This article was first published in the Island Word in spring, 2006.
It’s that time of year again, when the brave new family forms of our time run up against well-meaning but painful tributes to convention; when single parents and same-sex couples with children grit their teeth; when children whose parents are not there experience simple school crafts like shards of crushed glass upon tender hearts. We’re talking about Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.
Once in a while a brave parent sets forth to question why schools still honor these days by having children plant geraniums in paper cups and copy sentimental poetry on cards. Those who do so are blasted by the defenders of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, who accuse the rebels of everything from anarchism to ingratitude; bad manners to radical politics. We would not be foolish enough to wade into this territory.
But it does strike us as a situation ripe with insensitivity, to say the least, when a child undergoes a yearly ritual of being made painfully aware of a difference that can only be perceived, in this context, as something missing. Is there any way to make Mother’s Day or Father’s Day less like salt in the wounds of children, and of adults, who don’t have the celebrated parent? And what about parents whose children are estranged, or missing, or dead, or longed for but never born? With no one to deliver the burned toast and cold coffee on a tray, how do we who long for and miss children in our lives mark these days without tears?
In English-speaking countries,
Mother’s Day seems to have had its beginning in 1870, with Juliet Ward Howe’s Mother’s Day Proclamation, a political rallying cry for an end to war:
Arise then…women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts!
Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!
“We will not have questions answered by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage,
For caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country,
Will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”
How far we’ve drifted from Mother’s Day as a political statement! Still, we know plenty of mothers who would rather have $7 a day daycare than a bouquet and brunch. Or how about a rise in the minimum wage, a lifting of family welfare rates, better schools, and free post-secondary education? If we widen our perspective to international issues, Juliet Ward Howe’s cry against war is more poignant than ever. The greatest Mother’s Day gift we can imagine would be a truly world-wide commitment to restoring a world where it is safe for children to play outside.
And what about Father’s Day? To our knowledge a North-American phenomenon, this one was created in 1909 by Seattle resident Sonora Dodd, who dreamed it up while listening to a Mother’s Day sermon, and thinking of her father who brought up the children after his wife’s death. Because “Father” and “Mother” are treated as nouns, not verbs, it made more sense to her to create a special day for fathers as male parents, rather than honoring a man for his mothering ways. And so it is today: we’ve tried to congratulate certain men on their good mothering skills, but no matter how many skinned knees they’ve patched or how many tears they’ve caught for their kids, they generally insist on calling it “being a father” or “papa” or “dad”. Gender seems to be more important to some people than to others.
What makes a man a father? The minimum investment needed to be a mother is nine months of pregnancy and child birth—no small feat. Even then, if the woman does not take the child for raising but opts for adoption, she is accurately called a “Birth Mother”, to distinguish her from the Mother who delivers day to day care. Over 90% of children in Canada live with a woman who fills the female parent, or “Mother” role. But defining what makes a “Father” is more difficult. Nearly half of Canadian children do not live with the man whose genetic heritage they share, and many of these children receive no financial support or visitation from the men known as their fathers. For example, one of the more extensive studies in Canada found that 1 in 4 children lost virtually all contact with fathers within 5 years of divorce (from the Department of Justice Canada). Are these people still fathers? What do they do on Father’s Day? What do their children do?
We suspect that Father’s Day has always been particularly hard on children without visible fathers. In a society that puts great store in fathers (that’s why it’s often referred to as a Patriarchy), the absence of one hurts. “My dad is bigger than your dad” still carries some weight on the playground. Fathers command respect, even in these embattled father-figure times. At school and in the community, a dad is someone who can fight battles for you by making other people listen. It is still a lucky child who knows who his father is, and an unlucky child who, on Father’s Day, has no one to celebrate.
Maybe the answer is a gender-neutral “Parents’ Day”, but that sounds so contrived and sterile. “Parent” is a bloodless word compared to “Mother” or “Dad”. No poet ever spoke of the “Parentland”, “Alma Parent” or “Parent Earth”.
We like to think of “mother” and “father” as verbs to describe different, but complementary styles of supporting and caring for children. Thus, when Serena’s daughter was a baby, she would put up her arms and say, “Ma!” when she was hungry or tired, and “Da!” when she wanted to play. Perhaps if we had all kept this up over the years, we would get both Mother’s Day and Father’s Day cards, along with, “Hey, Mom, will you dad me a loan this month?”, or “I’m so blue, I need you to mom me right now.”
But our best fantasies of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day have to do with political action in support of what caring Moms and Dads want for all children. Imagine a Father’s Day parade with men carrying banners for the safety of their daughters, equal opportunities and education for all children, and an end to war. Imagine a Mother’s Day rally with women marching for high quality day care, a clean environment, and an end to global warming. Imagine mothers, fathers, and grandparents together designing and then demanding a humane, non-adversarial, free and wise alternative to Family Court for the resolution of custody, access and support post-divorce. Imagine that instead of crafts, children spent dedicated “Mother’s Day” and “Father’s Day” time in school learning about the ways that governments and other public institutions could, and do, help families. Wouldn’t that be great?
Meanwhile, we would remind teachers that children need some privacy and freedom around who they choose to make cards and gifts for on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. Then, we would remind parents who have divorced to support their children in sending appropriate Mother’s Day and Father’s Day greetings, and to be as generous and reasonable as possible in supporting a continuing bond with the person who broke your heart. A bouquet and thank you for the person who sends financial support for the kids, or who takes care of them day to day, is never amiss. And finally, we would remind children of all ages to say “thank you” to those who mother and father them, whatever the gender and whatever the ties (blood, adoption, or choice) may be. For whether by choice, adoption or blood, a parent is as a parent does. May we all be blessed with as many people to mother and father us as it takes to get us through.