Just before falling asleep Sunday night I thought, "Next Sunday is Mother's Day; gotta buy a card," meaning a card for my Hallmark-always mother-in-law.
I'm the one who remembers these things - the birthday card, Mother's Day card, Christmas cards. My husband, who is truly a considerate guy, sometimes remembers but usually forgets to plan far enough ahead so the card actually arrives by the appointed day.
But, as I thought of my mother-in-law and her enjoyment of being remembered, I also thought of the other two women in her household: my two sisters-in-law who live with her and take care of her, but are not mothers. How do they feel when that day (and the cards) roll around?
Like me, they have no biological children, and there must be pangs at times when moms, no matter how caring or careless, are acknowledged by our advertising and consumption-driven mass media. Having offspring automatically bestows a certain status that caring for an aging parent does not, or providing counsel to young friends in an emotional bind does not. Providing volunteer time with youth organizations does not. Leading a recreation district through budgetary thick and thin does not. Only being a biological mom counts.
Mother's Day in America originally focused on social issues. In 1858, Anna Reeves Jarvis organized Mothers' Work Day to raise awareness about sanitation issues, including Civil War battlefield conditions. Then in 1872, Julia Ward Howe, author of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," attempted to institute a national celebration of mothers that honored women's inclinations toward peace. When Congress established Mother's Day in 1914, it emphasized the role of women in their families but not in the public arena; after all, women couldn't even vote for another six years.
Only a couple weeks ago, my husband's daughter Dawn referred to her mom's husband as exactly that - her mom's husband, and then went on to say, "It's not like Vic, who actually raised me." When she's talking about me to a third party, Dawn refers to me sometimes as "my dad's wife;" other times it's "my stepmom" or just "my parents." Now that she's moved back to Portland and we've been helping her get settled, "my parents" has become much more frequent usage.
Saying I raised her, however, seems like a stretch. We met when she was a junior in high school, so I didn't deal with any of the chores of raising a young child. Those things I did with my two much younger sisters, who were both under eight years old when I left home. But my relationship with my stepdaughter - and yes, sometimes that's the term, sometimes it's "my husband's daughter," and sometimes it's "our daughter" - has grown close as she's searched for a mate, developed her career as a performing artist, had an 18-year relationship end in divorce, and grappled with other life issues, including involuntary childlessness. There really isn't a single term that expresses the essence of our relationship. Friend comes close, but implies that we're peers, which we are not. Mother doesn't work either, because I don't have the kind of guilt-loaded expectations that so often come along with biological parenting. Once in a great while, she'll send me a Mother's Day card and I cherish that tangible acknowledgement of my emotional support for her and her striving.
So, a trip to the store is in order, to pick out a card for my husband's mom, the irascible Rosie, and pick a card that isn't too cloying (because she isn't), that tells her she's loved (in spite of, as well as because of, her parenting style), sometimes humorous but always sincere. And, a card to each of the sisters is also in order. They are mothering too - isn't that true about anyone who nurtures others?
While I'm at it, I think I'll send a card to Mary Blake, general manager at Seaside's Sunset Empire Parks and Recreation District; she's a person who has nurtured thousands of kids over the last 20 years. With no biological children, she's not too different from Gloria Hawes, a legendary and tough English teacher at Ilwaco High School. Miss Hawes was known to mentor many kids behind the scenes, encouraging them to pursue lives enriched by great literature. Miss Hawes rented an Ilwaco house from my dad for 18 years while she worked as a teacher and cared for her own mother, but never married or had kids of her own. There's more than one way to be a mom.
Victoria Stoppiello is a freelance writer with many friends young enough to be her children or even grandchildren. You can reach her at email@example.com.