It’s Mother’s Day today. A tribute to mothers, and a monument to gendered parenting. Which is not to say I’m against Mother’s Day, per se, and I’m certainly not against mothers. But still, I’ll take a few moments to reflect on how very deeply gendered parenting is.
Two separate days, separated by several weeks, are marked out for male parents and for female parents. Today is the day we celebrate female parents. They might be single mothers, or lesbian mothers, or conventional-no-modifier-needed mothers. They might be the household wage-earner or an equal partner in the wage earning. They might be the household disciplinarian. They might be genetically related to their children, or have adopted their children, or have given birth to them, or have no recognized legal relationship.
These are not distinctions we make today. If you are female and you are a parent, then you are a mother and this is your day. (And now, if I had footnotes to work with, I’d drop a footnote that said something about our blithe confidence that we know what “female” actually means.) Even the most maternal man doesn’t get honored today. He waits for Father’s Day.
Of course, mothers come in all the varieties I’ve mentioned above and then in many I have not mentioned, too. But the traditional Mother’s Day observance hardly takes in the scope of variety. The problem is, the traditional Mother’s Day observance requires the presence of a father. And in many households there are mothers, but no fathers.
(There’s a similar problem on father’s day for households where there are fathers, but no mothers, but I’m going to pass on that for today. Perhaps more pertinent now is the dilemma faced by homes in which there are no mothers–single fathers or gay male couples who are parents. What are they to do today? )
I suppose by “traditional observance” I mean the one most widely portrayed in our culture: Mom gets to stay in bed. Dad (I’m tempted to say “the traditionally incompetent dad” and the kids make breakfast. Gifts are presented, including typically laboriously hand-made ones from the kids and typically something purchased from the man. Maybe later, maybe everyone goes on an outing which dad has planned or perhaps dad takes the kids off mom’s hands for a while.
What you can see from this description of a relatively typical mother’s day (check this morning’s comics–you’ll see it there) is that there at a minimum needs to be another person–ideally another parent–engineering these events. If it’s a one parent household, who steps in? If it’s a two mother household, whose in the kitchen early on Sunday AM with those kids? This celebration works best with two nicely paired male/female parents.
So Mother’s Day is at once gloriously inclusive (all women who are parents, no matter how, no matter what they do) and distressingly confining. You may be a mother, but you cannot do the proper Mother’s Day rituals without the all important father.
Of course, countless families do in fact celebrate Mother’s Day without fathers. And schools seem to be increasingly accommodating of the diversity of family forms, helping kids make cards for multiple mothers or grandmothers if that’s the way the family works. But it’s still a tribute to the notion that all families need a mother and (implicitly) a father, too.