Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could. ~ Louise Erdrich, “The Painted Drum”
Mother’s Day in America was officially founded over one hundred years ago by the efforts of Anna Jarvis to honor her mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis, a peace activist. There were attempts decades prior to establish a holiday for women – not only mothers – to promote peace, not to celebrate motherhood. Julia Ward Howe’s (author of Battle Hymn of the Republic) 1870 Mother’s Day Proclamation was originally called An Appeal To Womanhood Throughout The World and said in part:
Arise, then, women of this day! Arise, all women who have hearts, Whether our baptism be of water or of tears! Say firmly: We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall 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, women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country, to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs. From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says: Disarm, disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice. Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence vindicate possession.
Hard to imagine that in a Hallmark card, isn’t it? Anna Jarvis became so disillusioned by the commercialism that she tried to have the holiday she worked so hard to create rescinded, and was arrested for protesting at a convention where carnations were sold. She hated the flowers, candy, and greeting cards that soon became mandatory and commonplace. She envisioned children writing personal letters to their mother, spending time with her in church, or honoring her in some way if she was dead. We can all see how that worked out.
I wonder if “regular” people realize how painful this Hallmark holiday can be. Regular meaning they have just one mother, and have a good relationship, and are not estranged from their own child(ren). In other words, the minority. Because life is complicated. And painful. And adoption magnifies that.
Back in the early days of my marriage, my husband and I practically needed a cart for all the Mother’s Day cards: His mother, my birth mother, his step-mother, my adopted grandmother, his grandmother, my birth grandmother, his other grandmother, and step-grandmother, and other step-grandmother, and my step-grandmother…I think the record one year was eleven. Anna Jarvis would have hated it, no doubt, but we enjoyed finding just the right card for each mother. We were lucky in that we got along with all of them, even if there were rough patches.
But still, there was pain. And still, there is pain. Because Mother’s Day magnifies everything you feel about your mother, good or bad. For some adoptees, they feel forced once again to profess their undying love and devotion to their One And Only Mother, their adoptive mother. And in doing so they are expected, in the words of adoptee Julie Rist, to “dance with everyone else on his or her own [birth] mother’s virtual grave.” Don’t tell me it isn’t implied, if not overt. The mother is the one who raised you, no matter what. She mothered you. Even if she was cold, distant, violent, abusive, neglectful, toxic, narcissistic, sadistic, or evil, she is your “real” mother by society’s standards. And you’d better get her a card that says so.
Your birth mother is also crammed into a tidy little box. She is the selfless heroine, the saintly whore who gave you life, and she had damn well better stay out of it now. That is the rocky logic I have been presented with time and again, and it always flows the same way: A noble slut who needs to keep her distance. They are never afforded the same grace or humanity that other mothers receive.
A Facebook friend recently spotted a “Birth Mother” category mixed in with the Mother’s Day cards. We speculated it was actually for the adoptive parents to give “our birthmother”, AKA concubine, as a way to keep her in her place. Reminding her that while she made the brave, loving choice to give birth, they are now the parents in every way — she just provided the biology.
In this same private group for adoptees, we are free to say how we really feel, unlike just about anywhere else in the world. And for some, if not many, Mother’s Day is the most hated holiday of the year. Because adoption comes from loss. Adoption begins with the severing of the child from the life-source, the mother. It is unnatural, not just “another way to grow a family”. If the mother died in childbirth, would we dance for joy because an infertile woman got to raise that child? The law states “as if born to” also implies the biological family is as if dead. So we celebrate “gotcha days” and dance on the virtual graves, so happy for the trauma.
Sometimes the original mothers are the toxic ones. They were either that way in the first place, or became that way in part due to their lesser-mother status. They were duped, they were used, and they are now angry — at themselves, at society, at God. So they lash out, or ignore, or desperately try to justify something that is inherently wrong. And their adult children, now reunited, are often on the receiving end. The adoptee looks for a Mothers Day card that says, “Fuck you.” They are sick of them playing the victim, they are resentful of the children they kept, they are angry she won’t give up the name of their father.
Mother’s Day magnifies the good and the bad.
But it’s just another commercialized holiday. Remember that. And when you are tempted to insulate yourself, to feel nothing, please recall what Louise Erdrich wrote. Allow yourself to feel the pain, feel the love, and forgive yourself that you were able to taste only the apples you could reach. We were given more than one mother, more than one family. We were not able to fully embrace any of them, not afforded the time, the opportunity. Please do not shut yourself off from your own reality, even if it is fragmented. It is still yours. You are still worth the love.
Elle Cuardaigh is author of The Tangled Red Thread