Happy Mothers Day.
It’s mothers day. If you’re one of those who feels squirmy and uncomfortable because this isn’t your day or because it’s a hard day, keep in mind that this day, like many of our “holidays,” is a devised day, not intended to lift anyone above you or leave you out, certainly not intended to bring you down. We are all worthy of celebration.
As every year, I see those of you standing on the edge of this day.
- a mom who is estranged from her children
- not a mom but you mother others
- not a mom even though you tried
- not a mom because you never wanted to be
Or maybe your mom is:
- living with dementia
- no longer with you
- difficult or mean, perhaps even a monster
I see you.
Which gets me past the greeting and to the point: I also saw the post “Mothers around the world,” images of mostly “exotic” mothers from around the world with babies, sometimes more than one, strapped to their backs and chests. I saw the mom that labors in a muddy field, carries a basket of wet laundry on her head, or, oh my goodness!, balances bricks on her head as the baby sleeps on her back.
- the photos are stunning and hint at a story.
- those women are amazing.
- we should know about these women, mostly women of color, and see their motherhood.
But do we? And by “we” I mean those of us in the US and western European countries. Do we really see the women in these photos?
Do we know their story?
What are we celebrating when we circulate this collection of images for mother’s day? I’m not studied in the socio-economics of motherhood around the world, but something makes me uneasy as I click through these images.
Firstly, if the point is to be cultural, do you know what country all of these women are from? I don’t. I see the Guatemalan skirt, the Bolivian bowler hat, the Indian bindi. But I mostly can only guess at the continents and countries, much less have any inkling of the community or tribe. Not to mention that many of these women don’t even represent the majority of their own country.
What are we trying to convey?
First World and Other
The photos do tell the story of women who work in fields and brick yards, as they nurse babies and provide daycare for their brood. But what are we modeling? Some of these women probably go home to dirt floors and rooms lit by candles and lanterns. They cook meals over an open fire in the corner of a smoke-smudged room inside their home. But even so, they’re not representative of the “norm” of their countries, so what are we saying about these places?
These women deserve to be celebrated, but what are we celebrating with their images on mother’s day?
I’m humbled. Maybe that’s the point. I feel my privilege to the bone. But that’s not what makes me uneasy.
I’m uneasy because I’m an uninformed trespasser looking at a photo. Did she give the photographer consent to snap the photo? I don’t know, and now the photo of that mother circulates on social media in a culture very foreign to her experience as a way to what? Exalt motherhood?
What do we take from this? Motherhood goals? Or is it a reprimand? “How can you complain about car pool and soccer laundry? You don’t have to carry the basket of wet jerseys and socks four miles from the river to your hut.”
Celebrate all mothers
All of our experiences are valid and unique. I’d also like to celebrate the experiences of these women, but it doesn’t feel like we’re celebrating them.
In this collection of thirty five images of women, thirty three are women of color. The women of color wear their everyday clothing, mostly different from our own, sarongs, woven skirts, brightly dyed fabrics. They walk through fields and along dirt roads with children on their backs and bags on their heads wearing their “real” clothes, some of which are skirts that would tangle between my legs and trip me on my way to a plumbed toilet.
These are indeed “Mothers around the world,” but I’m uneasy because I’m not sure what I’m celebrating. My privilege or their perseverance? My dependence on western comforts or their determination and peace in the lack of them?
Also, these don’t come close to representing all the women.
All the colors
There are two exceptions in this montage, two white women standing in a street, not a field or a work yard.
One does have two children strapped on, a baby on her chest in a tie dyed baby wrap and a toddler strapped to her back in a backpack. The toddler is wearing crocks. The mom has fun rainbow hair. They’re not in a field or on a dirt road, but rather on a street, behind them, tidy apartment buildings on plumbing and electrical grids.
It’s a lovely image, but I’m not surprised to read some indignant remarks and reactions under her photo.
—She doesn’t belong!
—What do you mean? Who are you to judge? The title is Mothers around the WORLD!
The other white mom —a woman with her daughter, both wearing traditional Romanian outfits— also draws social media drama and name calling. But for me, it’s not about whether or not the Romanian mother belongs in a montage titled “Mothers around the world.” With that title, what mom doesn’t belong? But why are more moms not represented? I don’t mean more white moms. I mean moms from those same countries who live in lit houses with toilets. I mean moms from a few miles away who have access to daycare for toddlers.
This collection suggests that the moms of most countries of color live like this when in its simply not true.
I don’t think the objectors to the post are wrong. Unlike most of the images, the two white women have bright eyes and an unlabored easiness, a jolt that the title of the collection cannot assuage. I also think those who are incensed by the objectors aren’t wrong. They are absolutely correct, not because the title is “Mothers around the world,” but rather because who are we to know what labor and tribulations the two white mothers endure?
There are several tears to take if we take into account the thread on the white ease of living versus the “colorful” burdens to endure that this collection suggests.
Which takes me back to this: these photos don’t tell the story.
Who are we?
What does it say about us when we take images that don’t belong to us, that don’t belong to our experiences, that don’t tell the whole story of their subjects, that don’t even represent the experiences of the countries the images represent… what does it say about us when we use these images to say: “This is motherhood!”
I, for one, never pulled crops from a muddy field with my skirts tucked under my waist and a baby on my back. I never trudged up a hill under crippling bags of laundry or firewood while carrying a child. Is that the goal? And if not, if motherhood should never be that hard, what are we doing for these women?
Are there initiatives “around the world” that allow me to help? These women don’t need white saviors, but they may need food, new shoes for themselves and their children, shelter. I’m not sure. I don’t know. But I’ll explore the question I would want to ask each one who carries a load that would collapse me: “What can I do to make raising your family easier?”
Motherhood comes with challenges and blessings. Sometimes just being seen makes the uphill climbs easier and the good parts sweeter. Sometimes being included gives you the strength to get through the day. Some of these images are stunning. But I don’t think the images made the mothers in them feel more seen.
I see you. I see all of you who are mothers, who mother, and who celebrate or grieve mothers, mothering, and motherhood. And I celebrate the light you bring.
©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2021
Lovely post, Pennie! And SO TRUE! We need to celebrate the light mothers bring!
I remember seeing a National Geographic cover years ago (August 1993). Pictured was a young woman, willowy thin, in a long and draping dress. I thought it was a model on a runway and maybe the aggrandizement of the newest ‘fashion week’ celebrations.
Then I looked closer. She was crossing a dusty, deadly dry field, carrying a teapot and, maybe a bird or something. The article was about the drought in the Horn of Africa. For the first time, I saw women struggling to fill their roles through the most horrifying of conditions.
Of course, I had read about such situations. But for the first time, I actually ‘lived’ them.
That picture changed my life.