I’m going to put on my family scientist hat for a few minutes to talk about Mother’s Day. Last year, I read this thoughtful article by my favorite writer, Anne Lamott, called Why I Hate Mother’s Day. She starts, “I hate the way the holiday makes all non-mothers, and the daughters of dead mothers, and the mothers of dead or severely damaged children, feel the deepest kind of grief and failure. The non-mothers must sit in their churches, temples, mosques, recovery rooms and pretend to feel good about the day while they are excluded from a holiday that benefits no one but Hallmark and See’s.”
I can imagine that Anne’s article stirs up a lot of vitriol every year but, well, she’s right. Mother’s Day elevates a certain class of people to saint status—whether or not all members of that group deserve it—and unfairly ignores people who are not part of that class. And we all know that you do not have to be a parent to deeply and self-sacrificially love and care for people. Mother’s Day, Anne says, perpetuates “…the whispered lie that you can know this level of love and self-sacrifice only if you are a parent. We talk about ‘loving one’s child’ as if a child were a mystical unicorn.”
But here’s the kicker. Tell it like it is, Anne:
“But my main gripe about Mother’s Day is that it feels incomplete and imprecise. The main thing that ever helped mothers was other people mothering them; a chain of mothering that keeps the whole shebang afloat. I am the woman I grew to be partly in spite of my mother, and partly because of the extraordinary love of her best friends, and my own best friends’ mothers, and from surrogates, many of whom were not women at all but gay men. I have loved them my entire life, even after their passing.”
This is why I think that May 11 should be a day to celebrate care and the act of caring. Care is inclusive. Care does not exclude people who aren’t parents, and it can be shared by anyone independent of their abilities, gender, ethnicity, age, and class. And care is something that stays with us long beyond the earthly presence of those who have cared for us.
Milton Mayeroff, who wrote On Caring, said that caring is helping someone to “grow and actualize himself” (p. 1) and caring causes someone to reorder their priorities and goals based on what or who they care about. Caring involves attention, empathy, sympathy, and responsiveness (see Carol Gilligan’s work on the ethics of care; also Fisher & Tronto, in Circles of Care; and Linda Thompson on the pedagogy of care). Caring is not always easy and it may expose vulnerabilities that we are not comfortable with. Caring is often not a one-to-one activity, but rather a collective set of activities that craft a quilt of support and emotional connection around people (Fisher & Tronto). I am lumping a lot of different ideas (caring about, taking care of, caregiving, and more) into one notion of care, and scholars of “care” could certainly take issue with this. But my overarching point is that care and caring embody ideals and behaviors at the core of our humanity and that we should celebrate, not limit to those who are considered to be mothers.
Brief sidetrack, because I can’t help myself: In pedagogy, care becomes an action verb for both teachers and learners. Historically, school was considered to be an incubator for caring citizens. But in our push for standardizing education to the point of squashing out everything that does not measure cleanly in straight lines, we seem to have lost a sense of care in the classroom. In higher education, in particular, caring seems to be anathema with the intellectual work of the academe (Fisher, in No Angel in the Classroom). But teachers should (and often do) care for their students, as humans with valuable insights and experiences to contribute. Care should also be an expected outcome for learners in the course—hand-in-hand with awe. Dee Fink (who is one of my favorite people in my field) considers caring to be one of the elements of “significant learning experiences.” After all, isn’t “consciousness raising” a fundamental part of learning? This requires, I think, that teachers care about what they are teaching, that they care about the learners, and that they care about whether the learners care about what’s being taught. However, I should also note that, since we don’t reward caring as an important part of teaching, many teachers have to exert Herculean amounts of energy and effort to keep care at the center of their practice.
So I’m declaring it: May 11, 2014 is a National Day of Caring. Celebrate the people—individuals and collectives of people—who have cared for you, whose love and self-sacrifice have shaped who you are today. Thank them for their care, whether via phone, email, text, a big bear hug—or via a poem, spoken from your soul, hand over your heart, and sent to their forever playground of your memories.