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A Single Mom’s Manifesto for Mother’s Day
A guest essay by Megan Pillow
This newsletter is written by Megan Pillow. Megan holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Kentucky. She is project manager for Roxane Gay and co-editor of Dr. Gay's newsletter, The Audacity. Her work has appeared in, among other places, Electric Literature, The Believer, Guernica, Gay Magazine, and The Best American Mystery and Suspense 2022. She lives in Louisville, Kentucky with her two children.
The first Mother’s Day I spent as a single mom, I got a package in the mail. My lover at the time had sent me a bunch of goodies — a book, a bathrobe, a vibrator.
Attached to the vibrator was a note: For when I’m not there, it said.
I was thrilled with the gift. Overwhelmed, actually. I sat down at my kitchen table, put my head in my hands and cried. The package wasn’t the first gift I’d ever received for Mother’s Day, but it was the first time I’d received anything I considered lavish and the first gift in as long as I could remember that I hadn’t had to ask for. I was a very poor grad student trying to finish my Ph.D. and raise two kids in the midst of a divorce. I was so desperate to be loved well, so desperate to feel special; in that moment, in that package, I finally felt like I was getting the kind of care I’d always wanted, which was remarkable because I hadn’t been dating this person long. I thought for the first time that someone really saw me.
Four years later, that robe has long since ripped and gone in the garbage, and the vibrator petered out after about six months of sporadic use. The relationship, naturally, petered out soon after. The gifts that seemed lavish to me at the time were all flash, no durability — no shade to my former lover intended, because this is, in fact, what nearly all Mother’s Day gifts turn out to be.
All the shade, in this case, goes to me. The failure of that little love experiment lies in my decision to engage in it in the first place. I was vulnerable and still in the early stages of healing. I was not in a place to be experimenting. But I did learn two valuable lessons: Buy your own Mother’s Day gifts; and when it comes to love, the best things a single mom can be are patient and highly skeptical.
Many a male podcaster would have you believe that every single mom is sitting around on Mother’s Day feeling morose. The snark and cruelty that such people often substitute for empathy and emotional intelligence means their barometers are completely off when it comes to single moms.
Still, as I’m heading into my fourth Mother’s Day as a single mom, I admit I’ve made some mistakes. I’ve gotten this holiday completely wrong. Expecting gifts and recognition from the people I care for isn’t what this day is about. In fact, it can be a distraction if you don’t know the history of the day and its significance. This knowledge has made me reconsider a lot about my relationship to motherhood and the mothers all around me.
When I think about my early days of motherhood, I think about breastfeeding and pumping for hours because my milk supply was so low and my baby had both low muscle tone and a difficult latch. I remember watching hours of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “The X-Files” on my couch late into the night, my sleepless infant in my arms, the blue light of the television my constant companion. I remember the bone-deep loneliness of knowing there was no one to do this but me because my husband had work the next day and at some point he always handed the baby to me and went to bed. I had no friends nearby and few new mothers I felt comfortable enough to talk to. No one but my own mother who checked in on me with any regularity. It was the loneliest time of my life. I believed I would be lonely forever.
By that time, I had been following Heather Armstrong’s blog for years; that year, 2012, Heather and her husband announced in separate blog posts that they were getting a divorce. That post lit me up like an electric current. Her writing had always been frank and irreverent and often messy as hell, but I was so jealous of the spectacle of her writing and the spectacle of her life, even though I knew she struggled. For the first time, though, I understood that it wasn’t all just a performance: Heather had been showing her readers the fucked-up stitchwork of her life all along and now she was actually ripping open its seams. And I was even jealous of that, because in my life, the fucked-up stitches were hidden, and everything seemed seamless. I couldn’t even find a place where I could begin to pull it apart.
By the time my first Mother’s Day rolled around, Heather’s decision to do something different with her life ate at me because it reminded me I wasn’t doing enough with mine. I remember sitting and eating breakfast and realizing the fuss we all made over mothers one day a year felt off. It didn’t make me feel appreciated or make me feel less alone. It didn’t make me feel like the tremendous work I put into caring for my son mattered, and it certainly didn’t decrease my workload. It felt perfunctory, like an obligation, and one that would be soon forgotten in the grind of daily life — just like me.
That feeling, it turns out, had less to do with my husband than with the way we approach Mother’s Day as a culture, and how little attention we pay to the holiday’s origins.
I’m saying all the baubles and breakfasts in bed in the world aren’t enough to compensate for what we’ve lost. None of these trinkets will make up for a lack of maternal mental health care, medical ignorance about women’s health, maternal mortality, deficits in childcare, or any of the other policies and practices that continue to make the lives of mothers more difficult.
Mother’s Day, like most holidays, has become heavily commercialized in the U.S., but it wasn’t always that way. It began in the 19th century, primarily with three women: Ann Reeves Jarvis, her daughter, Anna M. Jarvis, and Julia Ward Howe.
Both the senior Jarvis and Howe contributed to early efforts to unify mothers for charitable causes. Jarvis was an Appalachian, an activist, and a community organizer: She organized women’s brigades during the Civil War, a Mother’s Friendship Day to try to unify Union and Confederate families after the war was over, and “Mother’s Day Work Clubs” to tackle unsanitary living conditions in West Virginia. She was also deeply concerned about the high infant mortality rate. Julia Ward Howe — an activist and poet, and the author of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” — suggested establishing a “Mother’s Day of Peace” in 1870. In a pacifist “Mother’s Day Proclamation” from that same year, she argued that mothers should join together to prevent war. Howe’s “Mother’s Day” was celebrated in Boston for about 30 years, until around World War I.
By 1907, however, Anna M. Jarvis picked up the Mother’s Day mantle to honor her mother after her death and founded the holiday in the United States. Anna contacted politicians and organizations and tried to convince them of the holiday’s necessity. The following year, a service was held on May 10 at the West Virginia church that her mother had attended, and it inspired the idea for making Mother’s Day the second Sunday in May.
The senior Jarvis died in 1905, and Julia Ward Howe died in 1910; neither woman survived long enough to see the holiday become popular nationally. But Anna M. Jarvis did, and by the end of her life, she’d grown so disenchanted with its growing commercialization that she wanted it rescinded. And no wonder — thanks to the work of Jarvis, Jarvis, and Howe, the spirit of Mother’s Day was a spirit of pacifism, progress, community care, and support for mothers.
It wasn’t just white women whose advocacy and work reflected the spirit of the original Mother’s Day. Legions of Black women were engaged in this work to build community and to fight for the care and support of mothers and their families. One was the journalist, educator, and civil rights leader Ida B. Wells-Barrett — mother of four and wife to Ferdinand — one of the first women to hyphenate her name and to establish an egalitarian marriage. Another was Coretta Scott King, who, just five weeks after her husband’s assassination in 1968, led a Poor People’s Campaign demonstration on Mother’s Day. Its purpose was to fight for the dignity and rights of poor people and advocate for economic justice. And another was Johnnie Tillmon, a divorced mother of six who applied for welfare in 1959 when she was too sick to work but was humiliated by a caseworker looking for evidence that she had lied about her need, so she organized her housing project to demand better treatment and ended up forming the Aid to Needy Children-Mothers Anonymous, which soon became the National Welfare Rights Organization. And there were many more.
Somewhere along the way, our culture lost this sense of Mother’s Day connectedness, this radical sense of communal care. In its place, we’ve got a commercialized flowers-and-cards culture that is both nostalgic for a post-World War II boom era and an eerie echo of the 19th century “cult of domesticity.” We find evidence of this in the end of Roe, the threats being leveled against contraception and no-fault divorce, the dismantling of public education, and the rise of the trad wife influencer. All of these policies and patterns are designed to force people with uteruses back into the private sphere of the home and out of public life.
This culture also is not just intent on driving us back into the home, but in many cases, intent on killing us altogether. Maternal mortality rates in the U.S. are on the rise, up to 32.9 deaths per 100,000 births in 2021 from 23.8 in 2020 and 20.9 in 2019. Statistics for Black women are even worse: In 2021, that rate was 69.9 deaths per 100,000 live births. And those rates don’t even factor in the host of other things that are killing mothers in America in 2023: the loss of abortion rights, gun violence, COVID, and of course, depression, which took the life of Heather Armstrong just a few days ago.
This is why this single mom wants to return to treating Mother’s Day as a day to honor all mothers and express both our radicalism and our collectivity.
I’m not saying abandon your breakfasts in bed or your baubles. I’m saying all the baubles and breakfasts in bed in the world aren’t enough to compensate for what we’ve lost. None of these trinkets will make up for a lack of maternal mental health care, medical ignorance about women’s health, maternal mortality, deficits in childcare, or any of the other policies and practices that continue to make the lives of mothers more difficult.
We must remember that no man, no partner can save us. The nuclear family will not save us. There is not protection enough in the most lavish mansion or under the wing of the wealthiest white man that will save you from the ravages of climate change or a mass shooting or a pandemic. The only thing that will save us is in the original spirit of Mother’s Day: fighting for our autonomy, our dignity, and our health and prioritizing collective care.
As for me, this Mother’s Day is the first time in nearly a decade that I haven’t been struggling financially as a grad student or as a divorced mom without child support. This year is the first year I feel like I’m moving forward again and building something new. Being a single mom is still hard as hell, though. It’s hard to care for vomiting or feverish children in the middle of the night on your own. It’s hard to be responsible for every bill and to mediate every little kid argument. It’s hard to wake up, like I did on Thursday, to a water main break on my street and a basement filled with 8 inches of water. But it is no harder and no different than when I was married; in fact, it’s often easier now, because I make my own decisions and have a say in how I spend my time. It is freeing and yes, sometimes it’s lonely, but it isn’t anywhere near as lonely as before. There is tremendous power in knowing I can do this life, in knowing there are other single moms out there getting it done just like me, in knowing we can all help each other.
And I am doing it, even though sometimes I fuck up, and sometimes it’s messy as hell. So this Mother’s Day, I’m treating myself a little. I’ll buy myself a small clutch of flowers. I’ll take my children from my ex for a few hours in the morning and make us a massive breakfast. I’ll kiss their sweet faces. I’ll ask if we can make some art and then dance together for a little while. Later, I’ll get out of my house and away from the cleanup ongoing in my basement and go to a local art museum, and I’ll spend a few hours wandering among the art. I’ll get takeout for dinner.
But I’ll also make donations to organizations like National Bail Out and Kentucky Health Justice Network that are taking care of the mothers who need it the most, and I’ll put aside a little money for my own future. I’ll text and call the mothers I know, most of whom are likely feeling underappreciated or forgotten. I’ll treat myself and other mothers like we are precious goods instead of always resilient. I’ll think about Ann and Anna and Julia and Ida and Coretta and Johnnie. I’ll thank them for the legacy they’ve left us, and I’ll ask them how we can take it up again. And I’ll continue to think about how I’m going to advocate every day for mothers and fight for our collective care. This will be more than I’ve ever received for Mother’s Day, and it will be more meaningful, because I will do it for us, and for myself.
Oh, and I’ll probably buy a new vibrator, because I learned my lesson, and I buy my own vibrators now. Good quality. Durable motors. The kind that lasts for years.
This essay was written by Megan Pillow. I could pay Megan for her words because people like you subscribe to this newsletter. So, thank you!