MOTHER’S DAY, IN ITS INSISTENCE ON SENTIMENT, BIOLOGY, AND CONSUMERISM, HAS ALWAYS DIMINISHED MOTHERING.
AND IT’S ALWAYS BEEN CRUEL TO MANY AND REDUCTIVE TO ALL.
THIS YEAR, CORONAVIRUS OFFERS US (IRONICALLY) A CHANCE TO DO BETTER.
DEPENDING ON THE TENOR OF THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN YOU AND YOUR MOTHER, “SOCIAL DISTANCING” WILL REQUIRE AT THE LEAST A CHANGE OF PLANS.
BUT AT THE MOST, IT OFFERS AN OPPORTUNITY FOR A MAJOR RETHINK.
FOR MOTHERING HAS ALWAYS BEEN MUCH BIGGER THAN MOTHERHOOD.
AND IT TRANSCENDS REPRODUCTION. EVEN GENDER.
Being a mother, and having a mother, even when it works beautifully, even in times of general robust public health and political stability, is never as simple as a mug saying “world’s best mom.” Mother’s Day, as practiced in our consumerist world, enshrines sentiment and simplification.
We demean motherhood’s complexity and challenges by simplifying and sentimentalizing it.
And the coronavirus crisis, I think, amps this up.
Best case: you love your mother and she loves you. And/or, you love your daughter and she loves you. There’s little or no ambivalence. And everyone’s in good health.
But while you may celebrate this great good and rare fortune, perhaps with even more gratitude than usual, at the very least you probably can’t do that celebrating in your usual, traditional manner.
You probably can’t have a party, at her house or yours, with or without all the other siblings, assuming they, too, get along with each other and your mother. Your sister Jessie always brings your mother’s favorite lemon coconut cake, while Rosalie does the flowers … but not this year.
You can’t go out to brunch (a pause for peripheral grief for the restaurant business at this time, for whom there is no ventilator adequate for the vast majority of this industry’s life-support through the crisis; Mother’s Day is the single busiest day of the year for restaurants).
You can’t send flowers, because with that azalea bush, you are sending your loved ones exposure to individuals who, besides being someone else’s loved ones, are also, tragically, possible disease vectors (another pause for peripheral grief: that we are forced to see our fellow human beings in such terms as “disease vectors”; and that those who deliver food, mail and other staples far more essential than Mother’s Day bouquets or miniature rose bushes, are putting their lives on an incrementally more tenuous status with each doorbell they ring).
You can’t even send a traditional card; at least, not without thinking twice. Lick the envelope? Nope, best not. Drop off at the post office? Not without mask and glove.
Still. If you are lucky enough to have an uncomplicated and loving relationship with your mother or daughter, and possibly siblings, and you are all healthy, count yourself fortunate and have a happy Mother’s Day via Zoom.
But then there are the rest of us.
There are those of us not merely inconvenienced by, but directly ripped apart, by the pandemic.
71,065: that is the number of Americans who, on the day I write these words, have died of Covid-19. Worldwide, 253,000. Each of those deaths had an individual life attached to it.
And some of those people were mothers.
Let us say that your mother has tested positive. Let us hope she is in the majority who had few symptoms, or sickened but recovered. Let us hope this is behind her, and you, by now. But if you, and/or she is in the middle of it, let us hope to God she is not in a nursing home, long-term care facility, or prison (another pause for peripheral grief, for reasons that should need no explaining).
Let us hope that she is self-quarantining, with someone who is capable of helping her with both meticulousness (on the medical side) and kindness, even love.
Or, that if she is in a hospital, a good one, she is getting the care she needs. Though even the good hospitals are terrifying at the moment (another pause for peripheral grief: that with all the gratitude we have for nurses, doctors, PAs, and health-care providers, we seem as a society to be unable to do much about protecting them from the disease they are waging war against on our behalf; the belief-defying cruel and erratic parsing out of gloves, masks, gowns, and equipment by an erratic, vindictive, ill-prepared, and dysfunctional federal government).
And let us say we are, again, lucky enough that though she is sick, we have a loving and relatively sane, unambivalent relationship with her.
But this is a virus that is sometimes deadly. And we cannot be with her or hold her hand.
Or even see her, except through intermediaries: Facetime, or Zoom; glass. It’s moving to witness these scenes on the news or YouTube videos: the loyal daughter (or husband, or friend) standing on the other side of a window, holding signs and flowers and balloons. But let us drop the “Awwww,” at what we are seeing and call this legitimate sweetness what it also is: tragic.
If this turns out to be her end, her end, we will have been denied our last chance to express love. Denied the comfort and closure of being with her when she or he left this world.
And what if this person on the other side of the screen or glass, the individual who escorted us into this world, what if your relationship with her is less than ideal?
At a time of desperate illness and brokenness, even the imagined last chances-to-get-it-right is denied us.
Here lies the general cruelty of Mother’s Day, only with the volume turned up.
Everyone who has a mother, and who doesn’t die young, will someday have a motherless Mother’s Day. This will be my seventh.
Loss. The nature of life is, you seem to get given things — not just objects but people, not just people but feelings for them. But these turn out not to be gifts. They are loans, as Covid-19 is again teaching us.
Our lives, the lives of everyone and everything we love: loans. Our mothers — good, bad, and indifferent (and of course mothers come in all these flavors and countless others) — are loans. Not permanent endowments.
No telling when these loans’ll be called in, or how. The most profound losses are unscheduled. An opaque curtain hangs between us and our future, always, for which I am glad.
But one thing is certain: whatever our future is, it always includes loss.
I’ve lost some people I love suddenly – to accident, suicide, out-of-the-blue cardiac arrest. I’ve lost other people I love gradually: to old age and decline, a predictable cessation (though never predictable as to precise timing).
But I have never lost someone in a mass death — a shooting, a terroristic act, a war, or a pandemic. Where the private, primal depth of grief must be shared with many. Where it must be even more impossible to find a “why” than usual.
As the one left behind here on earth (for now, at least) when people I love, including my mother, have moved on, I can tell you this: gradual loss is easier for the person left behind. Or so it has been for me. Tears are spread out over time.
But what about in a time of mass death, from an indiscriminate, in a sense innocent virus?
I have no idea. I suspect, in the months and years to come, we will all learn more about this than we would have wished.
I keep asking myself, what if this had happened when Charlotte was alive? What if I couldn’t get to her for weeks on end, not and protect her or myself? She was not, in those last years, in a state where I could have explained “pandemic” to her. That may be one reason why the images of children holding up signs through the windows to loved relatives wipe me out so much.
I know, for instance, how the smaller losses can hot you hardest.
How I wept when my late mother’s caregivers told me she could no longer eat solid food! Now, mind you, my mother was 97 at the time, and it didn’t bother her in the least. She was happy with purees and smoothies; they were much easier for her than solid food, and she slurped them up through the straws with many enthusiastic “Mmms!”
But for me?
Remembering making veal scallopini with her in the kitchen when I was a child, carefully patting the seasoned flour into the flattened veal (she pounded it first, with a special hammer! How amazing was this to me as an attentively watching 6-year-old!) and handing each piece to her to be browned in the sizzling butter.
Remembering going into the city of New York, where she worked, when I was a teenager, to meet her for lunch and walk four blocks to the Indian restaurant where the grains of the rice pilaf were distinctly orange-red and yellow, like confetti.
Remembering our many later-life meals out, and the verbal dyslexia that made her, charmingly and unintentionally, say “I’ll have a shangri-la” when she meant “sangria” (and being oh so careful not to laugh, which would have given great offense)…
To see this woman, the mother with whom I had shared so many adventures around food and eating, reduced to sucking smoothies through a straw… well, I went upstairs, to the bedroom which had once been hers but was now mine, she having been reduced also to living downstairs, on one stair-free level — I went upstairs and cried on and off for the better part of an afternoon.
Yet, I think now those tears were a down-payment on the final grief. Knowing we would share no more meals anticipated the final loss, which, when it came, was less violent than the sudden losses of those others I’d loved.
And I think now, what if coronavirus had meant I was not able to be there, to go upstairs and weep those tears?
The gradual process feels natural, more comprehensible. You have time to get used to the coming separation, sort of, by degrees. This over-time grief-grappling is preventive, a flowing brook which sometimes swells to a river, but is never, as with sudden death, a tsunami on an ordinary day at the beach, sweeping away within minutes first beach umbrellas, then cabanas, sunbathers, toddlers with pails and shovels — then everything familiar.
I’ll take gradual letting go to sudden desolation any time. As if any of us is ever offered the choice. Did any of us, as we rang in 2020, imagine how drastically and abruptly our lives would change?
Though, as many will remind you, that no matter how loss visits you, “It’s never easy.”
THE MOTHERS WE LOST… AND THOSE WE NEVER HAD
If you don’t already, you will have a motherless Mother’s Day eventually if you take “mother” to mean your literal embodied mother, the physical being who raised you and who (unless you were adopted, created with a surrogate, or raised by a stepmother or single dad) grew you in her own body.
For that mother, like all of us, arrives, is here for awhile, and leaves.
This, as I said, is my seventh motherless Mother’s Day, in this literal sense. But I am not a literalist.
What I loved about my mother, the writer Charlotte Zolotow, remains with me forever in memory. In this sense, not the looking-down-from-heaven sense, she is always with me.
And what I did not love about her, what was difficult for many of the years of our relationship, though not at the end, is not just forgiven but has proven so useful to me in coming to understand myself (as well as grow in the craft she and I shared; writing). Who she was inheres in what and who I am. I now value the once-tough parts of our loving with as much gratitude as the tenderness.
If the pandemic or anything else had prevented my making peace with her in our last few years, the entire remainder of my life, and me, myself, living that life, would have been utterly different.
HEARTLESS & EXCESSIVE SENTIMENT
But even when Charlotte was alive, I had problems with Mother’s Day. It seemed to me excessively sentimental and excessively biological.
What, after all (unless you have fertility problems) is easier than breeding?
Reptiles breed. Cats have kittens, squirrels have baby squirrels. I can’t enshrine an act of biology in itself as having automatic meaning and conferring automatic love. Only some human beings — by no means all — who have babies, actually love and do right by those babies.
Some mothers are simply not very interested in their children. Some couldn’t care less. Some are interested only in how their offspring reflect on them. Some mothers will always celebrate the mean-spirited son who is an attorney more than the son who is a gentle house-painter. Or the other way around.
(In Carolyn See’s book Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers, she suggests that one quickly make a list of the ten most important people in one’s life, “without thinking about it, or trying to make a good impression… without getting fancy about it.” She then makes such a list. And who’s number one? “1. My mother. She was beautiful and funny and she never loved me. In fact, she couldn’t stand me.” Writers are in this sense lucky; difficult people in one’s life, including mothers, often make for excellent material.)
But I digress. My point is, meaning and love come, if they do, not with the act of giving birth, but with the acts, plural and endless, of mothering.
THE MOTHERS WE FIND AND HAVE… WHO MAY NOT BE OUR MOTHERS
Nurturing and nourishing, protecting, encouraging, growing, loving, introducing, educating, listening, of being present as long and in as many dimensions as possible. These are the aspects, I believe, that can be called “mothering”, and I do not think they develop inherently, or exclusively, in the act of giving birth.
I think of mothering, too, as knowing when to let go and leave alone. Of loving that small, then larger, then eventually adult person who came through your portals to be the individual he or she is, separate from your dreams for him or her.
Part of a parent’s job description, I believe, must be to plan for that job’s obsolescence.
This kind of mothering has little to do with biology, a process which goes on more or less on its own (viable sperm, fertile egg, timing, contact, bang: the species reproduces).
Of course biology does gives most mammalian parents an attachment to their offspring, but this is not true mothering. True human mothering requires endless choices, active participation, judgment calls, compassion without end.
In my view, there are three important points about mothering:
1. Everyone and everything needs it, and can in most cases benefit from both receiving and giving it. And…
2. You don’t have to have given birth to do it. Heck, you don’t even have to be female! And…
3. When it comes to this expanded view, why limit recognition to one day? This is the same aggravation I have about Earth Day: what, do we live on Jupiter the other 364 days of the year? Surely the vastness of what mothering brings deserves more than brunch and a bouquet of flowers once a year.
Perhaps Covid-19 and the crises it has brought to us, individually and collectively, will allow us to honor nurturance more holistically and truly: to respect it and those who do it, on a daily basis. (I never would have thought of, say, the person who rungs up my groceries as inherently nurturing me. But look at the tasks of all those we are now deeming “essential workers.” In a truly expanded sense, each of them “mothers” the rest of us.)
Perhaps one reason I feel this so keenly, one reason why sentimental Mother’s Day-ism makes me break out in a rash, is because I don’t participate in the other side of the equation. I never had children; I was biologically unable to do so (why? Google ‘Dalkon Shield’).
Yet: I worked as a visiting writer in the schools for decades; still do, occasionally. I have written more than 25 children’s books. I am a generous, eccentric, sort of Auntie Mame-ish “Cres-Aunt” to many of my friends’ children. When I was sixteen and living on my own, I took in a street kid named Donald, the young child of feckless hippies — a perfect example of the point that breeding-is-not-mothering — and lived with him for eight or nine months (a story told in my novel To Take a Dare).
And in the last decade of my mother’s life (which ended on November 19, 2013, when she was 98 years old and I 60) I spent increasingly large amounts of time with her, and, I believe, mothered her (an extraordinary journey, stories of which I have written both here and on Facebook).
Then there is my work as a small-scale environmentalist, my wholly inadequate but persistent attempts to make choices and act in a manner which protects and nurtures our planet, so often called Mother Earth (though, if one is going to be parental and anthropomorphic about it, I think Mother-Father Earth would be more accurate — which dittos my view on God: if He exists as such, surely He is She as much as He… but, again, I digress).
I look at all this and I sometimes think, reprising Sojourner Truth, “And ain’t I a mother?”
I am far from alone in posing this question.
BEING MOTHERED BY NON-MOTHERS
Then I think of the childless women who shaped my life and indulged me in various acts of mothering.
My Aunt Dot, glamorous, generous, proper in an eccentric fashion (I used to say she was the white sheep of the family, though as she aged she turned out to be as black as the rest of us), who not only took me to the requisite Disneyland, but to plays, ballet, and the Greek Games at Hunter College.
Miss Kay, the neighbor (a retired teacher) who taught me to cook and instilled a love of baking that lasts to this day; who was the first person I knew who raised a garden from which you could actually eat (corn on the cob! fresh raspberries!), and with whom I lived for a month when I was eight, while my parents went to Europe.
Virginia Carey, 76 years old to my then-18, my mentor in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, with whom I drank tea in impossibly delicate Japanese china cups (“We’re going to be ladies if it kills us,” she announced to me the first time she put such a cup in front of me, reading on my face my horror that I might shatter it.)
Elsie Freund, another Arkansas mentor, a painter, jewelry designer, and peace activist, who taught me, among other things, to, “Stay fluid,” as she once forcefully directed me, when she saw me crying about her and her husband, the painter and WPA artist Louis Freund, leaving Eureka to move into assisted living.
For that matter, I think of Louis, and my late father, Maurice Zolotow, and my friend George West, and my late, extraordinarily sweet husband Ned Shank.
I think of the poet Miller Williams, whose generosity as a person, a writing mentor, and a writer, blessed my life in these three ways, and continues to even though he has vacated the earth.
Here is a poem of his, read aloud at his memorial:
When I Am Dead, My Dearest
Sing what you want to sing. Theologize.
Let anyone who wants to lie tell lies.
What will I care, back in the past tense
with no ambition and not a gram of sense,
back where I was before a fear and a wish
joined to form a sort of finless fish
that learned to walk and have lips and smile?
I will go there to wait an endless while,
and neither think that wrong nor wish it right,
more than a rock in darkness hopes for light.
You will say my name, but less with years,
the children less than you and more than theirs.
It’s mostly our names, as they fray and thin,
blown on the breaths of aging friends and kin,
that in some tugging moments we may seem
to sleep on a little past the dream.
I think of Mark Graff, to whom I am now married: his astounding patience, gentleness and compassion, not only to me but to his four children (all of whom are adults, two just barely) as well as the woman with whom he shared much of his life. Losing her life by degrees to a physically and cognitively degenerative disease, he cared for her with utmost scrupulous tenderness… and gave up a White House job offer, in the Bush era, to do it.
I think of Tim, the 40-ish man I met recently in a writing workshop, who works in the schools, and always wanted to be a father — so much that he adopted six, yes six, children of assorted races and ethnicities whose mothers (and fathers) didn’t want them.
And Tim adores those kids — he could hardly stop talking about them during breaks, and showed us pictures.
And that workshop had been the first time he had been away from them for an overnight in years (his partner was with them).
I think most especially and profoundly of my spiritual mentor, who would not care to have his name mentioned. (He told me once, though, when I asked how I could go through life and not acknowledge what had so fundamentally been given me, “You may say that there is … someone.”)
All biologically male, these human beings poured acts of profound nurturing on others; and in every case except Tim’s, on me.
They each mothered, and in the case of those still resident in this world, are still mothering.
And now, in another way, I see that the world is full in an expanded sense, of those who do some of the work of mothering: those we have now tagged “essential workers.” Those who are sewing masks on home sewing machines, or, themselves masked, making or delivering meals in their communities.
REVERSING MOTHER’S DAY’S UNINTENTIONAL CRUELTY
Mother’s Day, in its insistence on biology and sentiment, is cruel to many.
Cruel to those whose mothers died young. Or those who had mothers they never knew.
Cruel to those who were lucky enough to have had mothers who were both biological and nurturing, but are now dead.
Cruel to those whose mothers were not remotely cut out for the job, those who live with this consequences of this. (My friend CJ, when she was very young, was used by her mother as bait for her mother’s pedophile boyfriends. Just before her death, CJ’s mother apologized, just once, explicitly. By then CJ was not only adult, but the faithful caregiver of this dangerous, difficult mother, a thankless job she did for years. Well, at least her mom did apologize, once. But that still leaves CJ with a lot to deal with; how could it not?).
Cruel to every woman who wants to, but is not able to, have children. Cruel to those who have had miscarriage after miscarriage, or numerous IVF attempts that failed.
Cruel to those whose mothers, or children, are in prison.
Cruel to those who came as a family to America in search of the shining beacon of possibility and freedom that had always illuminated this country, an illumination now gone dark in the insanely, irrationally punitive racism-based anti-immigrant separation policies of the present administration.
Cruel to those who spend much energy in nurturing others — mothering in the true sense — but are not biological mothers.
HOW WE HEAL, AND WHAT CAN WE DO NOW
Yet by thinking of and acting on mothering in this larger sense, we ourselves nurture and heal.
- To those whose mothers are no longer in this world, we can say, “I’m sorry,” and “Remember her with me, tell me what you loved about her, and what drove you crazy.”Allow dimension in that remembering; it is so much larger than sentiment (so one-sided, so reductive).
2. To those whose mothers are still in this world but not remotely cut out for the job, and who live with the consequences, we can also say, “I’m sorry,” and “Remember her with me. If you recount crimes, I will not flinch or censure. Tell me what you longed for, and in what ways, if any, you were able to love each other.”
3. To every woman who wants to, but is not able to, have children, to those who have had repeated miscarriages, we can say, again. “I’m sorry.” And, “Would you like to take a walk?” And, “If you want to talk, I would be honored to listen.”
Things not to say in this case:
“Have you considered adoption?” (Duh.)
“Well, then God must have other plans for you.” (And did God text you that information? Everyone who would console another person ought to keep their theology to themselves.)
4. To those of us who spend much of our lives and energies in what can be called mothering, but are not mothers, acknowledgement. (I must add here, that though I have been on this tear about Mother’s Day for years, and every single one of my friends and former partners knows how I feet about it, only Mark had the empathy and kindness to send me, a non-mother who does her damnedest to nurture whenever possible, to actually send me flowers on, you guessed it, Mother’s Day. In my view, in its nurturance and kindness, itself an act of mothering!
5. And, right now, in the time of coronavirus, we can also step up in present time.
We can offer what seems to need offering and what is in our capacity to offer.
We can, at a minimum, maintain social distance to protect the health of others; we can stay home whenever possible. We can donate money, sew masks, make meals or deliver food or say to our neighbors, “Hey, I’m going to the supermarket, what can I pick up for you?”
If we have a talent or gift, perhaps we can find a way to translate it into some kind of offering online. (This is what I am doing with nightly readings of children’s books — my own and those written by my late mother. I have been doing this since March 21, at 6 PM Central, as Facebook Lives. Just go to Crescent Dragonwagon’s Writing, Cooking, and Workshops, scroll down to videos, and there you will see many, many of our books, along with nightly discussions. You’ll also get to meet Mark Graff, who is providing “text support”).
As I say every year around this time, nix Mother’s Day. Nix the mother part. Nix the day part. Nix the consumerism, the sentimentality.
Love, and live that love, transcending biology.
Nurture, and be nurtured, every day. Exchange annual for eternal.
Compost, and nurture the earth.
Listen to, and feed, not only your children and your friends, and not only literally (with birthday cakes and soup), but strangers, figuratively (with kindness, with simply seeing them): like the tech support guy in Bangalore helping you with the installation of something or other on your laptop, to whom your kind word, acknowledging him as a fellow human being, may change if not his life than a few hours of it.
Be kind, in the most practical, compassionate way you know how, in mothering yourselves and others in the face of an illness that threatens us all.
When we enlarge our understanding of mothering, we bring wholeness to ourselves. Even in these shadowed, frightening times, we may even help heal the world just a little.
Mothering, and being mothered, in this largest sense, assures that not only will we “… in some tugging moments seem / to sleep on a little past the dream” but that, during this brief waking dream called life, a dream so clearly under threat from a virus we did not see coming, we may become all the more fully awake.
This post was substantially rewritten in 2020 to reflect the Covid-19 reality.
Although not directly about writing, it is part of Crescent Dragonwagon’s Nothing Is Wasted on the Writer blog series. It does illustrate the way that even, maybe especially, something which is difficult or makes a writer uncomfortable can be used as material, and thus not wasted.
Dragonwagon’s mother, Charlotte Zolotow, was a renowned children’s book writer and editor. CD now serves as her literary executor, an experience she has written about here. Below, a Crescent-and-Charlotte food-celebrating picture.
Lastly, one more illustration relevant to mothering: a collage piece entitled “Struggle Mother”, by the artist Hawa Diallo, who began developing her artistic gift while she was a caregiver to Zolotow. To read about the relationship that developed between Hawa, Charlotte, and Crescent, click here to read an article which appeared in O, the Oprah Magazine. The story shows clearly how love, and mothering, transcend biology; these three women, in different ways, mothered each other.