Published on May 13th, 2020 | by Kate Ryan1
It’s Mother’s Day in a pandemic.
I want to talk about the caretaking labor that the world is built upon, about what women are expected to endure, about the rolling flood of social media posts of misty-eyed sentiments praising how mothers are “incredible” and “hardworking” and “I don’t know where I’d be without her.” The collective stunned smiling oxen expression, a rueful headshake that “I don’t know how she does it all.”
There’s an uneasy trade that becomes visible to me there: this “thank you” for the individual heartbreaking backbreaking labor, assumed and done uncomplainingly; done with no infrastructure for public daycare, preschool, no parental leave, no guaranteed health care. Done alone, in private, or alone inside marriages in which there is just no telling what domestic work he will carry, if any; sometimes inside homes where the floorboards creaking make me jump, where the air vibrates queasily with echoes of doors slamming and sudden, startling bursts of violence. The work of tending the psyches of children while hiding my fear. All the work of mothering is constant, too much to ask of anyone, nothing that anyone would agree to: done with daily betrayals against our younger feminist selves, conned into a bargain that was invisible at the moment of signing and not at all what we thought.
That is what mothers do: the impossible, made more impossible, with no help coming from anywhere.
It’s too much. I don’t mean the sleepless nights, the constant vigilance of infancy, the emotional alligator wrestling of toddlerhood. I mean that when mothers do every part of everything, which is still generally how things go regardless of what your timeline tells you, it’s not a choice. It’s a coercion. Someone has to do it, and so mothers do it, and it’s too much. Mothers do more than is possible for a human to do, burning themselves into the ground, into a fraction of what they are or would be, and the institutions and people who could help them do not choose to help.
By expressing that gratitude and wonder at how she does it all, you tell a story that she chose to take it on. You silence her, deny her the grief and anger that she owes herself to experience. Just because she is brave and strong enough to do it does not mean it was ever okay that she had to do it. It was never something that should have been asked of her.
I watch videos of people leaning out their apartment windows every evening and applauding the healthcare workers, cheering and screaming, rainbow signs taped up over the glass. A lot of friends have sent me these videos, saying it made them cry and they thought I’d love it too. There are many things I love, yes: collective expressions of emotion, in New York City, the place that is home. I’m always overly eager to point out where the myth of New Yorkers’ coldness and lack of compassion is revealed as a lie: “look, look!” I say, jumping at the chance, “we actually love each other and love you and just because we’re busy and walking too fast to hear you asking for directions doesn’t mean we won’t…” But here, I lose the thread. I see the cheers, hear the urgency and gratitude and the sheer cliff edge of a need for release and connection. But those health care workers didn’t sign up to fight in a war like this. They didn’t sign up for any of this, not at all, and definitely not to do battle with no protective equipment, no job security, no help coming from anywhere.
A parade isn’t payment for a life. Cheers do not rewrite the betrayal of the initial agreement. A bouquet to say “thank you” makes us complicit in our own destruction. It’s like when you’re raped and you spend the night in his bed afterwards, the blank wall of your body on autopilot for a day or a few days, as though continuing to behave normally will mean that it was okay, it was normal, and you aren’t going to find yourself crying on the bathroom floor periodically for the rest of your life.
We did not agree to these terms. We are not heroic. We are coerced, entrapped. It was the old switcharoo. And the sentiment expressed on Mother’s Day, the cheers echoing and blending with the sirens in the otherwise silent streets of the city every evening: those are boards nailed over the door, rewriting the history of how we got here in the first place, shouting to the world that it was our noble choice, that we walked into the flames to sacrifice ourselves for our children, for our country. It’s a coverup. It’s a fucking con.
The sentiment should not be gratitude. No cheers, no “I don’t know how she did it all, I love you Mom.” It should be heartbroken apologizing, begging for forgiveness. It should be an insistence that we stop pretending that this is a deal worth making, that we stop absolving ourselves with the cheering or flowers that make it seem like this was a choice, and not a trap. It should be a revolt.