Although I’m a stand-up comic, I rarely post jokes on Facebook. It’s such an odd amalgam of people I know from different venues, whereas on Twitter people follow me for my sass. But Mother’s Day inspired me to test a joke I knew would connect better with the fellow moms in my life, most of whom don’t Tweet. So I got on my Facebook and posted the status, “It's like the thing now that on Mother's Day we thank all types of women including women who don't want kids, and my heart's like, You go, girl!! but my stretch marks are like, Get your own day, bitch.”
The likes flowed in. It was a catharsis. Yes, we all secretly feel this! A subtle annoyance at our own fear that if we don’t use this platform to validate every kind of life a female chooses to have, we’re bad women and bad feminists. And we feel the other way too – eager to assure our child-free sisters that we don’t think we’re better than them and that we honor their choices, their struggles, and their contributions.
But it’s almost hilariously fitting that Mother’s Day is the one holiday everyone feels entitled to divvy up and redistribute, effectively canceling it out. So many moms serve others out of their own bowl. You can almost hear the transcendent goddess-energy cooing, “Oh, you got me a cookie? Thank you! Oh what’s that, you want some of my cookie? Sure, have as much as you like. I was going to enjoy it too much anyway and that always makes me feel guilty. Thanks for eating my cookie!!”
As my sister-in-law observed, no one feels the need to shout out to all men on Father’s Day. So what’s with the double standard? Is it because we still see men as individuals, but women as wombs with faces? Before I became a mom, I always bristled at congratulations directed to me on Mother’s Day. The implication – that being a woman is interchangeable with being a parent – felt insulting both to the hard work mothers do and to my choice not to do it.
Perhaps it’s simply that women's decision to neither have kids nor enter a convent is still fairly new, as is the ability to even make that choice as a sexually active person. Women who choose not to have kids get second-guessed, guilted, and warned of hypothetical regrets. In other words, their judgment is frequently insulted – something all moms can relate to. In this light, it’s understandable that Mother’s Day triggers defensiveness.
It wasn’t long before one such woman jumped onto the comment chain of my cheeky status to angrily complain that women without children will never get paid maternity leave, an observation so obvious it confused all who read it.
"Why would anyone without children need maternity leave?" I asked.
“I need it for myself,” she replied, “because I am my only caretaker. Besides, I am sick of working for mothers who take three months paid leave. I’d much rather have kids and take those days off.”
You can imagine – can’t you? can't you?? – the explosion of brains heard around my timeline. I practically had to wipe my frontal cortex off the inside of my skull like the splatter of a newborn blow-out. I agree that all Americans should have more time for self care, but she wants some special reward for being a functional adult who goes to work? As Don Draper once said, “That’s what the money is for!”
A flurry of us responded with rightful indignation, but the “friend” in question refused to concede, only lobbing Trump-level insults as her defense. She could not comprehend our frustration and, frankly, neither could we. How is it possible that any supposedly educated adult, even the caricature of privilege whining on my wall, could be so ignorant? Why, on top of everything mothers do, must we in 2017 explain basic concepts of human reality, like why maternity leave is necessary and how it’s different from vacation, or that raising a child is not even on the same planet as training a dog?
Pregnancy and childrearing are such important and layered aspects of the human experience, but we don’t interrogate the concept of women-and-birth with a seriousness comparable to our obsession with men-and-death. Men in war, men in school, men in the woods, men doing drugs, men hopping trains, men getting laid, men starting companies, men holding office, men opening their mouths for any reason – in all these things, we appreciate the effects on our shared consciousness, and our culture tends to look as deeply as it can. But when it comes to asking, “How did we get here?” it’s as though we don’t want to know even the basics. That’s the only way I can explain this woman’s voluntary blind spot.
Our lack of attention to the art and necessity of nurturing are due perhaps to the way we brand them as “instinctual.” Women do it automatically, we say, thus it needn’t be compensated. We call mothers “maternal,” not talented, not resourceful, not self-taught. We say, “Well it’s your choice to have kids,” as though that explains why a mother’s time is valued in negative dollars. Do we say this to women who choose to be scientists, that they should just be grateful to be doing what they want with their lives, and should get a second job or find a husband to pay the bills?
The difference is that we see the value of a scientist’s contributions. A mother’s contributions are largely invisible, especially outside the home. Which is, at least in theory, what Mother’s Day’s meant to correct. It’s one day a year (and a Sunday at that, because taking an actual day off would spoil us!) where we acknowledge that the work of a mother has real value. We reflect on the fact that not only is she not paid for her sacrifices, she actually pays for them (with real money, as well as with sleep, sex, friendships, career opportunities, and often her own bodily functions). All to (hopefully) raise independent, well-adjusted, future taxpayers to one day care for us all.
So mothers, I encourage you to be a little selfish with your Mother’s Days. Keep them sacred, don’t just post a generic hat tip to half the world (that’s what International Women’s Day is for), really reach out to the moms in your life and make them feel seen and applauded. You know they need it.
To the women without kids, whether by choice or circumstance, please understand that this isn’t a slight. You are also loved and needed, and neither your hard work nor your private pain is abstract to us – we’re all juggling some version of these things. But the commitment a mother makes and the risks she takes are a unique labor that goes largely unrecognized and unpaid. We can all spare one day a year to tell our mothers “thank you.”