Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
On Not Learning to Clean

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Growing up, we never celebrated Mother's Day. My mother always claimed it was an invention of the greeting card companies, or that's how I remember it. I recently learned it wasn't, but Mom would probably smile to know that Anna Jarvis, widely credited as the inventor of the holiday, died lamenting that her invention had become so commercialized. Her intention had been to honor her own mother, and by extension all mothers, through a "day of sentiment, not profit." That part of her campaign, alas, failed.

Another reason we didn't celebrate Mother's Day is because we had Mothering Sunday. Mothering Sunday, the fourth Sunday in Lent, is a tradition brought over from the English church. Since my father's an Episcopal priest and my mother also grew up in a church family, Mothering Sunday was part of our tradition, a "lightening" of the Lenten fast. Mothering Sunday usually falls in March, a good six weeks before American Mother's Day, and doesn't (or didn't, in my experience) involve cards or gifts. Instead, my mother always baked the traditional simnel cake, a cake crammed with candied fruits and topped with marzipan. Kids don't much like simnel cake, but maybe that's part of the point.

It has only recently occurred to me that a celebration for which the honoree makes the cake, and which occurs during a time of fasting and penitence, is not much of a celebration, but maybe that's part of the point, too. Mothering is rarely about celebration, often about hard work and fasting and penitence (though whether on the parent's or the child's part, I won't speculate here). Maybe my mother knew some harder truths about motherhood than I have been willing to admit.

In fact, when I think about the lessons my mother taught me, they are rarely the stuff of maternal advice books. Someone once asked me what advice my mother had given me and all I could think of was "don't refrigerate tomatoes." Now, that's very good advice, but not the kind of thing my questioner meant.

But Mom taught -- and still teaches -- mostly by example. When she baked simnel cake and celebrated Mothering Sunday, I learned a set of priorities, I think: priorities that implied a value system so deeply ingrained that it went unspoken. Those priorities include making sure your family is well-fed (those unrefrigerated tomatoes, again), and goes to church, and grows up independent-minded and thoughtful without straying too far from the fold.

I think that value system is reflected in the celebration of Mothering Sunday. The name originally marked an annual return to the "mother church" for domestic servants and others who had moved away from their origins. It's about exploration and return. And so it's also about domesticity, servitude, and mothering -- they're all related, but not in the ways you might think. Mothering doesn't necessarily equal either domesticity or servitude: a truth for which I'm profoundly grateful.

I have over the years been heard to claim that "everything I know about housekeeping I learned from my mother." That's true, but not because she taught me to keep house (ask anyone). I don't remember ever seeing my mother vacuum, though I do remember that it was a chore she delegated to me, one long summer many years ago. I remember resenting the fact that all the rooms had to be vacuumed whether I could see dirt on the floors or not. Now I know better, recognizing that it's before the crud builds up that you need to remove it -- and yet I rarely do. But I have, like my mother, learned to delegate, at least a little.

She taught my older brother to iron his shirts, but not me. Was this a nascent feminism, making sure that I wouldn't be the only one to do the household chores? If so, I think it worked. (My husband, who is not the subject of this column, irons beautifully. I wear knits and wrinkled linen.) Did she assume I'd just absorb it by watching? Or did she even think about it at all?

Frankly, I'm grateful that she didn't teach me. She taught me to read, to never split an infinitive, to set a table, make a bed with hospital corners, and produce a pretty good pie crust (hers is better). She also taught me, by her example, that motherhood is not a set of housekeeping skills nor yet any other skills to be mastered; it's an identity, one that each of us inflects differently as we grow into it.

So here are some of the ways my mother inflected it: she played a mean game of Scrabble with a sick kid; she took me to the doctor when I didn't want to go to school for several months one year; she listened to piano recitals and choir concerts and school plays. She cooked dinner every night and made sure there was a vegetable that we would eat. She baked simnel cake. But a lot of the time she let us alone, and expected us to do the same (in much smaller doses, no doubt) for her. I remember seeing my mother on stage in a community theatre production once when I was a child and catching my breath at the glamour of it all. I'm not sure I've ever managed that sort of glamour, but my children, too, have seen me do things other than mother -- they've seen me teach, and sing, and leave the house to them on occasion. And for that, I have my mother to thank.

Maybe she knew motherhood was just a part of life, waxing and waning in importance as the children moved through their stages, never entirely given up nor -- and this seems the important part -- entirely taking over the rest of life. Certainly I think she taught me those things.

Still, the longer I'm a mother the more I want some recognition on a Sunday in May as well as the one in March. And, the longer I'm a mother, the more often I find myself wanting to send something to my own mother, to thank her for the years she didn't spend teaching me to clean.


Libby Gruner teaches English and Women’s Studies at the University of Richmond in Richmond, VA, where she lives with her family. Her academic writing has appeared in SIGNS: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Children’s Literature, and other journals. Her personal writing has been featured in Brain,Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers the Seal Press anthology Toddler: Real-Life Stories of those Fickle, Urgent, Irrational, Tiny People We Love, and Mama, PhD: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life.


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