Leaving Mother’s Day alone
May 12, 2023 John M. Grondelski, Ph.D.
The controversy over various companies’ “opt-out of Mother’s Day” emails sent around in late April seems to have had its fifteen minutes of fame. The superficial take on the news was a simplistic dichotomy: opponents called it another example of woke ideology, proponents countered by saying it was just an effort to be “sensitive” to women for whom Mother’s Day might be “triggering.”
I’ve got news for you: if celebration of the mere concept of motherhood is “triggering” for you, your problems are bigger than Mother’s Day. Motherhood—like life—is not a “safe space.”
When called on the carpet about their emails, many companies sputtered to explain how celebrating Mother’s Day was provocative. After opining that not every mother-child relationship is ideal (though I didn’t know anybody outside of Nazareth claimed that), the most broadly socially acceptable excuse became that women who have lost children. Some cited miscarriage, others COVID, I’m sure drug overdoses will be referenced as soon as we balance the “equity” issues related to victims.
I’ve written elsewhere that am unpersuaded by these band-aid explanations, for two reasons. First, women in these circumstances value motherhood: they grieve over what they no longer or cannot have, because motherhood is a value to them. And the fact that they see a value in motherhood raises a further question: the emotionalization of American life. The value lies in motherhood, not in their appreciation of motherhood.
That is a key distinction we need to unpack to see what other cryptic factors are at work here because I think there are other rotten bones in that crypt. I think there are two.
First, if someone values motherhood and hurts because it is or is no longer something she can share, one should feel empathy. But if the value of motherhood is in motherhood and not just one’s feelings about motherhood, then it means that the value of motherhood is something we all share, not just as individuals but as a community, society, and culture. But, if that’s true, then we should hesitate before we mute our common celebration of a value just because it might be emotional for some.
I’ll cite a personal example. My father died on December 23. For my mother, Christmas subsequently stood in that shadow. We had a crèche but there was no Christmas tree in my home from age 12 until my future wife brought one back in at age 36. I sympathize with my mother and, now as an adult, recognize her pain. But I would certainly not suggest society mute Christmas, even if—at least in some ways—it was muted in my house.
Second, I am not convinced this is just about “respectfully feeling your pain.” I think there is another factor here: the de-valuation of motherhood.
We have lived under the murderous regime of Roe v. Wade for fifty years. The central lie of that holding was that motherhood (like life itself) had no intrinsic significance, at least in terms of the law. Motherhood was subsumed under “choice.” If you were happy being a “mother,” we’re happy for you and your “baby.” If you were not happy about being a “mother,” then we’re happy that you “terminated” your “clump of cells” and gotten on with your life.
Roe taught almost three generations of Americans that it wasn’t motherhood but what you thought about it that was important. How far is that from the ethic of Mother’s Day opt-out?
In reaffirming Roe, Anthony Kennedy penned the risible (and false) claim that “at the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe ….” Well, if Roe guarantees human facility to self-define the universe, I guess it’s powerful enough to let us all attribute our own definition and value to motherhood. Maternity, post-Kennedy (and, thankfully, pre-Alito) became like baseball and apple pie: mere acquired tastes.
So, unlike women who mourn the loss of motherhood, votaries of Roe really want to opt out of Mother’s Day because maternity is nothing to mourn. Its value (or lack thereof) is a tabula rasa, a blank slate on which to project “one’s own concept of existence, or meaning, of the universe ….”
That’s a much different situation.
So, which mindset drove Levi’s, Doordash, et al.? Inquiring minds want to know.
Let me also go back to the question of shared meaning. Mother’s Day “opt-outs” reflect merely the latest stage in the evisceration of shared community values. How dare we celebrate “mothers” when not all mothers value motherhood? And how dare we even privilege “mothers” (and “fathers”) over “parents one and two” of whatever sex?
The values we publicly celebrate and honor in American public life are growing increasingly attenuated. Christopher Columbus has fallen from discoverer to colonial rogue. Thanksgiving has descended from cross-communal celebration of God’s bounty to an attack on American Indians. Christmas? It’s still on the civil calendar, a secular holiday-in-drag whose alternate identity is “winter holiday” which we celebrate while asking neither what nor why.
The rest of our civil holiday calendar is marked by long weekends with Mondays off, whose shared celebrations and meanings have largely shriveled to the “President’s Day” or “Labor Day” sales. (Back in 2003 Shania Twain commented our new religion was “shoppin’ every Sunday at the mall,” though even that communal activity has now been supplanted by click-and-order from under the covers).
Unsure whether America’s origins really lie in 1776 or 1619, the content of July 4 is increasingly “qualified” (AKA “drained”), leaving behind a communal celebration of hot dogs and fireworks. I’d argue that the marginalization of Memorial and Veteran’s Days are functions not just of the loss of patriotism but of the culture of death: is there still anything of a shared social vision about the fate of those who have died and—since death is increasingly seen as just another “healthcare alternative” at the beginnings and end of life—what’s so bad about a cemetery, a place we never go to anyway because, well, why would you?
In light of that enfeeblement of shared social meaning, why should Mother’s Day be any different? We bowl alone, though the bowling alley still makes us follow certain rules. Why can’t we celebrate alone, each in our own way?
In A Christmas Carol, [Can you use this link, limiting it to 4:55-5:02 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Ib6XUwlAD0 ]Ebenezer Scrooge waves off his celebratory nephew Fred in the best tradition of a modern relativist: “Keep Christmas in your way, and I’ll keep it in mine.” When Fred objects, “But you don’t keep it!” Scrooge fires back, “Let me leave it alone, then!”
Is that modern America’s recipe for Mother’s Day?
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About John M. Grondelski, Ph.D. 7 Articles
John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. He publishes regularly in the National Catholic Register and in theological journals. All views expressed herein are exclusively his own.