The longer I’m a mother, the more conflicted I feel about Mother’s Day. The consumerism, the pressure it puts on husbands, and the disappointment when expectation leads to deer-in-headlights inertia—all of it has me ambivalent about the holiday. But what’s been bothering me most this year is the question of how women who don’t have children feel on this day of maternal celebration.
In some ways I know the answer, because that was me until I was 44 years old. I never minded it much because even though I’d gone through many failed infertility treatments in my late 30s and early 40s, I’d never given up on becoming a mother. And my mom was still healthy, so I could focus on showering her with love and thanks on the first Sunday of May instead of dwelling on what I didn’t have.
But what if I hadn’t adopted a baby that year of my 44th birthday? What if I were about to turn 51 and didn’t have children? What if those conversations with my husband about how it might be kind of great not to have kids and spend all our money on restaurants and travel for the rest of our lives had become our reality? And what if my own mom’s dementia had progressed to where it is today—i.e. she won’t understand who her Mother’s Day card and flowers are from?
I like to think I’d be like Gloria Steinem, but probably not.
Some days I love being a mom. Some days I cry myself to sleep worrying about all the ways I’m failing my kids and lamenting the loss of certain freedoms, like eating ice cream for dinner and putting my career first. On one hand I appreciate a day devoted to being thanked for my work and sacrifices. But I don’t like that it comes at the expense of others feeling judged or inadequate. Having a child isn’t a woman’s sole purpose in life, but Mother’s Day (not to mention American society as a whole) can make it seem that way.
So I spent the last couple days googling “childless on Mother’s Day.” Then I edited my search to “childless by choice,” and then to “childfree.” As my search terms evolved so did my awareness. I discovered that 2017 marked the lowest rate of U.S. births in three decades, and 10 percent of women in the U.S.—that’s 6.1 million women—struggle with infertility.
Here are some of the best articles I came across on being childfree on Mother’s Day. The last one by Dr. Lissa Rankin is my favorite.
- How to survive Mother’s Day for the childless Olive and Artisan
- When You’re Still Waiting for Your Mother’s Day, Babble
- Honoring your childlessness on Mother’s Day, Gateway Women
- Top 5 things to say to the childless on Mother’s Day, The Childless Life
- What Mother’s Day feels like when you’re childless, Red
- A note to childless mothers from Dr. Lissa Rankin
The most important thing I learned is that there’s no one answer to the question of how it feels on Mother’s Day when you don’t have kids. There’s probably even more than one answer per individual, because the reasons for not having children are so varied: don’t want kids, infertility but still trying, infertility looking into adoption, failed adoption, infertility and deciding on a child-free life, health problems, waiting, starting to try next month and none of it is any of your business or mine.
Interestingly, the founder of Mother’s Day in the United States, Anna Jarvis, was not a mother (or married). But she promoted the holiday in hopes of honoring the work and sacrifices of mothers. She lobbied for Mother’s Day to become a national holiday, and Woodrow Wilson granted her wish in 1914. But the holiday quickly became commercialized, and what she had conceived as a personal celebration for families became a card and flower company windfall. By the time she died in 1948, she had disowned the holiday. She spent much of her life savings on lawsuits trying to prevent businesses from using the title “Mother’s Day” to sell stuff, and lobbied to have it removed from the American holiday calendar.
I’m feeling solidarity with Jarvis as this Mother’s Day approaches. I was so grateful and excited to celebrate my first Mother’s Day. But perhaps the holiday is not as benevolent as I thought. I’ve tortured my poor husband over insufficiently celebrating me on this day. And I’ve perhaps been insensitive to my child-free friends in ways I didn’t realize. So this year, my Mother’s Day will be as Jarvis originally intended.