Mother’s day is here, and I’m lying in bed at 430am, taking long deep breaths, quelling a bout of veiled hysteria. All my best-laid plans have been felled with one swift move, and I’m dreading how this day will unfold.
I was to take my mum out for a much deserved break from babysitting, leaving my 19 month old in the able hands of his nanny and my father’s benevolent gaze. Squid koliwada, foot massages, and some good old retail therapy – Mother’s Day consumerism at its dopey-eyed best.
But then nanny decided to take the day off, and I’m f*cked. Today will pass like every other day, without acknowledgement, without credit.
Since she doesn’t belong to interminable Whatsapp groups or log on to Amazon.in as part of her daily routine, chances are my nanny doesn’t know what Mother’s Day is. There is no Mother’s Day for most in her social position. Her children live in her native village near the Sunderbans with her extended family so that she and her husband can get on with the business of earning money sans distractions. But things went wrong, as they sometimes do. After getting hit by a bike recently, he’s having his stitches removed today and she has to tend to him, leaving me grinding my teeth in despair.
Of course, I wouldn’t be writing this article if I were able to participate in the exhibitionistic tendencies generated by this day. Anger comes through exclusion, denial of equal footing in the social contract, the thwarting of the Promised Land. Why couldn’t I have my legitimate share of much needed pampering? After all, this is the one day we can hand the reins of the household over to the men without having to deal with their grinning apathy. That and those birthday breakfasts in bed.
I don’t think anybody can have a problem with Mother’s Day, per se. Mothers are a valuable commodity, after all. They perform valuable, selfless labour, day after day, century after century, and not enough books have been written to shed light on the intense burden of such experiences. Or there is a wilful forgetting, an unspoken understanding that this is best for everyone, that life functions much more smoothly this way. Thus the premium on Mother’s Day, the day mothers get to take the day off and be spoiled silly.
The Baltimore Sun reports that consumer spending on Mother’s Day falls just after Christmas and Hanukkah, topping even Valentine’s Day! Yes, we all love mothers. Where would we be without them?
Mothers are (yes, still) the unsung heroes, operating with the ambidextrousness of a Durga and the ferocity of a Kali. Depending on which class they come from, they dash off to work having negotiated the perils of daily ghar safai with the domestic help, packing lunches and tiffins, sharpening pencils, overseeing last-minute homework, dispatching spouse and kid to their respective stations in life, fed and clothed. Or they wake up at 430am, collect water from the municipal tap, cook for the entire household, have a quick tea and mount their bicycles to head to their employers’ homes. The homecoming at the end of the day broadly involves the same cycle of “keeping everyone happy”.
Being a 21st century mom is not the best of worlds. You have bills and laws that govern women’s rights in the workplace, but that holds little meaning in practice. A large number of moms today work without the support of traditional family structures that helped our own working moms raise us. We work in compartments, through elimination, not inclusivity. In place of these structures we create chains of dependency based on largely exploitative networks. We have an army of helpers – cooks, cleaners, drivers, gardeners, dhobis, and the indispensable ayahs for our children.
But caught in the rat race, we have no sympathy for each other, tired with waging war against our own socially prescribed limitations. We leave our children with them as we work, their actions monitored by a CCTV camera, leading us to be unconsciously voyeurs of our own children’s lives.
The exhaustion accumulated from working and raising a family tends to raise the bar on such occasions as Mother’s Day, accounting for the perverse amounts of expectation and expenditure. Mother’s Day has become like an economic conspiracy designed to keep mothers from breaking out into hissy fits about the structural dyspepsia of the system.
An Atlantic article discusses how Anna Jarvis, who unwittingly founded Mother’s Day to commemorate her own mother, immediately realised it pitfalls as American florists and greeting card companies rushed to put a market value on its emotional appeal. She called them “charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, kidnappers, and termites that would undermine with their greed one of the finest, noblest and truest movements and celebrations.”
And here I am, losing sleep over a missed opportunity to claim my rightful share of time outs. Life is ironic, no doubt. But there’s no escaping the feeling, though you rationalize it for what it really is. It’s like every New Year’s Eve, where you construct an elaborate string of plans and parties to attend, all the while setting yourself up for logjams, frustration, disappointment and annoying crowds. But you still do it. Capitalism has a vicious logic and a vice-like grip.
And after all, the system within which mothers operate is designed to hand them very, very few breaks. When life gives them lemon, mothers usually have to make lemonade for a thirsty child. We hate bad moms (not the movie, though that was terrible too). We hate moms who are selfish, who renege from their duty towards their children, who abandon their families, who run away with their lovers.
Nobody’s buying them a Mother’s Day gifts, that’s for sure. But maybe we’re the suckers. Maybe they’re laughing at all of us from under their broad-brimmed hats as they sip their Mai-Tais on some beach with an unpronounceable name.