On a lovely May afternoon a couple of years ago, my partner and I headed to a popular brunch spot in our city. When we arrived and saw dozens and dozens of families in pastel dresses and button-down shirts, we remembered it was Mother’s Day and realized we’d never get a table. But they sat us immediately. There were virtually no other couples there, so they had plenty of two-tops. At some point, I went to use the unisex restroom, and a boy–probably ten or eleven years old–kindly gestured for me to go ahead of him. I shook my head, but he insisted. When I returned to our table and related this incident to my partner, commenting on how sweet it was, he said, “Oh, he thought you were someone’s mother.”
Once he said it, it became obvious, but it hadn’t occurred to me in the moment. I’m not someone’s mother, so I don’t realize that’s what strangers assume about me. I immediately thought, oh god, do I look like a mom somehow? (Cut to a stoned Abbi Jacobson rolling on a waiting room floor after being asked how many kids she has in Broad City.) And then I felt a strange sort of guilt because I took a place in line that was meant for someone’s mother, which was not me.
I’m always happy to recognize my mom’s hard work in birthing and raising me. I was a real bitch at thirteen, so I can’t imagine why she put up with me. But have you ever thought about the fact that the only US holiday that honors women in any way is about motherhood? Men are honored for being fathers, yes, but also for being founding fathers, soldiers, workers, presidents, pilgrims, genocidal maniacs, civil rights leaders, and the son of god. Okay, it’s likely that in a few years President’s Day will include a single woman (though some states just celebrate the birthdays of Washington and Lincoln) and technically women are included as soldiers and workers, but they have not been included historically and popular images of Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and Labor Day do not include women. Their work, outside of motherhood, was usually forgotten or erased.
There are four states that celebrate Susan B. Anthony Day, and one state, Ohio, now honors Rosa Parks Day. Can we make those federal holidays? Can one of them replace Columbus Day?
I have some additional suggestions for holidays honoring women with stunning accomplishments, especially for the times in which they lived, that changed this country for the better. Some managed these achievements because they did not have children, while others somehow balanced both.
- Anne Bradstreet Day: First American poet, author of The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, who somehow found time to write while raising eight children and struggling with frequent illness (1612-1672)
- Phillis Wheatley Day: First black American poet, former slave whose art countered racist expectations and worked to undermine the institution of slavery (1753-1784)
- Sojourner Truth Day: Black abolitionist and women’s rights activist who gave the phenomenal speech “Ain’t I a Woman?” (1791-1883)
- Harriet Tubman Day: Underground Railroad “conductor” who led hundreds out of slavery, abolitionist, Union soldier, suffragist (circa 1822-1913)
- Jane Addams Day: Founder of Hull House, the first settlement house in the US, first US woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, first woman public philosopher in the US (1860-1935)
- Zitkala-Ša Day: Sioux writer, musician, and activist who worked to pass the Indian Citizenship Act and co-founded the National Council of American Indians (1876-1938)
- Alice Paul Day: Suffragist and women’s rights activist whose civil disobedience, including the first political protest outside the White House and hunger strikes that led to force feeding and psychiatric treatment, secured votes for the Nineteenth Amendment (1885-1977)
The Feminist Wire has a great piece on the problem of Mother’s Day (even though, yes, it has somewhat feminist beginnings). It’s a holiday that reinforces traditional ideas of motherhood. Shouldn’t we be emphasizing parenthood over motherhood and fatherhood? We need dads to be equal parents, to be, in a sense, mothers as much as women are mothers.
Since this is a blog about feminism and creativity, I feel obliged to mention some of the poems that come to mind when talking about motherhood. First, of course, is Robert Hass’s “Mother’s Nipples.” Indeed. Is there a better poem for Mother’s Day?
Next comes “Morning Song” from Sylvia Plath, which is not the typical first-day-of-motherhood-joy-and-ecstasty dream we have been sold. Rather, this poem reflects a complicated reaction to birth: confusion, uncertainty, anxiety, attentiveness. “We stand around blankly as walls.” This creature is here; what the hell do we do now?
And then I think of Sharon Olds and her collection The Unswept Room, so much about dealing with her own mother, about being a mother to a grown daughter. As we think about Mother’s Day–about mothers who never stop working, about mothers missing their daughters in Nigeria, about fathers who are mothers too–these poems can remind us that motherhood is a complicated thing. That there are children who are motherless and mothers who have lost children or never had their own in the first place. That motherhood has nearly erased women from historical record. That women still die doing their sacred duty. That women’s ability to choose motherhood or not is threatened every day in the US and around the world. That there are many ways to be a mother. As Hass says, “There are all kinds of emptiness and fullness / that sing and do not sing”.
It was probably my junior year of college that I went to see the chair of the humanities department for a little encouragement. Much as I loved literature, I was feeling uncertain about my studies. I had become quite the budding feminist activist, and when I read Alice Walker or Adrienne Rich, I increasingly wanted to get up and DO something. I was not content with scribbling behind a desk. That’s why I knocked on my professor’s door and asked her why we interpret literature.
Unperturbed, she gazed out the window at the blossoming dogwoods. We sat in an office full of dark, shiny wood and cloth-bound books in muted tones, but the sun lit up the world outside. She smiled. “Why do we enjoy a spring day?”
I nodded. It was all I needed to hear to get back to the books, but when I finished school, I decided to join AmeriCorps and become a VISTA. I wanted to learn through experience and to serve others. I felt a great need to make people’s lives better in some way, and my myopic poetry certainly wasn’t going to do that.
The best part of my AmeriCorps assignment in Philadelphia was my weekly visit to an after-school program for at-risk Latinas. We laughed, danced, and learned. It was their safe space in the day because outside of that program their lives were full of violence. A friendly, open senior on a fifth-grade reading level told me that she had been raped by her uncle for years. Another girl–a vibrant, intelligent eighth-grader who attended with her sister–lost her boyfriend to a bullet in the head because he had the best corner.
I loved those girls dearly. It was a profound learning experience for me, one that confirmed everything I thought about the world: oppressions converge to make the notion of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps a joke, investing in education should always be our priority, and giving is better than having.
But I had a serious hankering for a creative fix, so I went back to school and studied poetry and fiction writing. I devoured the pink-covered Vorticist magazine Blast, the stories of Katherine Mansfield, the groundbreaking fiction of Nawal el Saadawi, the verses of Sharon Olds. I studied Said and Spivak, Gilbert and Gubar. I learned to step back from my writing and to revise, revise, revise.
And what do you think happened next? I had enjoyed teaching composition to first-year students who desperately needed to learn how to write a basic argument, but I soured on the idea of teaching poetry to middle-class kids who wouldn’t do anything with it anyway. Fed up with the ivory tower, I abandoned my PhD applications and ran off to Poland to teach English as a second language.
My students came from all walks of life. One was a wealthy CEO whose wife could never travel to the US with him on business trips because officials would not give her a visa for fear that they would stay. “As if I want to move to America to work at McDonald’s,” he would say. “I am a businessman!” There was a shoe designer, a gregarious woman with curly dark hair, who came from Georgia for a better life, and a teenage girl who was frequently in trouble with her mother. I always enjoyed chatting with an amiable young man who could not marry his girlfriend because his low-wage job in a shop kept him living with his family, six people in a two-room flat. There simply wasn’t room for another person.
Every student there was learning English to improve their lives. Most planned to leave Poland for England, Scotland, Germany, or the Netherlands, where they saw opportunities they did not have at home. I felt guilty for being able to go and do whatever I wanted. I felt frustrated that the only way I could help them was to teach them the language of the people who ruled the world.
I came back and worked as copywriter. It felt amazing to get paid to write and come up with ideas with creative folks, but I hated advertising. Obviously. Then I wrote grants for a nonprofit, which led to my work in women’s advocacy–leading online campaigns, influencing legislation, developing and improving programs for women and girls. I truly love women’s advocacy, but sometimes I get so caught up in politics and analysis that the left side of my brain feels heavy. It’s like the right side is withering away.
I try to avoid binary thinking, but somehow I’ve spent my whole life trying to balance these two sides of myself–my desire to create community change and my passion to create art. Sure, writing itself can be revolutionary, but it never seemed enough for me.
Recently, I decided to devote more time to my writing. I brushed off some old poems to submit and revised a story, but writing is a solitary pursuit and I needed to connect. Therefore, I decided to start a blog where I could discuss current events that disturb me: gang rape, slut shaming, cyber bullying, the bizarre need to legislate my body to death.
And then I thought, hey girl, you don’t have to stop there. I realized I could combine politics and art in one spot. I could make my own creativity political. I could sit behind my desk or march down the street, and either way I’d effect change. That’s the birth of Saga, a place to explore feminism and creativity while engaging with other artists and thinkers and doers.
As I write this, birds in the eaves of my house, in the magnolia and pine trees out back, are singing because it’s spring. It’s rainy, and the slender sprouts in my garden are getting stronger. Even now, without much sunshine, I look from my computer screen to the window and remember why I do what I do.
I hope you’ll join me on this exploration.