When, back in 2011, neurologists again drilled into my husband’s brain to try and scrape out as much of his malignant tumor as possible without damaging too much healthy tissue, it never occurred to me that ten years later, I’d be worrying about how to spend the second Sunday of May. But here we are, and here I am, once again facing down that “holiday” that, to me, is something of a social cold sore: Mother’s Day. It’s big, it’s unavoidable, and once you’re a mother, there’s absolutely no escaping it.
Let me be clear: I think moms should be celebrated and revered, especially after somehow clawing our way through a year that turned us into short-order cooks, under-qualified teachers, bumbling nurse-practitioners, unwilling screen-time monitors, and eternally exhausted house cleaners. All done while holding down, in many cases, full-time jobs that didn’t leave much wiggle room for things like tantrums, remote-learning Wi-Fi issues, and an intense case of cabin fever. And that applies to the lucky moms like myself who had choices and could earn an income.
Moms should be venerated all day every day, and not just for 24 performative hours to earn more likes and emojis on whatever social media platform is your drug of choice.
Which brings me to the reason for writing this essay in the first place. I’m a widow, whose husband died in 2012, 15 months after being diagnosed with what we thought at the time was your run of the mill (if there is such a thing) benign brain tumor, but which actually pulled a fast one by turning out to be a glioblastoma. For those not in the know, which I hope is most of you, it’s a deadly brain tumor that is impervious to treatment and has one goal: To kill you as fast and as brutally as possible.
My level of denial was staggering. I actually had an interview with Tom Cruise scheduled on the day we met with my husband’s oncologist to find out that chemo was ending due to lack of progress, and I felt angrier about having to reschedule the conversation than what the doctor at Sloan-Kettering was telling us. I’d like to think it was my own brain’s way of protecting me from what the next few weeks would look like, but that’s still up for debate.
Once the tumor smoothly and ruthlessly accomplished its mission and when I finally grasped that my husband had a few weeks left to live, I dealt with it by toggling between denial, rage, and misery. But I didn’t have the luxury of emotional outbursts or wallowing in my self-created stew of self-pity because I had an infant to raise on my own, coupled with protecting said infant from a crazed herding dog who had been with us for 17 years and bit anyone within easy reach, including myself and our child.
That was almost exactly nine years ago today. And without hyperbole, I view being a solo parent as the single greatest, most monumental achievement of my life. Hey, even Channing Tatum told me just the other day that only parents were heroes, and he’s right. From the mundane (making sure we always had apples in the fridge) to the major (moving to a borough with the city’s best public schools, figuring out our finances so we had savings for life’s unexpected expenses and college on one income), all my choices are always singularly focused on my kid’s emotional and physical wellbeing. Because if I somehow lose the plot, there’s no one there, in the day to day, to fix it.
My life hasn’t been too much of a maternal checklist, a crossing off of tasks on my parental to-do list. Rather, it’s been a series of beautiful moments and observations: The gentleness with which my son pets our one-eyed cat, the care he puts into his anime portraits, the focus he applies when he’s on the soccer field, the empathy he expresses when his best friend’s sister has a massive allergic reaction that makes her feel truly rotten. I look at him and think that if I failed at everything else in life, I’m pretty sure I’m raising a decent human being.
And I don’t need one day per year to tell me that or to legitimize me as a mother. But as moms, that’s what we get, and instead of regular and meaningful tokens of appreciation, it’s all dumped into this hyper-intense period of 24 hours, which is filled with intense performance anxiety and pressure to be validated and most of all, to feel joy. More validated and more appreciated than any other moms in the world, because that proves that you’re the best mom. Or something like that.
I’ve been struggling with this for years. My ego doesn’t demand it, and I know, really I do, that it’s not about the bouquets or the fancy dinners out, neither of which I get anyway. At the core of it is the thing that kids feel all the time: The reality of being left out, simply as a result of your circumstances, and the inherent insecurity that goes along with it.
So do I just ignore it? Not possible, if you’re part of a social ecosystem in which every parent posts a gauzy, giddy photo of breakfast in bed with hashtag #blessed.
I am a mother 365 days a year. I am a mother 24 hours a day. On this planet, there is no other adult who loves my child with as much passion and depth as much as I do, because the only other person who would have been in that position is dead. My son and I are a two-person unit and most days, that’s enough. Not on Mother’s Day, when the pressure to be exalted just feels too overwhelming.
So do I passive-aggressively guilt my child, now 10, into doing something special for me, be it getting candy or painting a picture? Gross. It’s not his job to be my emotional support system, or make me feel better about specific life choices I made, like my decision to not date. His job, which he’s performing with aplomb, is to coast through his childhood as a self-absorbed, exuberant, happy kid who loves soccer, swords, and his cats. In that order.
So that leaves me relying on the kindness of friends. And it’s a strange thing, to toggle between utter gratitude that I have people in my life who value me enough to invite me into their homes for intimate meals (especially during a pandemic) and a deep-seated, ugly sense of bitterness that I am in this position at all. Do my friends invite me out of a sense of duty or, even worse, pity? I don’t know, I don’t want to know, and I don’t know that it matters. Because if they didn’t reach out and include me, I’d be home watching “Real Housewives” reruns and wondering how I get here. My friends joke that yet again, their husbands forgot to even order bagels, that it’s a fake event created by retailers to make money. Maybe it’s true. It doesn’t make me feel less isolated.
And on Mother’s Day, I am starkly reminded of that fact, that despite having deeply supportive and inclusive friends and family, I’m doing this alone.