
out brunch menus and pink tablecloths, eager to tempt hungry families fete-ing
their matriarchs. Advertisements for Mother’s Day "events" at retail outlets
show smiling, happy, relaxed mothers — free of wrinkles, under-eye circles, etc. — posing harmoniously with their offspring.
There’s something very wrong with this picture, and it has
little to do with Mother’s Day itself (I’m looking forward to celebrating with
my mom and grandmother over a delicious brunch, as I always do). It has to do
with the way American policymakers and corporations make
a giant fuss over this holiday and then proceed to ignore moms, or "reward"
them, with unfair laws, poor health care, strict maternity leave policies, and
often nonexistent options for child care. I’m hardly the first to seize on this
contradiction but it bears repeating, because issues that affect moms have a
way of fading from public view quickly.
The phenomenon of idolize-but-ignore that afflicts moms at
this time of year is rooted in the belief that women’s second-class status can be rectified with a
day of celebration and some pricey gifts — just like on Valentine’s Day. But it also comes from the perversely
American "do it yourself" ethos: don’t expect help, even when you’re doing what
advertisers and "family values" right-wingers remind us is the world’s most
For the 364 days of the year that are not the second Sunday
in May, we live in a society poorly structured for making motherhood manageable.
Perhaps if we viewed the concept of valuing mothers as more than an opportunity
to buy more presents — instead, seeing it is our collective responsibility — those
smiling, happy women on the Mother’s Day advertisements wouldn’t be a
Practically speaking, the value we put on motherhood is a
mess in this country. Individual moms do
make absolutely heroic efforts every day; they more than rise to the challenges
foisted on them. But we see article after article about harried mothers trying
to juggle careers and family, trying to afford doctor’s bills and mortgage
payments, fighting for better education and recreation in their
neighborhoods — all things which should be theirs by right.
We’ve got moms stereotyped onscreen and on TV — either controlling
and Type A (if they’re white and wealthy) or a font of understanding, wisdom
and tough love (any movie with a non-white or non-rich mom) — but rarely
something in between. These images are a
perverted reflection of the zeitgeist, the pressure to do all and be all that
affects women across the economic spectrum.
We have the manufactured concept of
an opt-out revolution, the idea of a parade of affluent women giving up the
working life to devote themselves to hearth and home. It’s merely a wishful thought on the part of a retro press
corps, but it won’t die.
We also have the "Mommy Wars," an exhausting shouting match
within a usually wealthy group of women, divided between stay at home moms and
working ones. The conflict, fed by guilt and a lack of part-time or options is overhyped
and amplified by the media, eager for catfights. But the focus on the Mommy
Wars ignore the reality of most American women, who have no choice but to work. And if we had fairer policies and better daycare options, the schism
would be far less fraught.
A different approach is possible. Across the pond in France, for
instance, parents get generous maternity and paternity leave packages,
subsidized day care and in home-childcare, and quality government-provided
health services (not to mention generous vacation time, manageable hours and
delicious food and wine!). Somehow,
French women don’t find themselves engaged in "Mommy Wars" — or at least, not
wars of a magnitude that this Francophile has encountered. Most women are
allowed to balance home life and work with a considerable amount of
flexibility. Unsurprisingly, French women take advantage of this, enjoying
professional success and time with the kids. Shocking, isn’t it?
Fortunately, here in the US, there’s a
movement afoot to organize moms and get political, including groups like the awesome MomsRising. This year, women are using Mother’s Day to campaign for better
childcare, flexible working hours, health coverage, family leave and more. As
they gain more and more attention and traction, we have the foundations of a
massive grassroots and powerful mom-movement.
As Amie Newman pointed
out this week, anti-choice policies that force women to become mothers
against their wills go hand in hand with a lack of support for them once they
do have kids. To counter this hypocrisy, reproductive justice encompasses the
belief that every woman and family has the right to raise a family with dignity
and freedom — from deciding when and whether to have kids to having resources to
help with parenting. Changing our society’s attitudes and policies so that this
is possible is a gift we can give to all mothers, not just our own.