I’d Quite Happily Opt Out Of The Heteronormative Tradition of Mother’s Day
My daughter loves mother’s day and at eleven years old, still manages to get excited about it.
She doesn’t see the hollow glorification of motherhood or blatant commercial racket that I see. She sees it through the prism of her own experiences which thankfully, are different to mine.
It never really resonated with me when I was growing up. It could have been because my mother fell so short of the loving, nurturing mother that lived in the mother’s day catalogues. I just never felt like I could own it.
Mother’s day has a particular significance for my daughter because she has two mothers. She’s also an only child of separated parents so there’s a lot she has to be across. I’m proud to say that she has risen to the challenge.
In years gone by she’s been the last one left at the school mother’s day stall, enlisting parent volunteers to guide her on the optimum acquittal of her $20 budget.
This year she’s arranged our gifts well ahead of time — one of them was even ordered online. That’s the one hiding in my house. I trust her other mother has held up her end of the conspiratorial bargain.
LGBTQ parents have to have discussions with their kids’ school that other parents don’t have to have. It’s annoying that we still have to do this but it’s better than being swallowed up by heteronormative assumptions that the family at home includes a mother and father.
My daughter has been her own best advocate throughout school, proud of her family and sorry for the kids who haven’t been exposed to family diversity. She does a lot of educating.
Each year she’s just got on with making two cards for mother’s day. It’s never occurred to her not to. She’s followed our approach of talking about our family as though it’s the most normal thing in the world. Because it is.
But it can be tiring when your family is something that has to be explained
LGBTQ parents continue to be burdened with explaining their families especially around those flashpoints of family tradition: mother’s day and father’s day. Around this time each year I come across the chatter in the online lesbian mother community about how mother’s day should be celebrated. Or not. There’s new parents experiencing the tradition for the first time and parents navigating it with their child’s school for the first time. Others find themselves educating the school year after year, wondering if any of it will ever stick and make it just that little bit easier for parents in years to come.
Each year I become mesmerised by the conversations and the sweet frustration of how few responses say the only thing that it occurs to me to say: do it your way.
Some mothers are excluded from mother’s day
I’m also frustrated by the responses that say we celebrate mother’s day for me and father’s day for my wife. I mean, there’s something wrong right there: you are both mothers. It says so on your child’s birth certificate.
Why on earth would you want to constrain your child’s open-hearted impulse to celebrate their two mothers on mother’s day?
I try not to be consumed by the rising dismay I feel whenever I come across an example of LGBTQ couples co-opting heterosexual practices that are grounded in partiarchy.
A particularly sinister aspect of this take on mother’s day is that it plays right into the privileging of biological relationships. How it usually pans out is that the birth mother gets mother’s day while the non-biological mother has to wait her turn for power tools and boxer shorts on father’s day.
It undermines the hard-fought recognition that families can come about in many ways and have different structures and that all are equally valid.
Mother’s Day and Father’s day are based on a binary notion of gender
Mother’s day also plays right into the gender binary parenting model that heteronormative institutions are still trying to squeeze us into. It makes people feel that they have to contort themselves into ill-fitting practices rather than be free to develop their own traditions in their own way. Some LGBTQ families can confidently do this, but many don’t.
The existence of mother’s day and father’s day is based on a binary opposition of motherhood and fatherhood. Why do we have to make a distinction between two types of parents purely along gender lines? And then why do we have to code so much into the notions of ‘father’ and ‘mother’.
The very limiting concept of what a mother is has never sat well with me. I’ll describe myself as a parent rather than a mother any day. It’s not because I don’t see myself as a mother. I just don’t like the way society tells me I should see it.
So what do we do about father’s day?
One thing about mother’s day is that it reminds me that father’s day is just around the corner. Many two mother families have had to beg for the school to make an exception so that their child can make a card for grandpa or uncle. Even when schools manage to stretch to this, it just serves to demonstrate how limiting this tradition is. It just reminds kids that their family isn’t like everyone else’s: the ones that just happen to fit the binary construction.
Being inclusive doesn’t mean making exceptions, it means treating everyone’s family as equally valid.
Instead, the message is we have a particular idea of what a family looks like and we’re going to keep reminding you that you don’t fit into it. Sure things get overlooked but there’s only so long schools can keep using that as an excuse before it looks like they’re just not making an effort to be inclusive. Parents often depend on thoughtful (overworked) teachers because there’s no message coming from the higher level that would enable a more systematic approach to inclusion.
The pressure towards playing along with this tradition means it’s almost impossible to opt out.
A couple of father’s days ago, we decided we wouldn’t bother doing the usual buy for Grandpa at the father’s day stall so we didn’t send money. We thought we could avoid it but we didn’t realise that there was no alternative arrangement for the kids who didn’t participate. My daughter was put in an awkward position where she was pressured by a parent volunteer to buy something. So we ended up with a small debt to the school office to go with our small pile of soon-to-be-landfill.
We don’t generally have issues with the school because we’ve been able to communicate openly with them. But they dropped the ball on this occasion because they unthinkingly went along with this tradition in the same way as so many others. They didn’t consider that it might not be a universally happy experience for children. Our daughter’s experience was awkward because it placed her apart from the other children. But for kids whose circumstances have given them a less neutral concept of ‘father’, the experience could reinforce trauma.
Expecting a young child to navigate a minefield set up by people’s thoughtlessness is unfair. At a minimum, children deserve to have their family validated.
Perhaps we should just abandon this tradition that excludes so many people. Many families look a lot different to the nuclear heterosexual family — grandparent carers, step and blended families, single parented families and separated co-parenting families. When you look at the diversity of families it makes you realise just how limited the father plus mother model is.
Traditions are meaningless unless you imbue them with something of yourself and your family. Otherwise it’s just blindly following social practices. I wouldn’t have chosen to celebrate mother’s day but my daughter has. It’s heartening to see how she has been able to fully inhabit this tradition in her own way.
I would totally avoid mother’s day if it wasn’t for my daughter’s enthusiastic embrace of it. But I’m happy for her celebrate it in a way that is meaningful for her. It’s not about me feeling special or kidding myself that I fit into a societal ideal of motherhood. The day belongs to her.