There may seem little that’s poignant about the classic riddle, “What’s pink and wrinkly and hangs out your trousers?” But at my age, the answer, “Your mum,” seems filled with pathos.
Of course that wasn’t how I felt the first time I heard it. I laughed so hard I nearly choked on my Spangles. But back then I had only been a user, I could never imagine that I might be co-opted into a maternal support system let alone become a part-time service provider. Now that ending feels more like a punch than a line.
But what do we have to thank mothers, in particular, for? In this era of house-husbands, stay-at-home dads and paid paternity leave it’s getting harder to distinguish what ‘mothering’ actually means; it would, after all, be nice to think that what we’re celebrating on Mother’s Day is more than the sweat, tears, blood and pain, lots and lots of pain, of pregnancy and childbirth.
What it means to be a ‘mother’ seems to have ebbed over the last century. Suffrage, Rosie the Riveter, Feminism, glass ceiling breakers and working mums have all contributed to widening women’s potential and, conversely, reduced the singular cultural identity of motherhood. Most destructively though, It’s in the letting go have been the emotionally greedy, workshy men, like me, who jumped onto the new-fathering bandwagon rather than go out and get a proper job… in one blow they diminished the feminine identity of motherhood… and, curiously, still can’t work an iron.
It’s not that it’s any more difficult to spot your own mum; she’s the one tutting and telling you to scrape your plate before you put it in the dishwasher. It’s just more difficult to define what ‘mothering’ is without pushy men trying to get in on the act like Yosser Hughes roaring, ‘I can do that, gizza job’.
What hasn’t helped, and arguably why you don’t see the punchline to that opening gag coming, is that the maternal dialectic is so often filled with pleas to ignore and forget her existence. “I don’t want to interfere…”, “It’s your life but…”, “Far be it for me to say anything but…” or the classic peroration, “but don’t listen to me. That’s fine.”
Even if every word of advice is guilt edged, the plot of receding into the background remains a universal maternal trope. Unlike show-off, needy, modern paternalism, Dads trying to impress a big-man can-do identity on their kids, the stated wish to be ignored seems an intrinsic leitmotif of mothering, even if the opposite is true.
The self-effacement endures with Mothering Sunday, which isn’t really her’s. It only became Mothers’ Day, at least in the UK, by accident and a slip of the tongue; like so many young mothers the old Christian holiday of Laetare Sunday, on the fourth Sunday in Lent, was long known as ‘Mothering Sunday’ as it was the day churchgoers would observe mass at the major ‘mother’ churches and cathedrals rather than their local churches. Add to that further confusion as the day oscillates between competing ‘women’s’ days: the pre-Christian, Roman festivals of Lady Day, on the 21st of March and Hilaria, (honestly, don’t laugh), dedicated to the mother goddess Cybele. Even today, International Women’s Day is on 8th of March.
When grieving daughter Anna Jarvis invented the Mother’s Day celebration in 1908, in the United States, the preexistence of ‘Mothering Sunday’ in the UK was evidently too good a pun to ignore. So now, when most countries in the world celebrate Mother’s Day on the second Sunday in May, the UK, Ireland and Nigeria alone, continue the semantic mix up and send their naff cards and pot plants in March.
But what exactly are we celebrating when, quite possibly, Dads and Mums are able to bring children up similarly? What aspect of female motherhood is unique to the gender? Perhaps it’s not in how she brings you up that is unique to her sex, but in how she tries to let you go. Fathers, even if they keep it secret, jealous of freedom, bestow it suddenly and grudgingly, a mother, perhaps, does it gradually; that gentle ‘don’t mind me’ tactic of fading away while, of course, staying present. And then you only really appreciate how hard it is to let your children stand on their own when you’re facing the same ordeal yourself. So I’ll be thanking my Mum on Mother’s Day, as much for how she tried to let me go as how she held me… still, I wonder if I bring a wash round she’ll still hang out my trousers?