Posted on May 10, 2019
I can remember as if it were yesterday, being pulled aside by my fourth-grade teacher right after morning announcements on an early day in June, almost 20 years ago. She had just finished telling us all that Father’s Day was around the corner, and we would be making something in our afternoon art class that we could give our dads for the holiday.
We were all tucking into a morning math assignment when she walked over to my desk and knelt down beside me to ask if I minded that we were celebrating Father’s Day in class. “Of course,” she said with exaggerated sweetness, “You can opt out of the activity entirely if you would prefer.” Stubbornly determined to prove my emotional strength to her (and, of course, to the majority of my peers who were now shamelessly eavesdropping) I assured her that I was TOTALLY FINE and would simply make something for my grandfather as I had done for years.
And, as far as I was concerned, this was the truth. My dad passed away from pancreatic cancer when I was in kindergarten, so the majority of my memories of Father’s Day didn’t include him. I could certainly create one more Father’s Day card in art class without melting. I felt immensely grateful that I still had one living grandfather so that I could give her a satisfactory answer, and she would just leave me alone.
This need to prove how “okay” I was would continue with me for most of my childhood and adolescence. The next year, in the middle of my fifth-grade year, my mom passed away from breast cancer. She had been fighting it basically since the day my dad passed. After a four-year battle with the illness, she also succumbed to the ugly claws of cancer.
That meant that in November 2002, my brother and I moved in with our cousins and started attending a new school. To the world, I presented as a tragically orphaned 11-year old who was undoubtedly always on the brink of collapse. All the kids in my new school whispered behind my back and tried to be extra nice to me for the first few weeks, which, of course, was extremely isolating. As time wore on, this carefulness would only pop up when parents were mentioned as, of course, they were twice a year for every Mother’s and Father’s Day.
So, twice a year for the rest of my childhood, I was hell-bent on proving to teachers and friends that I was COMPLETELY OKAY to celebrate these holidays. Which was, honestly, exhausting.
Because the truth was, of course I was sad. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t okay.
Alice and her mother.
I was okay, and I didn’t mind celebrating Mother’s Day or Father’s Day at school, but I was certainly sad. I mean, I was sad every single day of my life. I missed my mom every morning when I woke up and remembered that she was gone. Every time I got dressed and realized she wasn’t there to help me do my hair, it hurt. Every night that I would wake up afraid, full of nightmares, and realize there wasn’t a warm bed to climb into that could take the ghosts away, I felt lonely and small and terrified.
But this is the ecstatic ache of LIFE. We are all complex and complicated - full of beauty and pain, tragedy and joy. And, it is through exploring these complexities and depth that we can best understand ourselves as humans and grow. To try to pretend otherwise and stifle half our depth and capacity is to cut ourselves at the knees. As Rumi, the ancient Sufi poet said, “The wound is the place where the light enters.”
So, of course I was sad on Mother’s Day, but why was that seen as such a bad thing? Why did I have to pretend to not feel sad in order to reassure others that they could celebrate? Sadness is beautiful - it represents the strength of love that existed and continues to exist even through absence and pain.
The truth is, no one has that picture-book relationship with their parents that we all see plastered in Hallmark cards and on flower shop advertisements. Parenthood is about helping someone grow into being - this is not a perfect process! All your flaws come out in all their beautiful imperfections and clash against each other as you try to teach someone how to be better, grow stronger, reach further than you yourself ever have.
So while I was and continue to be an obvious outsider of the Hallmark-idea of motherhood, I ask you this: How many other people also feel like outsiders of that cartoon version of life?
The kid of divorced parents?
The immigrant who hasn’t seen their mom in 10 years?
The woman struggling with infertility?
The person sitting next to you at work who has been in a fight with her mom for a year?
I am not saying the holiday should fundamentally change - I didn’t think that at age 10, and I don’t think that now. Celebrating motherhood is beautiful. But maybe our application of the holiday, our understanding of who it includes, and the way we talk about it - maybe that can shift.
What if, instead of trying to hush mother’s day around any person who doesn’t fit the typical bill, we ask them about their life and pull them in? What if, instead of only celebrating the things that make us smile, we celebrate the things that make us cry too, because they help us grow into complex adults?
What if my teacher had told me that I can and should make a card for my dad? And that I shouldn’t just do that - I should call my grandparents and ask them questions about him. I should think about him and dedicate this holiday to him just as much as my classmates with living fathers because he ALSO exists, he also is important, and he also is a father and part of what fatherhood means.
I can’t speak for everyone of course, but the only reason I’ve ever felt left out on Mother’s Day is because people treat me as if I’m left out on Mother’s Day.
And let me be clear - it’s not always the right time for big, difficult conversations. In a crowded elevator, right before a meeting, small talk in general - is not the scene for this type of conversation and will probably end up feeling uncomfortable for everyone. But, if we don’t make space for these kinds of conversations, if we don’t seek out complexities and depths within each other, we get stuck in surface-level emotions and conversations.
So, maybe on this Mother’s Day, instead of asking everyone how they’re celebrating as a way to make small talk, think for a moment about whether you know about that person’s family. Don’t just assume they’ll have a small-talk-appropriate answer. And if you’re ready for a real conversation and whatever that might bring, reach out to your friend - the one whose mom passed away, and ask her about it.
Allow her the space to have her experience of Mother’s Day for exactly what it is - the truth. Then maybe you can also mull over the truth of how beautifully imperfect we all are - and how our challenges only make us stronger.
Our cracks let the light in.
Alice Millard is the Marketing Manager at Haute Hijab.