How Do We Talk About Mother’s Day?

The older I get, the more capacious the significance of Mother’s Day becomes.

Yet this has very little to do with biology. For one thing, I am not a mother myself. In the most simplistic, Hallmark card terms, I identify as “daughter” in each relationship that is traditionally relevant to the holiday. Daughter, granddaughter, and, soon, daughter-in-law.

I by no means want to diminish these relationships; each is dear to me, and I will talk about them in this post. But I find myself frustrated by the biologically essentialist emphasis upon blood lineage perpetuated by this holiday. Women create exquisitely intimate ties amongst themselves, ties transcending and circumventing bloodlines. Lineage is not exclusively chromosonal. Motherhood, while important for its conceptual origins in biological connectivity, carries an even richer meaning when we widen the breadth of its reach.

So then, how do I talk about Mother’s Day?

I want to talk about teachers – the women who have taught me and who teach me still. I think first of my undergraduate advisor, Deborah Morse, who has been both an intellectual and emotional mother to me ever since I edged timidly into her office, just days before the beginning of my freshman year. Her classrooms were luminous and nurturing spaces where, over semesters and years, Victorian literature–Deborah’s field of expertise–became my ardent passion. Through her tutelage I cultivated this passion, and it has become one of the sustaining forces of my life. I owe this to her, as I owe her many other things.

I think, too, of so many other women at my alma mater, women like Deborah who taught me the soul-preserving importance of living a feminist life. Women who taught me that tolerance and empathy are not antithetical to intellectual rigor and thus inspired me to become the teacher I try to be. Women who guided me through the woman-authored texts that have shaped my life: Jane Eyre, Mrs. Dalloway, essays by Judith Butler, Middlemarch, Symmetries. I think of my high school English teacher, Carrie Gantt, who urged me to read The Awakening. I reflect with gratitude upon the women who enrich my graduate studies, whether through their focused support or by setting examples as women who write, teach, bear children, love, and live passionately.

I think of Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot and the millions of women they have nurtured–sustained–with the novels we have loved so well for so long. I think of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. I think of how she has taught me to better understand my propensity to feel so very, very ashamed. I think that female-oriented intimacy is possible even when mutual recognition is an impossibility.

I think of Tori Amos, and how she saved my life in eighth grade and ninth grade and tenth grade – how she taught me comfort through “Hey Jupiter” and “Jackie’s Strength” and “Bells for Her.”

I think of my grandmothers, who, at age 28, I am obscenely, indulgently fortunate to know. They are strong women, full of passion, and multi-faceted love. I think of Grandma Olga, wounded by so many when she was young, but never jaded and always so tenaciously open-hearted. And my Grandma Kappy, all vigor and might. She taught me–and continues to teach me–that feminism and marriage can and do co-exist in beautiful ways. I think of Maria, who will, in less than a month, become my mother-in-law. I think of her inexhaustible capacity to love and tremendous impulse to protect. She was so willing to know and to love me, and I am eager for all that I will continue to learn from her. She is, already, a mother.

Finally, my mother who birthed me. Kathy. Momma. Sweetness embodied, generous, open-hearted – a woman without whom I could not understand the nuances of kindness and empathy. The mother who, on roadtrips, let me fill our car with the sounds of Little Earthquakes and who entertained my ephemeral obsessions with Taylor Hanson and Leonardo DiCaprio. The mother who could not help but cry when her daughters did because, as she would say, her heart was attached to ours.

Perhaps it seems contradictory, after beginning with a critique of the Hallmarkian emphasis upon bloodlines, that I end this piece by writing about my grandmothers, mother, and the woman who will possess blood ties to my children. But I am of the firm belief that these women would be just as significant to me regardless of our biological relationships. This is not to say that I am unmoved by the knowledge that my mother carried me in her womb for nine months (bless her). She, together with my father, gave me life, and that is a uniquely special gift. But that gift is enhanced by the intimacy we have cultivated over the years. It achieves greater significance because we have shared our lives, and because she maintained reassuring proximity as I learned to make my way in the world.

As Mother’s Day becomes for me a more generous and varied celebration of women, I am overwhelmed by an embarrassment of riches. There are so many women existing in the world in beautiful and amazing ways, and having the opportunity to know some of them illuminates my own existence.

And so, with that, a very Happy Mother’s Day.