Celebrate me! But don’t limit it just to Mother’s Day

Is it almost Mother’s Day again? I swear, it seems like just yesterday that I was hatching plans to escape for the day and telling my husband and two teenagers that “all I wanted” was to find the house clean when I returned. It’s come around again so soon!

I won’t be going out to brunch, receiving flowers or opening gifts — no keepsake jewelry, herb gardens, chocolate-dipped strawberries or personalized mugs will cross my threshold — because I’ve found a formula that works much, much better: I spend the entire day exactly how I want, with no one to please but myself, and without a shred of guilt since it’s “my” day. In fact, I would argue that I’m doing my family a favor by taking them off the hook.

Oh, who am I kidding. I’ve fashioned this system to protect myself. After years of shouldering minor Mother’s Day disappointments — a consequence of unrealistic expectations generated, I suspect, by a lifetime of commercial hype — I concluded it was unfair to expect my family to take over my role for a day. For me, it is second nature to anticipate everyone’s needs, juggle activities, deal with decisions and minutiae and be full of fun surprises. For them, the premise was a setup, and doomed to falter.

I’ve talked to plenty of moms who don’t look forward to Mother’s Day, and a few who really hate it. Some of us no longer have living mothers and are pained by the in-your-face reminder. Many reject the commercialism and the assumption that we all want to celebrate in the same way. Others don’t want their families to act out of obligation. One friend rages against the hypocrisy that we make such a big deal out of Mother’s Day but remain the only industrialized nation that does not require paid family leave, and that labels mothers who stay at home as “lucky” or “privileged.”

But to a person, I would bet none of them would feel very good if their families ignored the holiday altogether. This puts our loved ones in a squeeze, because it’s hard to please Mom when she is sending mixed messages.

I consider my own ideology on the matter evolved and my intentions pure, but I’m not always willing to face the mirror. I’m afraid I’ll see a martyr looking back at me. I may be above the fanfare, but the truth is that I do want recognition and appreciation, even if it’s as simple as hugs from my kids and an acknowledgment that this is not any old day. I just don’t want it to feel scripted or artificial.

Am I starting to sound like a Jewish mother? Though unfairly maligned, she is also depicted pretty accurately as difficult to please, controlling, long-suffering, self-sacrificing and neurotic; she feels underappreciated, insists she’s fine when she’s not and wields guilt like a sword. I wouldn’t describe myself in those terms, but I wouldn’t completely deny them, either.

Israel, interestingly, does not have Mother’s Day. Yom HaMishpachah, or Family Day, is celebrated in February by young children and has no commercial component. Incidentally, Israelis also do not share the American tradition of Jewish mother jokes, since all mothers in Israel are presumed to be Jewish. Instead their jokes are said to poke fun at “Polish mothers.”

Poking fun surely wasn’t the intent behind “A Brivele der Mamen” (A Little Letter to Mama), the wildly popular song from 1907 by Yiddish composer Solomon Smulewitz (possibly related to my Ukrainian cousins the Schmulevitches?). Its sentimental theme resonated with many American Jewish immigrants who had left parents behind in Eastern Europe. Talk about using guilt as a weapon! The song starts with a lonely mother appealing to her successful son in New York to respond to her letters and heal her “bitter heart.” The jerk never does answer, and in one final letter he learns she is dead and has expressed a dying wish to “say a little Kaddish for your mother.”

My family needs to listen to that song and discover how good they have it. I may be a Jewish mother, but I’m not one of those Jewish mothers. In fact, it occurs to me that the real problem with Mother’s Day is that it is impossible to celebrate my wonderfulness in a single day. Don’t even try.

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Sue Barnett

Sue Barnett is J.'s senior editor. She can be reached at sueb@jweekly.com.