I am on the record (in this very publication, in fact) as a hater of Mother’s Day. Not a hater of mothers themselves, of course, being one, but of the absurdity of their so-called special day. Just calling it ‘special’ is a bit of a wake-up call.
I will never forget the late, great disability activist and comedian Stella Young saying once when someone talked in a smiley voice about people with ‘special’ needs; “You know what ‘special’, means, don’t you? A little bit shit.”
I hate the sickly-sweet, patronising tone we take about mothers around Mother’s Day, as if by giving birth to children we have somehow become quasi-children ourselves.
Yet there is nothing sentimental, pretty or fluffy about motherhood. It is a dirty, earthy, messy business from beginning to end; sperm, blood, shit, vernix, meconium, mysterious ‘waters’, colostrum, breast-milk, mucous, snot, tears, vomit – you name it, mothers either excrete it themselves or must clean it up when excreted by others.
It was Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘Second Sex’ that opened my eyes to the fact that far from venerating mothers, we secretly despise the animal nature of giving birth. The only mother celebrated by Christianity, for example, is a virgin – isolated from messy, beastly (literally) sex. Way to make sure no other actual mother ever felt good about themselves.
Female bodies – particularly when they do what nature designed them to do – and conceive, gestate, birth and feed human young give the lie to the idea that humans are created in the image of the divine.
On the contrary, human reproduction, including sex, reminds us that we are animals, specifically mammals – a kind of brainy ape. We are not special or different. Like every other living creature, we are born, we live, we reproduce, and we die.
Women have borne the burden (if you will excuse the expression) of embodying this annoying and ego-deflating reminder ever since men invented patriarchal religions. Perhaps it is one reason why we have been so universally accorded lesser status by such religious traditions, or as de Beauvoir eloquently expressed it, second place.
Perhaps that is also why there remains such implacable taboos around female reproduction and bodily functions. Why normal activities such as breastfeeding and menstruation still evoke feelings of disgust and a desire to keep them both out of sight and out of mind.
Perhaps it is also why the most unspeakable word in the English language is a word for female genitalia. Why is the word cunt deemed so disgusting? Half the human population have one and the vast majority of us entered the world through one, yet this four-letter word has acquired an almost mystical power to shock.
It is the hypocrisy of it that fuels my resistance to Mother’s Day. Just as I think a cheap bottle of perfume (if I hear Cate Blanchett say ‘Si’ one more time while pulling a face that looks like she’s trying not to fart, I will explode), a pair of fluffy slippers or – worst of all – a household gadget is no recompense for the unrelenting work, care and effort of mothering, so I do not believe for a moment that we really respect mothers or the work they do and I don’t think we ever have.
Far from it. We take mothers for granted and hardly notice the work they do. We don’t pay them for their work and we directly penalise them in the long-term for shouldering the lion’s share of caring for others.
We charge them a motza for childcare and structure the tax system to make it uneconomical for them to return to paid work. Despite the fact that women have given birth to every tax payer who has ever lived (as well as being tax payers themselves) we seem to begrudge any expenditure from the public purse which might make their lives easier.
Mother’s Day? Don’t make me laugh. We need mother’s lives to be understood and taken seriously in a way they never have been for the full 365 days a year. Otherwise we will continue to have generation after generation of women – particularly those who have been mothers – becoming the fast growing group among the homeless as they grow old.