I’ve been trying to figure out what happened to Mother’s Day. Somehow I feel it got abducted. Not all at once, but bit by bit the emphasis has shifted so subtly that hardly anyone noticed when it was happening.
First we need to define terms: Mother’s Day is celebrated on 31 different dates around the world. There is a large collection of them on the second Sunday of May, following the lead taken by the USA. The call to Mothers to take action against war was how Mother’s Day began before the US Civil War (1860-65). The pacifist protest did not prevail, and in the passionate, patriotic times surrounding World War I Mother’s Day took off in a new direction. Then it became the Mother’s Day we remember when the institution of motherhood was honored as the backbone of society and mothers were thanked.
Sometime around the end of the Eisenhower era we began to be aware of a certain myopia on our part. We were now noticing that many women were fulfilled without being mothers, others were not feeling fulfilled in their mother-roles, some mothers being honored were essentially dysfunctional, and the whole institution of motherhood was being redefined. Non-mothers and people trying to get over their mothers became assertive about this. Still we struggled on with our mother’s day cards, breakfasts in bed for her on her special day, and the forms of celebration in church and at lunch.
By the 80s it wasn’t working very well. We had to be apologetic and careful about what we did and how we did it. I think the tide has ebbed now to the point that there is a sense that the reason we’d better keep up the effort is because mothers might be measuring our devotion by how we do this. One mother here in Chiang Mai spoke for many I think when she sent out a Facebook message last Sunday (Mother’s Day in the USA) that she was about to go downstairs and see if her children had remembered it was Mother’s Day.
As it happens, here in Thailand Mother’s Day is August 12, which coincides with the birthday of H.M. the Queen. The birthdays of the King and Queen were expanded during the time Gen. Prem Tinsulanonda was Prime Minister of Thailand (1980-88) to include all mothers along with “the mother of the country” on August 12 and all fathers along with “the father of the country” on December 5. The celebrations are focused on the King and Queen. One’s own mother is remembered by a visit and a gift. There are actually more important days to give Mom her due, such as New Year’s Day or Songkran (the traditional New Year). Those are real analogies for most Mother’s Day observances. And yet there is a difference between the Thai way of honoring mothers and the American way.
In the first place, remembering mothers is not fraught with the degree of anxiety that has worked its way into the American experience. Here, one need not stretch and strain to make sure all women are included. For the most part it is understood that everyone has a mother, living or dead, to whom honor is due. This honor is communicated through certain ceremonies. One really needs to try to conduct those ceremonies, but mothers are not thinking about how hurt they are apt to be if it doesn’t work out as it has in other years.
In the second place, our various New Year’s celebrations are not ALL about mothers, and are not carried out in ways which force women who are not mothers to feel disadvantaged and unvalued. The ceremonies, in a way, from the individual’s point of view, are really about “how I am doing” as a person who gives respect to elders and ancestors. The one who is concerned is the one giving the honor, not the one unto whom it is supposedly due.
In the third place, strange as it sounds to non-Thai ears, the thing that is honored about motherhood is really focused on the travail and suffering a mother endured in giving birth to us, and then in providing us with her own life-giving milk. Poems and songs about this can become extremely sentimental. In fact, they try to outdo one another in effusiveness. All other nurturing aspects are ignored. No Thai child would endure the shame of allowing any thoughts of anything else to intrude. The association is immediate: “Mother”—“milk”, full stop. In that way there simply cannot be any inadequate mothers, it is a logical impossibility. Even an unwed girl who gives an unwanted child up for adoption at birth is adequate.
In the fourth place, just the opposite is also true. All mothers of all descriptions are counted. Aside from the physical mother whom one honors, there are the nurturing caregivers, who might or might not include one’s biological mother whom one appreciates affectionately. Grandmothers count, a lot. Teachers are thought of as mothers and fathers, women who provide help to children are called “Mother”, and a village has women who are mothers of the village. The Queen is the mother of the country. Mothers abound. Motherhood is a broad category that can include anybody who wants to be included.
I am glad that our definitions here in Thailand are not rigid. I am particularly glad the definitions can be inclusive on the key societal issues of mother, father, family and kin. I think living here in Thailand off and on for the past 50 years has helped clear my mind about motherhood, and relieved a level of anxiety about the future. It will not be as hard for this society to accommodate diverse descriptions of motherhood.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.