Skip to content

More Than Mother’s Day: Acknowledging the Full Spectrum of Caretaking

If Facebook on this past Sunday corresponded to reality, the whole world is filled with Best. Moms. Ever. Every single one of us.

On Mother’s Day, so many of us gushed, lovingly, about our moms. Out came the pictures of the loving mothers, with their arms around their children. Out came the photos of our moms, beautiful and serene.

So I don’t mess up my eternal salvation, let’s start with the obvious: I really do have the Best. Mom. Ever. Her name is Pouran, Pouri jan to all her children and grandchildren. Yes, when you look into her eyes, you know. This is what inner kindness and goodness shining out looks like.
If you’re blessed with someone loving and sacrificing, give thanks to the Keeper of the Stars. Live in gratitude. You are truly blessed.

Many traditions have recognized this, that the closest we come to God’s love on this Earth is a mother’s love for her children. It’s no surprise then that in the Catholic and Orthodox Christian traditions there are so many luminous depictions of Virgin Mary’s Divine love for baby Christ.

In Islam, every Mother’s Day talk begins and ends with the famed saying of the Prophet Muhammad:

“Paradise is under the feet of Mothers.”

I hear those statements, and I admire them. Yes, I look at my mothers’ eyes, and I know that she is so close to God’s own heart that paradise itself may not be good enough for her. She brings dignity to paradise, not the other way around.

And yet, there is something about hearing these adorations of mothers and motherhoods in synagogues, churches, and mosques — where those same women have not had full and equal access to power — that makes me uneasy. I think I know what the Prophet meant by it, and I know what I mean by it, but there is something that makes me uneasy about the way that this statement, and the whole cult of motherhood, has become cliché.

Image by Roberta Avventi/Flickr, Some Rights Reserved.

For starters, it places women on such a pedestal that they are no longer human. When we love someone truly, we don’t put them up on a pedestal. We simply want to be with them.

This cult of motherhood reduces women to the function of motherhood. I wonder if we are honoring women as women, women as fully human, or if it reduces women to the functions of reproduction and child-rearing. Do women have an inherent dignity and honor not through their function of child-bearing and child-rearing, but as human beings with a soul?

I am also reminded that Mother’s Day is not a simple celebration for so many. Sure, one can talk about the commercialization of the holiday — yet another beautiful idea commercialized, marketized, and sanitized to feed a capitalist narrative. In fact, Anna Jarvis, who was the force behind creating Mother’s Day in early 20th century, grew so disenchanted with its commercialization that she eventually pushed to boycott it.

I am also mindful that, for so many people, their own relationships with their mothers has been one filled with pain, tension, and disappointment. Many women give birth but never come to embody those qualities of loving tenderness and sacrifice that we associate with motherhood.

And many, many more mothers, even good mothers, fail in crucial moments of life, here and there. They fail not because they are evil, but because they — and we — are human. We are human beings who fail, stumble, get up again, and fail again. Our failures are not individual, and hurt those around us.

For many, they have yearned to conceive a child and have never been able to. Mother’s Day can be particularly cruel to these women. Some have tragically had to bury their own child(ren), a pain that never goes away and makes Mother’s Day all the more painful.

For some fathers, who have lost custody of their children, Mother’s Day brings pain. They have embodied all the qualities of love and tenderness, but somehow their love doesn’t register with the same valence.

But most of all my attention and compassion goes to single mothers. For many moms, the experience of motherhood has been that of single parenthood, filled with so much solitary struggle that a one-day celebration just doesn’t make up for all the struggle. One of every three families are led by single women, and 40 percent of these families live in poverty.

Image by Benedicto de Jesus/Flickr, Some Rights Reserved.

Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook and most well-known for her book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, recognized that it is not so easy to ask single mothers to “lean in.” She offered a lengthy and heartfelt post for Mother’s Day. 

If your experience this past weekend was filled with suffering, a big hug to you. Love comes in all shapes and sizes, all directions. May it spring up from under your feet, may it pour on you from above, and gush from you inside.

In place of an unrealistic and commercialized Mother’s Day, let me suggest for us to move to celebrating the ethics of care. Let us honor and acknowledge all those who care for others, whether family or simply fellow human beings. Let us recognize compassion put into the service of humanity as what takes us simply into the realm of being fully and completely human.

When there are mothers who embody this ethics of care, let us celebrate.

When there are fathers who embody this ethics of care, let us celebrate.

When there are women, not merely mothers, who serve fellow human beings, let us celebrate.

When we see love and compassion anywhere, let us celebrate.

Yes, let us recognize that so much of the love and service in this world does come from mothers. And let us celebrate the ethics of care and compassion, love and tenderness. Here, there, everywhere.

The author with his mother.

Share your reflection