In Praise of Anne Lamott’s “Why I Hate Mother’s Day”

No fewer than six people in my facebook feed linked to or quoted a recent essay by Anne Lamott that appeared on, “Why I Hate Mother’s Day.”  Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions is one of my all-time favourite momoirs, and her Bird by Bird is a wonderful guide to the writing life.  She just has a down-to-earth, common-sensical approach to things, and this essay obviously hit a nerve with many in the run-up to Mother’s Day .

I have to confess, I said a quiet “Hurrah!” when I saw the title of her essay.  I don’t exactly hate Mother’s Day, and I really don’t mind getting older, but I do really hate being the centre of attention on my birthday and on Mother’s Day.  I have always hated New Year’s Eve because of the excessive burden of expectations.  If motherhood is imperfectible, so, too, is the fine art of celebrating mothers.

It can be easy in the time around holidays to question the expense and the sentiment and the baggage that goes along with them.  For every celebration there is a killjoy waiting to stamp out the light of the day.  But if it’s easy for killjoys to dismiss a holiday, it is also all too easy to dismiss killjoys as spoil-sports without attending to their very valid criticisms.  It’s a logical response to excess (of sentiment, of spending) to want to undercut it.  And we should.  We should be aware of excessive consumerism in December; we should examine the nature of patriotism in July; and we should examine the duties and the burdens of motherhood in May.

Lamott makes worthy criticisms.  She points to the ridiculousness of obligatory tokens of gratitude.  She points out that not only the mothers (n, pl) mother (v).  She decries the self-satisfaction of parenthood.  She argues that mothers should not be praised as saints because they work hard–lots of women’s lives are hard–and mothers should not be praised as saints because beatification is a double-edged sword.  There is a lot of sacrifice involved in getting a halo, and, she writes, not all mothers actually deserve it.

One of the points I think Lamott makes obliquely in the essay is a point about martyrdom.  At least, that’s the theme that has been ringing in my head all weekend.  The most important insight that I have taken away from the essay is that if we do not want our children and our partners to celebrate us out of guilt, then we also owe it to ourselves not to make the kinds of sacrifices that might induce that guilt.

The only thing I wanted for my Mother’s Day was a trip to the McMichael Art Gallery.  I wanted it really, really badly, and I put all my Mother’s Day eggs in that basket.  Months ago, I blocked the whole day BEFORE Mother’s Day off so that we could go.  I wanted a day, a whole day, for immediate family only, away from crowds and cliches, devoted to looking at and making art and winding up with a long hike in the grounds that surround the gallery and a dinner cooked by someone who was not me.  You can see where this is going, can’t you?  Three hockey teams did not have access to my wishes or my calendar, and slowly but inexorably, the day filled up with obligations that narrowed the window of time to visit the gallery to something that was possible, yes, but not at all desirable.  I was not going to clock-watch during the ever-dwindling window of My Mother’s Day Time.  On an ordinary day, on a Not-Mother’s Day, I think I would have gladly squeezed it in and counted myself blessed for the bounty.  But I had wanted of this day most of all not to be rushed, and that, in the end, is what killed it.  When one of the activities ran long and it became clear that time was dwindling, I just asked to go home.

I want to be very clear that I blame no-one, and I would not have cancelled any of the other events that began to fill the day.  You cannot argue with the calendar.  I do believe that the mother of a goalie does not get to say, “Sorry, Team, we have other plans.”  The mother of three Habs fans does not suggest that they go for a ramble in the woods on the night that the team faces Stanley Cup Playoff Elimination; this is not the kind of parenting decision that is likely to lead to happy Mother’s Day memories.

During the time we could have squeezed in a trip to the gallery, I sat in my back yard and read.  I ate a meal with my family that was not cooked by me, and I received and read my children’s perfectly imperfect Mother’s Day cards.  My husband, my amazing husband, gave me this


and I felt blessed.  But then, instead of joining them to watch the Habs in all of their playoff glory, as I am sometimes known to do, I watched two movies based on the novels of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte.  I did things that made me happy, but a double dose of women in period dress will, I hope, communicate to you, dear reader, the depths of my sulkiness and of my anti-hockey sentiment.

I did not blame anyone, but I was very disappointed.

I was also very angry at myself for feeling disappointed.  Why had I saved for a single day a host of things that I value?  Art, creativity, learning, hiking, not looking at the clock, privacy, family time.  Why had I thought that the day should be devoted to these things to the exclusion of all others (hockey) when the very reason I so badly needed it was because the bulk of our schedule is devoted to the kids’ activities and interests to the exclusion of mine?  The solution to the problem of not having enough of what I want to do in our daily lives is not to try and make it happen on the one day on which the kids and husband will feel obliged to make it happen.  The solution is to make art, creativity, learning, hiking, not looking at the clock, privacy, and family time as much a part of what defines our whole family as the hockey schedule.  My martyrdom was not in sulkily asking to just go home when we could have gone to the museum, but in not having insisted that what I value must also have equal space on the calendar on every other day of the year.  This is not easy to do.  If I ever do manage to fit in all of the richness of all of our interests, I will have earned my halo, but I will have done it without being a martyr.


Writing Motherhood

As you know from reading our About Us page, 4 mothers met in a memoir-writing course for mothers called “Momoir Project.”  One of the books on which our instructor based our lessons is Lisa Garrigues’s Writing Motherhood, and it is a book I recommend highly if you are a writing mother or yearn to be one.

Garrigues fills her book with useful tips, and her building blocks for becoming a writing mother are:

  • carrying a notebook with you always so that it is always to hand when inspiration strikes or a pocket of time in which to write appears
  • writing two pages a day in that notebook, longhand, imperfect but regularly done so that the writing part of ourselves gets daily exercise
  • creating writing schedule to which you commit, so that it becomes as automatic as brushing teeth or making the bed (if you happen to be the bed-making sort….)
  • insisting on a daily time out in which you do something for yourself, self-care that restores your energy (essential for all mothers, not just writing ones)

Most importantly, Garrigues gives us a plethora of ways in to the act of writing.  There are many variations on the theme of “the way to become a writer is to write,” and she gives her reader so many ways to choose to commit the act of regular writing.  Chief among them is a list of writing prompts, single words or phrases to use as prompts for the daily writing exercises.

I have used the tips and prompts often in the past year, but this week I will be putting them to a new use: I will be writing with and not just about my son Griffin.  His teacher has suggested that Griffin would benefit from more regular writing exercises, a suggestion at which I initially despaired.  Our evenings are already pretty packed, and because he has two younger brothers, it is a struggle for me to find quiet time in which to sit with him and review his homework.

But there are so many things I like about the idea of us sitting down together, to our own writing: it levels the playing field; I am not homework-checking Mum, but doing-her-own-writing Mum; we are both working; I can model the act of daily writing; I can show him that it’s not just kids in school who have to do it; we soldier on, and he can see that I, too, write shitty first drafts (to borrow a phrase from Anne Lamott) not polished articles first time out.

Apart from reading aloud to the boys each night, all of my reading and writing happens when the kids are out of the house or asleep, and I have often felt that they need to see me read my own books more often.  I savour my solitary hours in bed at the end of a day with a book, and I am not good at reading while they play nearby because I really don’t like interruptions.  So many literacy experts stress the importance of modelling reading for our children, though, and the pile of books by my bedside is not as effective a model as the kids actually seeing me read.  Ditto writing.  If Griffin can see me plugging away, perhaps he will benefit.

I’ll let you know how it goes.