Before I start carping, I should point out that I like being a mother as much as the next person. As long as the next person is Medea. Only joking, kids. That’s the great thing about teenagers; they appreciate snark. The not-so-great thing is that, by the time you are reading this, my house will probably look like something out of Project X, due to a birthday party on Friday night to which I was not cordially invited.
Or perhaps not. Perhaps the cleaning fairies will have been out in force and the place will be glistening. Because today is Mother’s Day: the one day women who have reproduced are spared the labour taken for granted on every other day of the year – and expected to be grateful. By the time it comes, I’m just grateful to be given a break from adverts that suggest the best way to reward our Herculean efforts is with a bunch of wilting flowers and a box of Guylian seashells.
On an individual level, Mothering Sunday can be lovely. I look back with fondness to the mid-2000s : the sound of clinking in the kitchen as the children prepared an ad-hoc breakfast, then argued over who was going to carry the tray. The sloppy kisses, the homemade cards, the crumbs in the sheets. Nowadays, my boys don’t haul their carcasses out of bed until noon, but last year they clubbed together to buy me a voucher to a gin-tasting event – a significant improvement on all those “Best Mother in the World” rosettes. And also evidence they’d stopped viewing me as a cipher who lives to serve and recognised me as a person in my own right.
As a measure of how society values us, however, Mother’s Day is both anachronistic and an exercise in cognitive dissonance. The schmaltzy cards that fill the shelves of Clintons and the like are mostly paeans to the Victorian ideal of Motherhood and “female” qualities such as patience, domesticity, nurturing and selflessness. (Though, with their images of DIY and cars and references to role models, Father’s Day cards are little better).
Beyond occasional references to Prosecco, there is little attempt to capture the reality of modern parenting, which is mostly just both partners muddling along as best they can. But there’s an absurdity about being praised for being the kind of mother your children have never known. The year mine send me a card that says: “You are horribly cranky, and your inability to locate your car keys is a constant source of irritation , but we know you have our best interests at heart,” I will cherish it as a statement I can finally relate to.
What I find particularly objectionable about this annual fetishising of mothers is that it bears no relation to their real-world status. Even as they are drowning in a sea of fake blue chrysanthemums, and banners proclaiming their wondrousness are being strung across doorways, they are being short-changed.
Last week, for example, the TUC claimed Britain had the third worst maternity pay in Europe, trailing every country but Ireland and Slovakia. Though new mothers in the UK are entitled to be off work for a year – longer than many other European countries – they only receive six weeks of what the TUC calls “decently paid maternity leave” (two-thirds or more of previous earnings) compared with four months or more in Croatia, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.
In austerity Britain, many single mothers struggle to put food on the table. Their caring work may be heralded as heroic by Hallmark, but is not recognised in financial terms. And the Tory welfare reforms have driven many more into poverty. Meanwhile, the chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, Maria Miller, has suggested men who wanted to be more involved in their children’s care are still too scared to ask for flexible working in case it damages their careers – a problem that adversely affects the lives of both mothers and fathers.
In the US, Mother’s Day isn’t until May. But the Yanks invented it and it is now the third biggest money-spinner after Christmas and Valentine’s Day. Americans spend approximately $2.6 billion on flowers, $1.53bn on pampering gifts, such as spa treatments, and another $68 million on greetings cards.
There, the romanticisation of motherhood is even more pronounced than in the UK. In their book, The Mommy Myth, Sue Douglas and Meredith Michaels coined the term the “new Momism” to describe a sentimental and demanding 21st century view of the role in which the standards for success were impossible to meet. Yet, President Donald Trump and his inner circle seem determined to exclude moms (or indeed any women) from decisions that impact directly on their lives.
The photo of the all-male Freedom Caucus discussing the repeal of Obamacare, which was doing the rounds last week, underlined the contempt his administration has for mothers, and working mothers in particular. Conservative Republicans wanted to stop insurance companies being forced to guarantee cover for pregnancy, maternity and post-natal care in their health plans (although the Republican bill was later pulled due to lack of support).
So while we celebrate Mother’s Day, let’s remember: what modern mothers really need are not trite platitudes, but practical measures to make their lives more manageable. They need more people to acknowledge – as the Duchess of Cambridge did last week – that having children is not always an unalloyed joy; it can strip you of your sense of identity and leave you lacking in confidence. They need a greater awareness of post-natal depression and better access to treatment. And they need more affordable childcare so those who want to work are able to fulfil their professional potential.
Once-a-year tributes to the general loveliness of mothers are all well and good. But – on a societal level, as on a domestic one – they are no substitute for deep-rooted respect and consistent support.