Commentary: Please, stop trying to include women without children in Mother’s Day

(The Associated Press) Two Mother's Day cards from American Greetings, the first, left, from 1938, and the other a contemporary card from this year, show the difference in the how our societal view of motherhood has changed over the years, in Brooklyn, Ohio Monday, May 1, 2006.

After 40-plus years without children, I’m about to celebrate Mother’s Day for the first time since giving birth to my daughter last fall. And as a woman who has spent four decades of her life without kids, I have something I really want to say about this holiday: Please, don’t implicate women who don’t have kids in Mother’s Day. Let the day be about women who are parents — and leave the rest alone.

I’ve noticed an uptick in Mother’s Day articles promoting an “inclusive” view, insisting that “Mother’s Day is for celebrating ALL women,” like this post from MSN, or this PopSugar post that invites you to honor “the many fantastic roles that all women have.” If this is a trend, it might help explain the increase in personal messages I have received on Mother’s Day over the last several years.

For most of my adult life, I have spent Mother’s Day sleeping in and getting brunch. Because that’s what people without children do on Sundays, and it’s glorious. But for the last several years on Mother’s Day, while minding my own business, reading in bed or ordering Eggs Benedict, messages like this one, from 2017, popped up on my screen:

“We appreciate everything you do for our kids. Our kids adore you! Happy Mother’s Day!”

Or this, from the same year:

“Thinking of you today, you are so loving and nurturing in your own way! Happy Mother’s Day.”

Sometimes, halfway through the day, after I called my own mom, I turned off my phone. Because here’s the thing: These attempts to be “inclusive” are meant to be nice, and even loving, but they are problematic.

Sending Mother’s Day messages to someone without kids is not appropriate — people without kids are not parents. People haven’t sent me messages on Boss’s Day, or Secretary Day, or Father’s Day, or any other role-specific holiday that doesn’t apply to me. Only on Mother’s Day. I have polled men without children if they are similarly pinged with messages on Father’s Day, and they are not. So why is this happening? This is happening because we have conflated the identity and worth of women with motherhood.

I’m extra sensitive to this notion because I was raised Mormon, and on Mother’s Day, the leader of the congregation would ask not only all the mothers to stand, but all the girls to stand, too. Then, men and boys in the congregation would distribute a gift — usually a single rose or some chocolates — to all the mothers and “future mothers” in the congregation.

This gesture, which now strikes me as a cross between a scene from “The Bachelor and “The Handmaid’s Tale,” left me fuming in my pew, even when I was 12. It presumed the role of mother was what I wished for, and that it defined my future. The boys didn’t get the same treatment on Father’s Day; they got to keep sitting in their seats just being boys, or, I presume, “future men.” The implication was that there were no future women — only mothers.

Lately, the message that “all are mothers” has become something of a favorite topic for female church leaders, intending, it seems, to help comfort and include women without children in a schema in which there is no role for women outside motherhood.

The message that women’s worth lies not in their personhood, but in their childbearing and child-caring, is reiterated in a million ways, and not just in religious circles. We also see this in high-profile public discourse. When leaders respond to sexual harassment and assault allegations—from the Trump tapes to the Kavanaugh hearings—they often make statements about protecting “mothers and daughters.”

“We should always honor and respect the dignity of our mothers, sisters and daughters,” Ben Carson stated in regards to the Trump tapes.

Mitt Romney decried Trump’s words as “vile degradations [that] demean our wives and daughters.”

These statements are well-meaning, but position women’s worth in relation to men and children — instead of as people who are deserving of respect and rights as individuals. This can make women — as individuals — undervalued or invisible.

I’m reminded of a time, when I was in my early 30s, that I attended a yoga class with a friend who is a mother of three. When she went to introduce me to a group of moms she knew through her kids’ school, she said, “This is Lane, another mom from the neighborhood…” She paused and caught herself, and then said, “I mean, she’s a future mom from our neighborhood.”

After an awkward moment I corrected her: “I’m a woman from the neighborhood,” I said.

Then we all laughed, and she apologized. But how interesting that the word “woman” simply didn’t come to her!

I’m also reminded of the time when one of my close male friends mentioned to me, unprompted, how nice it was that I nurtured my university students as a professor, which, he noted was a kind of “mothering” of its own. Never mind that my university students were adults who did not require mothering; he had also forgotten that at the time I was no longer teaching but was working as a full-time journalist. I was not performing “nurturing” in my day-to-day life at all, unless you counted my succulent garden.

But the underlying assumption in these comments, as with the Mother’s Day messages, is that for women to feel good about themselves and their place in the world, and for others to feel good about women and their place in the world, they must be nurturers or “mothers” in some sense. Even if that sense is entirely fabricated.

It should go without saying that this should not be the case. Mothers are female-identifying parents. Women are female-identifying people. Both are equally worthy because they are humans. But too often being a woman is deemed not enough.

Over the years, I have had to fight for my self-worth as a woman without a man or children attached. I have had dozens of exemplars to aid me in this, mostly peers, mostly fellow women without children. They have taught me how to rely on my own self-worth, how to enjoy the singular pleasures of earning and spending my own time and money. How to struggle and fail and rely on myself. How to build my own life full of adventures, and fulfilling relationships, and how to build my own Ikea furniture. How to make a home filled with my own books, and art, and mermaid decor.

When I was pregnant last year, though my partner and I had hoped for the pregnancy, I struggled with a profound loss of myself as a woman. The title of mother, I feared, would erase what I had fought for and grown to cherish — my womanhood.

This Mother’s Day I will get different messages on my phone, ones that congratulate me and celebrate my long-delayed motherhood. But for many years, Mother’s Day was a day when it was indicated to me that being “just a woman” left me lacking, incomplete.

So now Mother’s Day will also remind me to be grateful for my womanhood, and this is something that I will pass on to my daughter — teaching her the joy and challenges that await her as a woman, whether or not she chooses to become a mother.

It will always be a day that I remember to tell her what was seldom said to me on any day of the year: Women are enough all on their own. Women are enough. Women are enough. Women are enough.

Lane Anderson

Lane Anderson grew up in Salt Lake City, and now lives in Manhattan, New York, where she is a journalist and lecturer at New York University. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Brigham Young University and a master of fine arts degree from Columbia University.