Days for parents

The other day I read Nicole Belanger’s post over on Modern Loss about Mother’s Day, and the feelings it evokes for her. Her powerful writing got me thinking about my own feelings about Mother’s Day & Father’s Day, although Mother’s Day hits me harder. After reading Belanger’s post, I wanted to tease apart my feelings about these two holidays, to figure out why I have the gut-level reactions I have regarding both days.

A couple of personal notes for newcomers to my writing: I am a white, married, areligious woman in my mid-30s who is intentionally not having children. Those identities inform much of what I’m about to say. Equally relevant is that my mother died eight years ago in March, my father died eleven years ago this month. I still struggle with their absence from my life, and the health issues that led to their un-peaceful deaths.

I’d like to start by stating that I wholeheartedly support the idea of celebrating parents. However, I don’t think it should be confined to a single day of the year, or be so commodified. Most of my friends are parents, and I am constantly in awe of their dedication, patience, compassion, towards their children, and their willingness to be perpetually sleep-deprived. They deserve to be recognized by their families and friends year round.

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The top layer of my annoyance with Mother’s Day and Father’s Day is the commercial nature of the two days. On TV and on the web we’re hounded to buy, buy, buy for our loved one (which, admittedly, is no different than Christmas, Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day, and Halloween, all of which evoke similar irritated feelings in me). And not just buy – but buy the right thing. The next layer of my irritation comes from the obnoxious gender stereotypes that are reinforced in all these commercials: mothers should get jewelry or days at the spa, while fathers must want a new fancy grill, power tools, or sports tickets. The depths of my distaste for this overwhelmingly sexist marketing strategy is not something I can fully express in a short post. And as long as I’m talking about commercials, none of the ads that have invaded my awareness show same-sex couples or persons of color. Shouldn’t a family with two mothers celebrate Mother’s Day? I’m so surprised (not really) that sexist marketing ploys reinforce “traditional” family units instead of being grounded in reality.

To sum up, commercialism and sexist marketing are responsible for the top layer of emotion I feel, best described as a combination of irritation and repulsion.

What about the feelings of guilt, shame, and sorrow I experience too?

Guilt. Guilt is an ever-present emotion when I think about my parents. It’s neither logical nor rational, it just is. Mother’s Day & Father’s Day remind me of my deceased parents. Since my mother’s birthday is in April, their wedding anniversary is also in April, and they both died in the spring, this time of year gets all tangled up with thinking about them. In the years since my mother died, I have worked to accept that there wasn’t anything more I could do. My inner critic and I have argued over this more times than I can count, and there is never a resolution. Guilt cannot be logic’ed away, no matter how I try.

My mother enjoyed celebrating Mother’s Day – going for brunch, wearing a pink carnation, opening a cards from my father and I. (I shudder at the inevitable pinkness and flowery nature of those cards, but well, my mom liked pink. My allergy to pink started young and has only gained strength as I age.) But every year when I’m confronted with seeing “Mother’s Day Brunch” advertised, I have a squirm of guilt that maybe I wasn’t always as grateful a daughter as I could have been, and now it’s too late. There are no more brunches and pink carnations.

Sorrow. I am still grieving. Mother’s Day & Father’s Day remind me of what I no longer have, and that for someone of my age, it’s unusual for my parents to be dead. My grandparents on both sides are long-deceased as well. My parents died when I was in my mid-20s; in contrast, most of my friends’ parents are working, traveling, and alive to be celebrated. I am reminded that my parents are gone and not coming back. I’m pretty sure that’s not what my parents would want for me; they would not want me to feel guilt and grief because of them. 

Last but not least, shame. On a day-by-day basis I feel the cultural pressure (dare I say disapproval?) that comes from choosing not to have children. It is rarely overt; but when every person around you, every portrayal of women (married women, especially) is as a mother-to-be, I feel ashamed. Surely, choosing to put my needs and interests ahead of the important function of having children is unacceptably selfish. It’s a wonder I can live with myself. I would like to say I’m inured to the societal expectation of children. Perhaps I even appear that way to others. But Mother’s Day comes around every year, at the worst time of year for me, reminding me that I am neither a mother to be celebrated nor a daughter to a deserving mother who can be celebrated with gifts or brunch. 

So yes, shame. Shame because society makes me feel defective for being a woman who doesn’t want to procreate. Shame and guilt because I know my mother was disappointed that she wasn’t going to be a doting grandmother. I’m an only child of an only child (maternal side), so it was all up to me. I know that even after my mother and I talked – this was after my father died – she held out hope that I would change my mind. Ah, how the guilt squirms in my gut. It is the right choice for me, and I don’t regret my decision for the briefest of seconds. And yet, shame and guilt are no more logical than grief. 

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I also sorrow for the people who desperately want to be parents and aren’t able to for one reason or another. Even though I have never felt that desire, having a hole in your heart is something I can identify with. My heart also breaks for women forced to bear children they don’t want or cannot care for. My position is a privileged one, and I am grateful every single day that I was able to make my choices, while also feeling guilty that it is still such a privilege in our modern society to make the decision not to bear children.

This time of year reminds me of another lesson grief has taught me: families and parenthood should not be seen through rosy glasses. Even though it’s an unpopular sentiment, I believe some people are not cut out for parenthood, and may (or may not) do the best they can if shoved into it. So yes, celebrate your parents, think of their good qualities and put aside their failings if possible, and acknowledge what they mean to you. If you can’t do that because they’ve died, look for a moment where they were happy, happy with you. My parents weren’t perfect (no one is), but I choose to think about them at times when we were enjoying each other’s company. I have a picture of the three of us on my college graduation day. It makes me cry a little whenever I look at it because the camera caught a moment where we were all happy. I have a huge smile on my face, my parents are crowded next to me, one on either side, their pride shining out of their eyes. If you have a memory of them loving you, their child, try to take that with you throughout the year and not just on Mother’s Day & Father’s Day. I can’t promise it will help (and I’m not a psychologist) – grief is fickle like that – but it helps me

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