Remembering that mothers are people, too

Happy Mother’s Day to all who have bravely chosen to love beyond their wildest imaginations.

On Mother’s Day, we revere mothers and mothering the way Hallmark and the likes of Norman Rockwell depict it … the way our American culture expects mothers to be — pure, nurturing, self-sacrificing, perpetually patient, hardworking, etc.

But how do we revere and respect mothers the other 364 days of the year?

As a young bride, I wanted nothing more than to become a mother, for all the wrong reasons. I was the product of what would clinically be described as a dysfunctional family. I wanted someone who would have to love me and whom I could love back. I knew nothing of mothering or what it would require of me. So, at 22, I got pregnant instantly, singing to the heavens with joy and gratitude that my wish was fulfilled.

The moment I came home from the birthing hospital to my husband’s and my one-bedroom apartment, my parents who were supposed to stick around to help me adjust, informed me they were leaving immediately. They’d had a fight with my husband and couldn’t stay.

At the same moment, my husband said farewell and headed off to work. I sat on our ratty little couch, alone, holding this tiny, 7-pound human, sobbing. I held his tiny hands, recounted all his fingers and toes, gazed into his helpless eyes, and decided my life was over because I had to be responsible for his life.

We sat there crying together until I realized he was hungry. And I was still trying to figure out breastfeeding, which was considered radical at the time — along with the natural childbirth I had practiced. I was doing all I could think of to bring a healthy human into what was now our “family.” But how to keep him that way?

Weeks passed. I found a kindly young mom neighbor, to help me figure out how to bathe the baby, feed, clothe, and anticipate his every need. From the start, it was clear that mothering was my job and mine alone. I felt the weight of that Rockwell-esque maternal halo and I did not feel up to the task of keeping it on straight.

His dad liked playing with the baby and showing him off to visitors. But bathing the infant or changing a diaper terrified him. The one Saturday I got out of the house with my sister, I came home to find him up to his elbows in poopy diapers as he stood over the laughing baby boy, who pointedly peed in his face one more time, just as I arrived.

Over the next few years, I got better at mothering — even loved it enough to have a second baby boy. But, when I had the audacity to begin building my own life, I joined the ranks of single mothers with all the attendant complications of poverty, pressure, and societal recriminations. Single moms at that time were bad credit risks, so renting a home or buying a car had extra challenges. I remember one landlord who raised the rent every month I refused to sleep with him … just because, you know, single mothers are desperate for sex no matter how awful it might be. And mine was not a unique experience.

Where was the Hallmark reverence for motherhood then? Where is it now for women who are mothers, single or not? Our culture reviles those moms whose children turn out less than perfect. After all, it’s the quality of mothering that makes or breaks every child. Right? We imprison mothers who crack under the pressure of social neglect before we even consider providing preventive support.

Our culture blames primarily mothers for every personality flaw in their offspring. Never mind that child-rearing is not a one-person or even a two-person job. But it’s easier, and cheaper to foist all child-rearing obligations onto one or two people. That way, the village at large and the government get to abdicate all responsibility for the welfare of families.

And what about those folks who insist on forcing women, single or otherwise, to have babies whether they want them or can afford to raise them? I don’t see any of those people offering to pay for childcare, education, health care, food, or shelter for those children they’ve forced into lives of poverty, pernicious stress, and possibly abandonment.

Pro-life? Only when it concerns the sacredness of sperm. But when a mother suffers the unbearable anguish of watching her child gunned down by an AR-15, or when she witnesses her child’s imprisonment or execution because he/she didn’t have the money for a good lawyer or a decent education, or when she asks for welfare to feed her family, society forsakes her and her children. That’s when mothers are stamped as lazy or loose.

It’s easier for society to brand mothers with those labels than to truly respect and support healthy parenting by truly respecting and supporting mothers 365 days of the year. It’s the American way.

So…Happy Mother’s Day to all those mostly women who have bravely chosen to love beyond their wildest imaginations, no matter how they’ve expressed it or woven children into their lives. Please do send them flowers. And, as you do, try to remember that they all started out as girls with dreams that may or may not have included motherhood. As you praise her mothering, try to see the fullness of that person, and praise her humanity.

Postscript: I am endlessly grateful for my children and for the fact that, despite my inability to hang onto that maternal halo, they’ve grown into smart, kind, creative and loving humans. Lucky me!

Susan McCabe, an island writer, first published this essay on her Substack page, titled “Hot Flashes Cold Showers.”