“I don’t think you’ll ever be a mother. You’re just not the type”
You can’t stop people from talking nonsense. I realise that. But sometimes, and especially if you’re a woman in Ireland, it’s hard not to feel like the nonsense is a rather insidious slur on who or what you are. I was standing in my kitchen at home when a neighbor leaned over the breakfast-bar and put forward the statement quoted above. I remember having at least two thoughts 1. Why do I get the distinct feeling that not being the ‘type’ is a bad thing? 2. Actually, I think I am the ‘type’ – regardless of the children I do or do not have.
Today is Mother’s Day in Ireland – a day which had originally very little to do with the Hallmark holiday. It stems in part from a Christian holiday on which domestic workers were granted leave to attend their mother church. Mothering Sunday was an opportunity to reconnect with your roots, by returning to the ‘flock’. It was a day on which we celebrated the structures, rituals and relationships that make a person feel belonged, and ‘at home’.
And like plenty others, the home I was raised in was by hallmark standards ‘unconventional’ – which is, I think, perfectly acceptable. After all, what are families if not an attempt at convention that is inevitably mussed up by the lives of real people? Irish families in particular are naturally diverse and shape-shifting machines that come out of a long and complicated history of mother and child separation. In my case, ‘home’ included a mix of adopted, fostered and biologically related people. And for the most part, I thought of us as normal. Except on days like Mother’s Day.
“It’s hypocritical now to celebrate Mother’s Day” tweeted anti-marriage equality campaigner David Quinn of the Iona Institute this morning.
Quinn and I have very different recall.
Many of us who grew up in ‘unconventional’ family arrangements remember feeling quite buoyed last year by the discussion around why all family forms matter. Ironically, it’s people like Quinn who stifle debate in Ireland about the importance of mothers and mothering. It’s people like Quinn who always left me on Mother’s Day with the same feeling I had when the orthodontic braces on my teeth were tightened. In theory I recognised the value of the whole endeavor, but in reality the tension was almost unbearable. My smile was always just a little too wide as questions about paternal loss, absences and separation lingered unanswered in the air. There is no word that quite captures the difficulty we create in families when we do not give them ways to celebrate the reality and diversity of their experiences.
My family coped with Mother’s Day in exactly the same way the whole country copes. We tried to focus on what was positive, whilst skillfully closeting the thorny issues. Ireland is, after all, the land of mothering skeletons. We’re the land of secret mothers, missing mothers, mothers who were locked up in their thousands and later released without their babies and who are still being traced today. We fail to feed some mothers and we force-feed others. We send mothers who don’t-want-to-be abroad and we send mothers who-want-and-can’t-be there too (to later have the bodies of their children returned in “little boxes delivered by TNT”). Such is our compulsion towards a singular fairy-tale of mothering that we find it near impossible to release a mother from our systematic grip even when she has been pronounced clinically dead, even when her family are begging us.
Mother’s Day is about celebration, but it’s also an invitation to explore the mothering package that’s being sold to us. It’s a chance to give women the platform, rights and value they deserve, by embracing the concept of mothering, in all it’s complexities, as an endeavor as much (if not more) than a fact. We talk about mothering as if only a woman with birthed children in her full-time care can understand what it is to raise, nourish and prepare a thing of wonder for the world. We talk about mothering as if we don’t also have among us adopted mothers, foster mothers, step mothers, expectant mothers, bereaved mothers, mothers who do not, for whatever reason, live with their children. Some of the most mothering people I know have no children. Some of the most mothering people I know are mothers in need of mothering. Some mothers are even men.
In Ireland, our enthusiasm doesn’t always translate into respectfulness. Today we celebrate women in the role of mothers, and tomorrow – like every other day – we allow the blame, shame and punishment of women who strive to own the experience of mothering on their own individual terms. But mothering is nothing if not the willingness and capacity to invest freely in what might fill and break and open your heart. “You have me heart broken” Mrs Brown tells Christy in the iconic mammy-classic My Left Foot”. “Sometimes I think you are me heart”. Much has been written about the film’s problematic depiction of motherhood and in life outside the hollywood frame Fricker had, of course, birthed no children at all. Still, something in us recognises her fundamental motherliness. Brenda is “the type”. And so too am I.
Annemarie Ni Churreain is a poet and writer from Donegal.