This year marks the twentieth Mother’s Day since I became a mother. My parenthood has gone through as many iterations as my kids have. Ever-evolving over two decades, shape shifting in tandem with the needs of my brood of four as they shed each stage of childhood and move on to the next. They are close in age, so this shedding happens all at once; they were all tiny, then small, then medium and now teens. We’ve also gone through changes together: they were born into a world without smart phones and now phones are appendages to their bodies. I went from limiting “fun” sugary cereals for breakfast to throwing my hands up in surrender because YOLO. They now go to bed later than me and collectively have enough body hair to carpet a school auditorium.
One thing that has remained consistent over the years is the way I celebrate Mother’s Day; I don’t.
I’m not making a case for getting rid of Mother’s Day for those who find meaning in it. I wish my family and friends a Happy Mother’s Day each year, out of respect. I’m just saying that it is not and never has been meaningful for me. My kids are well aware of this and honour my tradition by wishing me a Happy Mother’s Day in the most sarcastic voices they can muster.
I’m the motherless daughter of a motherless daughter- both my mom and her mom died in their 40s, the same age bracket that I’m in now. It would be tempting to assume that my mother’s death twenty seven years ago would have triggered my rejection of Mother’s day (or that my father’s death ten years later is the reason that a Carvel tie cake is the only part of Father’s day that interests me). But that assumption would be wrong.
My parents carried on the minimalist traditions of their parents when it came to celebrating anything which, while never leaving me lacking, were a far cry from the extravagance I would see on television sitcoms.
Even birthdays were a super low-key affair which were centered around a “surprise” cake that my mom had lovingly baked. As a family, we were the opposite of extra. And Mother’s Day was definitely classified as extra.
My parents were both children of Holocaust survivors who’d fled Poland and Hungary after the war and therefore grew up in pragmatic households which focused on the basics of keeping their families fed, clothed and sheltered. Those would have been rather monumental achievements for my grandparents given what they’d survived. Buying gifts to celebrate parenthood when the simple fact that they’d managed to become parents at all after surviving starvation and unimaginable tortures in the concentration camps would have made no sense to them.
Growing up, Mother’s Day consisted of us kids bringing home hand-made cards and ribbon-wrapped bars of soap and stained glass roses we’d made in school and showing up in my mom’s room at some ungodly hour of the morning to present her with these gifts plus a vomitous breakfast in bed which she’d force herself to eat under our eager gazes while undoubtedly bursting from not having yet peed. The most memorable Mother’s Day was also her second to last one; she was on a macrobiotic diet as part of a valiant counter attack against the cancer that was killing her so my sisters made her a full breakfast- eggs, waffles, coffee, OJ, the works- entirely out of colored paper they’d cut into food shapes and stuck to plates and cups.
My mother didn’t need or want any of these gifts. The only thing she wanted to be was our mom, year-round and for much more time than she knew she had left.
Like her, I don’t want any gifts to celebrate the role I’ve been privileged to fill for nearly twenty years. Like her, the only gift I want – other than my kids soaking a mac & cheese encrusted bowl once in a while- is motherhood which could only have been given to me by my children.
Twelve years ago, I worked up the courage to have a preventative double mastectomy in an attempt to carry on the fight against breast cancer which both my mother and her mother lost. I refused to get onto the operating table without being allowed to tuck a photo of my four little kids under my pillow, sterilized OR protocol be damned. But for them, for the desire to continue to be their mother, I’d have never been brave enough to undergo a nine-hour procedure, terrified that I’d never wake up from the anaesthesia. That surgery revealed early but aggressive cancer already growing in my 34-year-old body.
“You saved your own life!”, gushed all of my doctors about my choice to go through with the surgery.
“No”, I thought and still think every single day when I wake up. “My kids did.”
They made me a mother. They saved my life by existing, giving me the one thing that eluded my mother and grandmother when they were my age, thereby making every day Mother’s Day for me. If you can think of a better gift than that, please do let me know.