In another of today’s posts, Margery Stein reminisces warmly about her spirited mother.  Eleanore Wells has a contrarian view—not about mothers, but about Mother’s Day.  —Ed.

Over the past couple of years it’s been clear to me that holidays have become of monumental importance in the American culture. Christmas—December 25—is an entire season. When I was a kid, talk of Christmas began a week or two before the big day. A few years ago, stores began to trot out Christmas decorations on November 1, as soon as the Halloween pumpkins were put away. Last year, though, I noticed a number of stores selling Christmas wreaths right alongside Halloween masks. The Christmas season now begins in October.

And the ads to remind you to buy something, do something—usually something expensive—for Valentine’s Day begin right after New Year’s Day. Oh, the pressure.

And now here comes Mother’s Day. Mother’s Day, a national holiday since 1914, when President Woodrow Wilson declared it so, has recently become MOTHER’S DAY!!! It, too, is superlative; it is not to be ignored. The ads started a couple of months ago. Mother’s Day is bigger than Christmas and Valentine’s Day in some ways (Number 1 being the guilt if you don’t do something spectacular to honor it).

On this one I’m sort of on the outside looking in. I’m (by choice) not a mother, and I don’t have one (not my choice) . . . so I’m free to sort of watch from afar and ponder lightly what it all means. It seems that as the number of childfree-by-choice women grows, the importance of being a mother has taken on colossal status.

For most of civilization, a woman’s becoming a mother was a given. If her body could reproduce, she did . . . really whether she wanted to or not. Better birth control changed this somewhat. Women could choose when to be a mother, but most still rarely considered if they should.

But now, more and more, becoming a mother—or not—is beginning to be recognized as a choice. There are far more women in their 40s without children now than there were in past decades. In 1976, just 10 percent of all women ages 40 to 44 had no children. That percentage had nearly doubled— jumped to 19 percent—by 2010.

Yet as it becomes more apparent that, wonderful as motherhood can be, being a mother is no panacea, we as a society seem to have, collectively, decided that we must make motherhood seem like The. Best. Thing. Ever. (I wish everybody could just relax.)

On the one hand, some researchers are declaring that having kids is often unsatisfying—indeed, can mar one’s happiness.

  • From a 2009 column by The New York Times‘s Maureen Dowd:  “‘Across the happiness data, the one thing in life that will make you less happy is having children,’ said Betsey Stevenson, an assistant professor at Wharton who co-wrote a paper called ‘The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness.’ It’s true whether you’re wealthy or poor, if you have kids late or kids early. Yet I know very few people who would tell me they wish they hadn’t had kids or who would tell me they feel their kids were the destroyer of their happiness.”
  • From a 2010 New York magazine article by Jennifer Senior, “All Joy and No Fun: Why Parents Hate Parenting” . . . well, the title really says it all.

And yet we are celebrating motherhood and Mother’s Day like never before. The amount consumers spend to celebrate the day continues to rise. According to the National Retail Federation’s 2012 poll, the average consumer is expected to spend $152 on Mother’s Day gifts, up from $140 last year.

And just the other day, a New York Times article, “The Baby Bump,” discusses how having a baby improves the “career” (and bank account) of countless celebrities.

Last year, I wrote a blog post about how so many people—strangers and other people I passed on the street— wished me Happy Mother’s Day. I thought this was pretty amusing; maybe I just look like I’m a mother.

The gift baskets keep getting more elaborate.

And last year, people on Facebook were encouraged to “show their love” for their moms by posting a picture of her (because, what, if you don’t make a public declaration it isn’t true?). I toyed with the idea of posting my mom’s picture, then decided against it. I’m picky about which social media bandwagons I jump on, and this one just seemed, well, kinda forced to me.

Every one of the morning news shows and daytime talk shows, every single day, has a segment (or three) on all kinds of people proclaiming, repeatedly, their love, love, love for their mothers on national TV. The more excessive, the better. In the lead-up to Mother’s Day, every mother is perfect. Nobody has a shaky relationship with her mom; everyone has been blessed with a paragon of virtue and goodness.

Multiply the pressure of Valentine’s Day by, oh, 10,000. Honestly, I think all this hoopla sorta takes some of the fun out of Mother’s Day, doesn’t it? Wouldn’t it be nice if the way we celebrate this day were more organic, more personal, less full of pressure? Of course, this is easy for me to say. Having neither a child nor a mother, I can muse about this in the abstract.

Happy Mother’s Day, everybody. Really.

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