Mother’s Day Celebrates Life, It’s Not An Act of Exclusion

As I was doing research for a piece at HuffPost, I Don’t Care If You Don’t Want Children…Really, I became increasingly dismayed by the bitterness and resentment bubbling under the surface of our current parent vs. non-parent wars. As some in my circle remarked upon reading my article: “Who knew?”

– Passing Down Below
– Passing Down Below

Indeed, who knew that the procreation imperative, imprinted in humans since the beginning of man, had unleashed such competitive envy, defensiveness, judgment, and self-pity? But it seems it has. Reams have been—and continue to be—written on the topic (my mentioned article has links to several), to the point that even the sweet tradition of Mother’s Day has been put under the gun by cultural flamethrowers:

“I did not raise my son, Sam, to celebrate Mother’s Day. I didn’t want him to feel some obligation to buy me pricey lunches or flowers, some annual display of gratitude that you have to grit your teeth and endure.”

* * *

“Mother’s Day celebrates a huge lie about the value of women: that mothers are superior beings, that they have done more with their lives and chosen a more difficult path. Ha!”

* * *

“I hate the way the holiday makes all non-mothers, and the daughters of dead mothers, and the mothers of dead or severely damaged children, feel the deepest kind of grief and failure.”

Think those lines were uttered by one of the curmudgeons at Fox News? A churlish blogger with generalized anger issues? Some embittered naysayer who rains on the parade of any holiday celebration? You’d be wrong. They were all part of very gifted writer, Anne Lamott’s, takedown on the matter of Mother’s Day, a surprisingly caustic rant that seemed out-of-character for the usually wise and compassionate author. Not only is Ms. Lamott put off by the singling out of mothers on this special day, she goes so far as to assert that 98% of parents not only feel themselves superior, that same percent believes non-parents simply cannot know the level of love they know. To which I sigh, “Really?? I have not met those parents. Apparently the people I know are in the other, more rarified, 2%.”


happy coupleThe fact is, yes: while everyone has been a non-parent at some point in their life, no one who has not had children can know what it feels like to have children. Fact; not judgment. Just as I cannot know what it feels like to climb Mt. Everest, go hand-gliding, or bungie jump off a bridge. People can tell me the attendant exhilaration is like no other, and I believe them; but I wouldn’t know. That they’ve had that experience does not make them superior; it just means they’ve had an experience I have not.

Maybe it’s a lame analogy, but the same applies to parenting. Whatever that experience is for anyone, it doesn’t make them superior. But let me also add: no one I know feels superior simply because they’re a parent. They may feel superior about other things, God knows, but the mere fact and act of procreating is not something I see anyone hoist as a measure of personal value or worth. It’s just part of who they are and how they’re living their life. Like being a teacher, a doctor, lawyer, or landscape artist.

If those who are childless-by-choice, who have lost, or who cannot have children, feel minimized and/or dismissed by the parents in their circle, either they’re hanging out with the wrong people (who likely act superior and callous about a great many other things as well), or they need to look inward to see why their pain and heartache, or their choice, compels them to judge others so negatively. It’s one thing to step away from a Mother’s Day celebration because it’s difficult to be reminded of what you can’t have, don’t have, lost, didn’t want, or had an unpleasant version of; it’s another to denigrate the holiday and people celebrating it.

I don’t usually get involved in social media hot-topics these day, but frankly, as a mother, a woman, and an optimistic human who believes we each have the power to manage our joys and sorrows, I was stunned by both Lamott’s thesis and the vitriol of some of those commenting. The language of this seemingly metastasizing conflict is counter-productive and presumptuous enough that, ultimately, I felt a need to respond on the thread:

I usually agree with your wonderful posts, Anne Lamott, but find this one sad and oddly cynical. Celebrating mothers is not, in any way, a dismissal of the myriad roles men and women play in making this world go around. Nor is it about “pricey lunches or flowers, some annual display of gratitude that you have to grit your teeth and endure.” That WOULD be a sad thing, and if that’s what the holiday means to you, I can understand why you never celebrate it with your son!

I cannot help but hear a certain victim tone in your assertion that by celebrating one set of people, “superiority” is being asserted over another, the non-parent people in our midst. Not only is that not true, there is narcissism and bitterness in the belief that makes me sad…that somehow you feel the universe doesn’t provide enough joy for us all, so much so that you begrudge the celebration all together. In fact, the day is NOT another faux-separation of women-who’ve-had-kids vs. women-who-haven’t, a construct that seems rampant these days. ANY woman who has been a mentor, a leader; a caregiver, a teacher, or a nurturer is honored on this one little day. Not at the exclusion of anyone else. We’ve got days to celebrate fathers, our God-figures, the birth of the nation—hell, even secretaries; we can surely spare one day for the mother/nurturers in our midst.

Nor do most of us approach the day with a presumption of “guilt” being the driving force behind our children’s cards, our family’s emails of love; our colleagues’ and friends’ hoots of “happy day!” For many of us, Mother’s Day is simply a day to give a nod to the women in our lives who’ve provided nurturance and compassion, whoever they may be and regardless of their parental status. It can be done with a simple hug, a card, a text, a phone call, a warm smile, an “I love you”; maybe a homemade breakfast, a walk on the beach, or shared space on the couch watching a movie. No money has to be spent; no endurance required.

But to say “Mother’s Day celebrates a huge lie about the value of women: that mothers are superior beings, that they have done more with their lives and chosen a more difficult path” is such a sadly negative and ungenerous perception. I don’t know where you get that “98% of people think….” negatively about non-parents, but Anne, none of the parents I know believe celebrating mother/nurturers makes any such statement! Dear Lord, we cannot live our lives so afraid of offending someone or making someone feel left out that we eschew honest, joyful celebration. Even the women who are not mothers were born of mothers, have strong female role models, etc… how about turning the day into a celebration of them!?

Maybe you feel your stance on this is democratizing, but I’d ask that you look at the edge in your philosophy and consider that you might have made some presumptions about those us who’ve had children that simply don’t ring true.

For now, I’m going to go leave for a walk on the beach with my family, to celebrate me, our children, our mothers, our mentors, and our nurturing friends (some of whom are not parents!). And it will be a great day. I hope somehow you have one too.

That pretty much says it all. For me, anyway.


Look, life is short, obstacles are many, and most of us are focused on living meaningful lives infused with as much joy and happiness as possible. When a holiday presents an opportunity to celebrate the essence of love and compassion as symbolized by the life-giving role of “mother”—a title and role that can be applied to any person who nurtures and mentors—the wiser person acknowledges that intent, and either joins in, or steps aside to allow others to join in. The person less wise and considerate makes it about them, about less, about what they don’t have that others might; what they don’t wish to celebrate that others do.

Let’s not do that. Let’s rise above, let’s exude generosity of spirit; let’s allow that each one of us is having our experience and one does not negate the other.

So to my friends and family celebrating: Happy Mother’s Day… said with all my authentic, guilt-free, non-superior, all-inclusive, openhearted love, and good-will!

All photos by or by permission of me.

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But Men Can’t Have It All Either

It’s not a new conversation. We’ve been having it since women broke out of the shackles of 1950’s thinking and began carving lives for themselves outside of hearth, husband and home. Finding balance, advancing ambition, spinning plates, and determining how we do it all without destroying the family paradigm – or driving ourselves nuts at the fear of doing so – have all weighed heavily on the minds of women now out in the work force yet still trying to be the best possible wife and parent they can be. It’s a tall order.

The women’s lib movement declared that women not only could have it all, but should. Some in the movement even went so far as to say that struggling with the pull between family and career was the mark of a woman not fully liberated, but many became confused when the “have it all” mantra proved rosier in theory than in practice. Certainly there has been progress: gender roles have been redefined, doors have been opened, glass ceilings have been shattered in industries, career paths, and institutions that, heretofore, had only been regarded as bastions of men (even the venerable, vaunted, slightly musty Augusta National Golf Club has opened its doors to women, though only a couple so far, Condoleeza Rice being one). Like many other cultural evolutions, advances are quantifiable and, yet, problems remain; even as new ones spring up.

The conversation came into full relief recently when Anne-Marie Slaughter, former director of policy planning for Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, unexpectedly quit her post – a job she loved and excelled in – and explained why in an article in The Atlantic titled, somewhat to the point, Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.

…for the remainder of my stint in Washington, I was increasingly aware that the feminist beliefs on which I had built my entire career were shifting under my feet. I had always assumed that if I could get a foreign-policy job in the State Department or the White House while my party was in power, I would stay the course as long as I had the opportunity to do work I loved. But in January 2011, when my two-year public-service leave from Princeton University was up, I hurried home as fast as I could.

A rude epiphany hit me soon after I got there. When people asked why I had left government, I explained that I’d come home not only because of Princeton’s rules (after two years of leave, you lose your tenure), but also because of my desire to be with my family and my conclusion that juggling high-level government work with the needs of two teenage boys was not possible. I have not exactly left the ranks of full-time career women: I teach a full course load; write regular print and online columns on foreign policy; give 40 to 50 speeches a year; appear regularly on TV and radio; and am working on a new academic book. But I routinely got reactions from other women my age or older that ranged from disappointed (“It’s such a pity that you had to leave Washington”) to condescending (“I wouldn’t generalize from your experience. I’ve never had to compromise, and my kids turned out great”).

Her article goes on to analyze, through her experience and that of others, how deeply the notion of “having it all” can clash with the reality of work demands vs. the primal desire to be there for the children you’ve brought into this world and feel a grave responsibility toward. She discusses the rigid work schedules (as she had) that often put many women at odds with their roles as mothers (and wives) and leave them attempting to wear all hats at the expense of their health and emotional well-being, as well as that of their children. She champions the concept of “flexible working hours, investment intervals and family-comes-first management,” but also acknowledges that, outside higher level professional positions, the average working woman cannot expect those accommodations, nor do her financial responsibilities give her the flexibility to demand them. Slaughter concludes that both men and women in positions of leadership must work together to create working conditions that address these concerns not only for those higher in the food chain, but equally for “women working at Walmart.”

Some of the criticism Ms. Slaughter has endured since writing this article has been swift and, in some cases, cutting; not unexpected when you’re taking on the veritable foundation of a movement designed to champion women along the “I am strong, I am invincible, I am WOMAN” lines. Even Hillary Clinton was asked to weigh in on the thinking of her former employee, and her comments, recorded in recent Marie Claire interview, stirred up their own controversy. In the portion of the interview in which the interviewer asked Ms. Clinton about her former employee, Marie Claire attributed the following quote to Ms. Clinton:

“I can’t stand whining. I can’t stand the kind of paralysis that some people fall into because they’re not happy with the choices they’ve made. You live in a time when there are endless choices. … Money certainly helps, and having that kind of financial privilege goes a long way, but you don’t even have to have money for it. But you have to work on yourself. … Do something!”

However, shortly after this interview came out, a State Department spokesperson took Marie Claire to task for “taking Clinton’s comments out of context.” According to the interview transcripts, Ms. Clinton had discussed Holden Caulfield with the interviewer’s daughter and made her statements in relation to that. As the NY Daily News reports:

The former State staffer Anne-Marie Slaughter was not the person Hillary was slamming. It was Holden Caulfield, the fictional character from the cult favorite novel “The Catcher in the Rye,” who happened not to be mentioned in the article.

“With all due respect to JD Salinger,” Clinton spokesman Philippe Reines said in a release about the resulting confusion, “it’s clear as day from the transcript that the only person being called a whiner is his fictional character Holden Caulfield.”

And then, of course, the Marie Claire interviewer came out with her own quote in The Huffington Post defending her article and whining about the whining about the word “whining.” Dear God, how can we “have it all” when we can’t even talk about having or not having it all without having a hissy fit?!

But this is not just a problem for women. Men can’t have it all either. Men who think they can because they have powerful jobs, loads of money, and wives who take care of the expensive house and those privileged children? Odds are they know better than anybody what they gave up to get there. Perhaps relationships with their children that go beyond the cursory and superficial. Perhaps a level of emotional intimacy with their wives that’s been lost along the way. Maybe they wish they could shuck off professional responsibilities to hit the road in a camper but wouldn’t think of it for fear of losing position. Likely they’ve missed important family events, school plays, occasions when their absence was sorely missed for the sake of job demands, the relentless need to stay on top of things, stay ahead, be one step ahead of the next guy. And the men who didn’t jump on that gravy train so they could have a more involved role with their families? Likely, like any woman who made the same decision, their professional trajectory was commensurately stunted. It’s the way the game is played. The only gender difference is this: working men often have working wives who also do the laundry, clean the house, make dinner and take care of the kids; most working women rarely get that kind of partnership equity in return. Now, if working women could have wives too…

Forget having it all; no matter what they say, that’s not possible. It’s all about trade-offs and anyone who faces life with a modicum of candor and honesty knows this. Decide what you want, decide which of those things is most important, then go for it. Understand that the demands of one will impact the other and choose accordingly. Don’t kid yourself; be honest about what you can provide to a family before you have one; be as honest about what you can contribute to a job before you take it. If you have kids and go back to work, understand how that will feel for you and for them. Whatever your decision, man up, own it, and do the best you can. And if you discover conflicts after the fact, adjust your decision and make the necessary changes. Frankly, I admire Ms. Slaughter for doing exactly that. She adjusted. Regardless of what it looked like on the outside, regardless of the browbeating she took from feminists, others in the field, or women and men who might be afraid they’re in the same boat as she but don’t, perhaps, have her courage to make such a phenomenal change, she recognized the problem, acknowledged her priorities, and took action. I admire that.

I can also think of no more liberating a move. Acknowledging your priorities and making a choice. That is, after all, what the woman’s movement was all about: the freedom to make choices. Let’s stick with that.
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