A flick of the pen

Lucky, privileged, ridiculous life that I lead, I am able to spend hours of my life contemplating my bellybutton the apostrophe. More specifically, this apostrophe:

Mother’s Day or Mothers’ Day?

The modern iteration of Mother’s Day was established by American Anna Jarvis, in the wake of her own mother’s death. She was clear that it be Mother’s Day not Mothers’ Day in part because she felt it helped eliminate the commercial aspects which quickly came to dominate the day. I’m not entirely sure why National Geographic are writing news articles about Mother’s Day, but they are, citing an explanation for the apostrophe’s position by historian Katharine Antolini: “It wasn’t to celebrate all mothers. It was to celebrate the best mother you’ve ever known—your mother—as a son or a daughter.” That’s why Jarvis stressed the singular “Mother’s Day,” rather than the plural “Mothers’ Day.”

Okay, but life has changed since 1905 and given that Anna Jarvis’s vision was to have a church service dedicated to mothers, there are many reasons to consider a change to the more inclusive pluralised form. Mothers’ Day.

If we shift from Mother’s Day to Mothers’ Day, we create a day that removes the singular focus and makes room for a society that includes a plurality of mothers in some children’s lives – same sex relationships, blended families, birth mothers, surrogate mothers. I want to live in a world that has room for all and many more.

However, if we call it Mothers’ Day, we also universalise an experience which is by no means universal and I get nervous when we universalise anything to do with mothers, motherhood, mothering, because this, I think, is one of the root causes of the mummy wars. There is (I think, though I know at least one of you who disagrees) only a whisper between the universalised and the idealised.

I don’t engage much with the mummy wars or even with the concept of the mummy wars, because I think they’re something of a media construct and because I think it suits some people to be able to say, in a knowing wink-wink, shake of the head kind of way, ‘look, they’re at it again’. But I do know the mummy wars exist because I have once or twice dipped my toes into conversations about caesarean births.

Both my children were born by caesarean of the emergency kind, and if I were to have had another child they would have been born by caesar of the planned variety. More than once, people who should know better have tried to insist that I be sad and disappointed that I have not had a natural birth. Some people probably are sad and disappointed about that, but I am not. Sure, I am curious about how a natural birth might feel and one hundred percent I would have preferred natural births. But sad or disappointed? No. Really. I’m not. And you can only insist that I be so if you fail to see that there is no one size fits all.

When we universalise, it becomes too easy to create a day of chocolates and carnations, an idealised vision of mothers, and, we are back where we started, with too many experiences and realities unacknowledged.

There is death, but there are other heartbreaks too. There are mothers in hospitals, mothers in jails, mothers who have disappeared. There are mothers who collect their children at the school gate, mothers who ask their children to walk home, mothers who don’t know their children have skipped school. There are children who know where their mothers are, children who wish they didn’t. Living here, I am surrounded every day by women who leave their children behind in the Philippines and come to care for others’ so that they might better provide for their own. I’m not convinced that Mothers’ Day includes us all, and I’m not comfortable claiming any common ground.

Our relationships with our mothers are intimately complex and the singular gives more power to that complexity. When we stand vigil around our dying mother’s bed, that moment is shared between us, those of us who stand there and those of us who don’t. As siblings we will share in her death, but each of us will spend that final moment alone. When my own mother died, without vigil, at the scene of her accident, I was astonished that my brother did not want to see her body. I tried to talk him into it, believing that he was making the biggest mistake of his life. How could he not? I wondered. And I guess he was asking, How could she? I thought we needed the body to make her death real for us, forgetting that we knew her differently.

Of course, when we narrow things this way, when we see a relationship in its singular form, we lose the strength we gain from sharing in life and its wonders and its vicissitudes. If I do call it Mother’s Day, if I shun our collective experience, then I must make some concession to the pessimism that I have spent the last three years fighting – that is, that to be human is, from time to time at least, to be lonely. Maybe that’s just something I have to accept, and I think I’m ready to.

One of the reasons I had to have my first caesarean was because my baby was born with craniosynostosis, and specifically scaphocephaly. I’ve written about that here. There were, in those first six months or so, many difficult times, but the most difficult of all was the moment we handed our baby over to the anaesthetist. This was it. The surgery would begin. We did it together, the mister and I, we handed our baby over and we stood in the hospital corridor side by side, his arm around my shoulder. It is the most keenly felt moment of my life. And I was alone. There was no one, not the mister, not my father, not my grandfather who could reach me. I was utterly and absolutely on my own. Oof. It’s been a while since I thought about all that.*

That is sad, I suppose, that kind of loneliness, and some of you reading this will be glad you are not programmed that way. But I don’t know. The loneliness could only be felt because I was scared for someone I loved. I don’t get one without the other.

You know, I agree with you. This piece of writing is a bit all over the place. The logic wobbles, my thinking lacks consistency, I don’t really know where it’s heading. Mother’s Day. Mothers’ Day. Mother’s Day. Mothers’ Day.

I think I’ll stop, because I’ve used one thousand words, and I can make no greater observation than the one my youngest lad already made last week: apostrophes are hard.



*They are the times that I envy all of you who have one, your relationship with your god

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23 Responses to A flick of the pen

  1. Mary says:

    1. Mothers’ Day
    2. Natural versus Caesarian – I had both. I love me a caesarian.
    3. The article you wrote (linked to)… knocked me sideways – simple and powerful writing.

    Love to you.

  2. Stompergirl says:

    Geez, I remember the anguish when I handed my 5 yo over to *school* for the first time. To hand him over for 5 hour surgery .. I can’t even picture the agony of that.

    As for the apostrophe, I’ve thought and thought about it and my final decision was to leave it out altogether. We don’t say ANZAC’s or Australia’s Day. (Although maybe that is wobbly logic because then we’d need to call it Mother Day? Maternal Day?) I accept that it isn’t good grammar; I can live with that in this particular instance.

  3. Deborah says:

    Wonderful writing, Tracy, here and in the piece about your son that you linked to.

    I hear you on the ambivalences around Mothers Day. We keep it low key in our house for all sorts of reasons, but mostly so that it becomes about taking time to cherish our mothers. But I don’t have a clear view about it.

    Thank you.

    • tracy says:

      Thank you for saying nice things, but also for telling me that you don’t have a clear view. It makes me feel better that my own views are so muddy.

  4. franzy says:

    I make it two bad Mothering Sunday stories to one good one.
    Keep it personal.

    But I will email you a cartoon.

    • tracy says:

      I linked to that one! The first link. See, no one follows the links if you don’t tell them what they are. I need to remember that.

  5. Mindy says:

    Your beautiful evocative writing has me in tears. I never realised how lucky we were when the Dr decided Charlie just had a flat sided head not fused plates. Your strength is humbling.

    • tracy says:

      I’ve started writing this about five times now, and I can’t get it quite right, so I’m going to have a think and try later, because there’s something I want to say, but I’m not quite sure what it is…in the meantime, thank you. What a lovely comment to leave me.

  6. Oh, that was good. Especially the bit about having to leave your kids to look after others.

    And handing the child over… I remember that too, probably a similar age, and for the five hour session. Ergh. It’s been a while too, and now I’m going to play an inane FB game to forget it. But it’s tough, isn’t it. But not as tough as knowing your kids are growing up without you.

    Thank you.

  7. suze says:

    I’d never read that piece you wrote before – beautiful. And I had a similar experience, cos my boy was born with an extra digit, and the specialist told us the same thing – he could keep it and grow up and be made fun of, or have it removed surgically. As the day of surgery approached, I had serious doubts that we were doing the right thing by altering his body when it was ‘just’ cosmetic. But of course, immediately after the surgery, and ever since, was so glad we had done so.

    • tracy says:

      yes, I wouldn’t want to be where I am, looking back on a decision to not have done it. I think the whole experience has made me illogical in my attitude towards cosmetic surgery though. I just can’t discuss it with any sort of objectivity at all.

  8. Jennifer says:

    If it’s Mothers’ Day then I should have called my mother-in-law and I didn’t (not because I don’t like her but because (this is so much worse!) I didn’t think of it). So let’s keep it Mother’s Day so I only have to call my biological mother & my husband can be responsible for his own phone calls!

  9. Jennifer says:

    PS My childless sister-in-law has adopted two puppies and she threw a “puppy shower” for herself and them on Mothers Day. It was a little bit of a joke. But also serious… This is the rabbit hole down which we travel when we mess with apostrophes.

    • tracy says:

      yairs, I have a friend who throws birthday parties for her dog. Again, sort of a joke. But not.

      The funniest part of the party was when the parents of the other dogs insisted that they stop eating junk food and go play, ‘Or you’ll be sick in the car on the way home’. It really was like being at a childrens’ birthday party.

  10. blue milk says:

    I love this wandering.. was like being in conversation with you. Just lovely.

  11. blackbird says:

    Thank you for all of this.

  12. tut-tut says:

    one little curve of punctuation sent you spinning . . . very powerful piece, tc

  13. Frogdancer says:

    That alone thing?
    I’m programmed that way too.

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