Reconsidering Mother’s Day

As a gestational parent, I am among many who have ambivalent feelings about Mother’s Day.

The issue with this holiday is that it compounds so many things that need to be considered separately. So let’s deconstruct Mother’s Day!

First: the history. The contemporary Mother’s Day holiday was actually established to celebrate feminist activism — specifically, women’s advocacy of peace over war, and the movement for votes for women, which would give these peace advocates a political voice. It arose out of the volunteer work of Victorian women. The Victorians invented the idea of “separate spheres,” where (white) men would work outside the home for pay, and (white) women be confined in the home, to raise children and do domestic labor without pay. Victorian feminists framed their activism as an extension of their vaunted maternal duties, and hence as right and proper. Antifeminists called their activism improper, unwomanly, and disordered. So the idea of making a holiday to celebrate mothers’ volunteer labor was in fact quite political. It was feminist.

But within a few decades of its founding in 1907, the radicalism had been drained from Mother’s Day. It was commercialized, and became a day for giving mothers floral arrangements, jewelry, restaurant meals, and other gifts. By the 1950s, it was a sentimental holiday celebrating stay-at-home motherhood — now something feminists were critiquing.

This remains the case today, but unlike the Victorian era or 1950s, we are not living in an era of separate-spheres binary gender arrangements. Heterosexuality is no longer compulsory. Fathers are now expected to participate in child care. The fact that women in mother/father coparenting couples still do a disproportionate amount of the domestic labor is something that many women have been tearing their hair over during the pandemic. And some parents are trans and/or nonbinary.

So let’s deconstruct what gets celebrated on Mother’s Day into its component parts.

There’s being a gestational parent. Pregnancy is hard work that gets little accommodation in the U.S., and that’s not fair. Giving birth remains dangerous, most especially for marginalized parents. In my home state, Black individuals giving birth are 5 times as likely to die as Anglo white individuals. Latine gestators are 3 times are likely to die giving birth than Anglo white individuals. Pregnant trans men and nonbinary individuals in my state are treated with disdain and incomprehension by medical care providers, which most certainly also increases their risk, although nobody has funded a study of this.

But we should not just focus on the danger of dying as a result of giving birth. Gestational parents make physical sacrifices when they endure pregnancy and labor. As the phrase goes in the world of sport, we “give up the body.” Pelvises can separate, spines can be injured, sacroiliac joints are harmed — and these injuries often result in chronic pain, for years or for life. People endure genital tears, or major surgical wounds, and their healing can be complicated. Stress incontinence can be a lifelong issue.

But an ideology has developed in the contemporary U.S. that to demand recognition and accommodation of the work, exhaustion, pain, nausea, temporary disabilities, and permanent disabilities associated with pregnancy and delivery is a sign of being a bad employee who does not deserve respect, good pay, or promotion. Pregnancy and delivery are treated as private choices which must not impinge on employee duties. Parental leave is treated as a vacation, not as an entitlement to paid sick leave from employers.

In this context, it is important that we have an annual reminder that we should be honoring the risks and pain endured by gestational parents to bring new lives into the world (and not just with cards, but with laws ensuring accommodations). The problem is that some of those who are making sacrifices that go unaccommodated are not mothers. Gestational parents who are not women go largely unrecognized by the medical establishment and by government agencies. And by honoring gestational sacrifice under the rubric of “Mother’s Day,” celebrants validate and participate in this exclusion. Gestators who are men or nonbinary wind up either having our gender identities denied by people sending us “Mother’s Day” cards, or get no recognition of what we have done at all.

Another problem is how honoring the work and the sacrifices of those who bear children gets conflated with so many other things in Mother’s Day.

For example, there’s domestic labor. In the 1950s reconception of Mother’s Day, mothers are framed as “homemakers,” and on this one day a year, father and the children cook the meals, do the grocery shopping, and wash the dishes, to give Mama one day of out 365 as a vacation day. That’s an eyeroller of a number of vacation days for Mother. Now consider today, when the majority of mothers have paid jobs. Unlike their white middle-class counterparts in the 1950s, white middle-class fathers married to women today do a substantial amount of childcare today, changing diapers and giving kids their baths. But the wives of these men today remain responsible for the lion’s share of other domestic chores, like washing and folding laundry, or cleaning the bathroom.

The unwillingness of cis men married to women in the U.S. today to step up and do more manifested during the pandemic in many women becoming unemployed, not because their workplaces shut down, but because schools did, and their husbands simply would not engage in childcare during work hours, or do more chores, even though, with entire families at home for months on end, the amount of dishes and mess went way up. Husbands and employers conceiving of childcare and domestic chores as optional for men and mandatory for women put great pressure on women whose husbands had jobs that paid enough that the family could survive for a time on just his income to leave the workforce and become fulltime housewives. Many were very unhappy about being pushed into a patriarchal family arrangement by husbands who would not step up and share the burden of increased domestic duties.

These gender politics deserve to be seen. And the value of doing domestic labor should be honored. But if we honor them under the rubric of “Mother’s Day,” we wind up naturalizing and supporting an unfair division of labor by binary gender, rather than critiquing this arrangement.

There are also people who are neither mothers nor women who have suffered greatly from this equation of mothering with doing the domestic work. For example, a primary caregiver and domestic laborer may be nonbinary. Or they could be a “standard” cisgender, endosex father who is a single parent. About 1 in 5 single parents today is a man.

Single parenting is always a struggle. During the pandemic, it was a terrible position to be in, as schools and childcare shut down, yet single parents had to work to support their children. And in this case, it was single fathers who were in a particularly poor position, because their status gets treated as incomprehensible by many employers, who refuse to make any accommodation at all for a man’s parenting responsibilities.

Again, by honoring the performance of parenting and domestic labor under the rubric of “Mother’s Day,” we participate in the exclusion and nonrecognition of people like nonbinary parents and single dads.

So: the celebration of “Mother’s Day” is really a celebration of three different things. One is the traditional meaning of the holiday, as a day to honor women’s volunteering and feminist activism. The second is to show respect for the sacrifices made by gestators and caregivers. And the third is to recognize the performance of childcare and domestic labor — the value of that unceasing work that receives neither pay nor employer deference.

My solution to this would be to get rid of Mother’s Day, or that silly holiday, Father’s Day, invented just because men were pouty about women getting a special day with no men’s parallel, and consumer capitalists being in favor of more holidays and more spending.

I’d replace these holidays with a greater number of more specific ones. I’d have a Childbearer’s Day that seeks greater social recognition of the labor performed and sacrifices made by gestators — especially recognition in the form of employer accommodations and paid leave. I’d have a Caregivers’ Day, to recognize the labor of childrearing, and not act as if bringing children into the world marks the end of the sacrifices required to raise them. And I’d have a Domestic Labor Day, where we all march to call for the recognition of this work, and for it to be performed equitably. None of these holidays would be gendered, so that parents of all genders who gestate, raise children, and do domestic labor would be honored. And then I’d have one gendered holiday, to restore the original intent of the Victorian founders of “Mother’s Day,” which was to celebrate women’s activism. I was thinking International Women’s Day might serve, but it is evolving into another trite Mother’s Day-style holiday of posting pictures of flowers. There’s a Women’s Equality Day that celebrates the day the 19th Amendment gave women in the U.S. the vote, but that is kind of narrow, and makes it seem like the need for feminism ended in 1920. So I suppose it’s best to just be straightforward, and call it Feminism Day.

Instead of one holiday, I present you with four! Deconstruction is festive.

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Sociology professor, intersex and trans advocate, scholar studying intersectional identity and the body, gendernaut. He/him or ze/zim. Cheers!

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Cary Gabriel Costello

Cary Gabriel Costello

Sociology professor, intersex and trans advocate, scholar studying intersectional identity and the body, gendernaut. He/him or ze/zim. Cheers!

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