It's Mother's Day in a minute, and searching the racks of cards for the occasion got me wondering who so many of the cards are for? The cards that address a woman who has both given birth to the card-giver and become their best friend. Or the cards that suggest their mother was their inspiration for absolutely everything.
I love my mother. Seriously, I do. And we are people who live differently from one another in ways that make the best friend and nexus-of-inspiration things unimaginable. The feelings I have when I look at these racks of cards is similar to the one I have when I look too long at Instagram. I find myself imagining a "better" picture of various pieces of my life, thinking about the ways it didn't go for me and the things I didn't get (like that best friend mom). Yes, I am aware of all the blank cards out there and the ones that simply say "Happy Mother's Day," but the rub here is more that I don't see my experience reflected on the racks. So when I saw a card that said, "Thanks for helping me grow," it felt like the ideal opening for thanking my mother for something I did get from her.
I suppose the cards wouldn't bother me if I weren't a stickler about only saying things I honestly mean, and I am particularly serious about this practice of truthfulness in my written correspondence. In that way, I approach Mother's Day cards with a wanting to be adoring and honest which proves trickier than it seems it should. Some of you may think I'm being overly earnest about a Hallmark holiday, but I can explain. The past 18 months I've been preoccupied with conversations about women's rights, feminism, and–in my little corner of the world–menopause. I've been marching for women, donating to Planned Parenthood, and penning a guidebook for women curious about menopause. All of these things have coalesced around the question of what does it mean to me to be a woman. Considering this question has made me think about being a mother (often women are defined by their reproductive potential), which I did not opt to do, and that makes me think a lot about my mother...
Let me begin by saying that my mother enjoys being around kids, they crack her up and seem to renew her sense of optimism and wonder. I believe she would have loved to have grandchildren. And yet, for as long as I can remember being aware of the possibility that I could get pregnant, that awareness is accompanied by memories of my mother saying that if I ever did get pregnant and did not want the baby, that I should have an abortion or give the baby up for adoption. I even remember her explicitly saying that she would never want my sister or me to have children for her.
As a result, I grew up with the worldview that a woman's choice to have or not have children was hers and only hers. Thank You, Mom.
My sister and I were conditioned to believe that we should not have children if we didn't want them. That may not sound like much, but we're talking about children here, not popsicles. No one gives a shit if I do or don't have a popsicle, but I've noticed people do seem to be invested in whether or not I have a baby. "You don't have both feet in life until you have kids, " one male colleague said to me. "Oh, but you would be such a great mother," is something I've heard from a number of people. Then there's my favorite, "I'd just hate for you to regret not having them." (Thanks?) And these are just the people talking directly to me, never mind the pervasive cultural programming that presumes kids is where I'm headed or have already been.
In encouraging me to make a choice that was right and true for me about having children, my mom let me know that I was not on the hook in any way for her getting what she wanted. It feels important to point out that this feeling of not letting her down didn't spread across all areas of my life. My mother expressed distaste for plenty of decisions I made–fair enough. In some of these instances I suspected that she hoped her upset might cause me to reconsider my choices like when I traveled to faraway places or moved across the country. There were the requisite 'I told you so' moments about boyfriends she never liked or jobs she didn't understand. BUT, never so much as a peep about me becoming a mother. Never. Not even once I was married. And not even when my husband and I were living in a three-bedroom home in a residential neighborhood. I find this amazing and even somewhat refreshing.
I have only been inspired to look deeply into the question of why I don't want children a handful of times. None of those inquiries yielded anything juicier than a simple, "I just know that I don't." NPR talk show host Terry Gross once said that she and her husband never felt called to have children and that kind of sums it up for me too. No one is more surprised than me, being the infinitely curious person I am that I've been willing to let this inquiry rest in relative ambiguity. I credit my mother for this. She set me up to confidently make a decision for myself in an area of my life where women rarely feel free from expectations. I am sad that my mom didn't get to be a grandmother and I don't feel the guilt of responsibility for that reality. This paradox strikes me as nothing short of miraculous.
I did not decide to have children–I'm thankful I live in a time and place where that's an available choice–but I did decide to love and relate to people in my life in the way my mom related to me about having kids. Freedom as a foundational value in relationships is a concept I first learned from her. In my marriage, this looks like me being more committed to my husband and I being our full selves than to our relationship staying the same (or even intact) forever. In my professional life, this has looked like me repeatedly telling employees that the only way they could disappoint me would be to keep working for me after they no longer wanted to. And with friends, this looks like me being supportive even when what they're doing is sad or confusing to me, like moving to a faraway place or in a radical direction.
Relationships, where people love one another in this way, are the most generous and stable relationships I know. Selfless and selfish at once, the happiness or dissatisfaction of one partner in the relationship never rests on the shoulders of the other. In this way, though my mother wasn't my inspiration for everything nor my best friend, she was my inspiration for my best relationships. And that is a message I hope to find in a Mother's Day card someday–for myself, of course–and also because that card's existence would let me know that my sister and I aren't the only ones lucky enough to have a mom like ours.