My family has always been big on Hallmark cards. We give them to each other on birthdays, graduations, anniversaries, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Easter, and even Christmas. And I’m not just talking about those 99 cent cards on the bottom row at the drug store—I’m talking about the $5.95, trif-fold beauties with poems to make you cry! My parents and my sister are undeniable experts at finding just the right card to express their feelings in a very personalized way. They use these moments as opportunities to share deeper thoughts and feelings that, at other times of the year, remain hidden in their hearts. We always have tissues on hand because, well, we all know about Hallmark cards and commercials!
I never really took to giving the sort of greeting cards that have a lot of words to them. I kind of like to keep it short and simple. But the apple does not fall far from the tree and so, like my family, I love to give cards—not just on formal occasions, but also thank you cards, “hang in there” cards, “thinking of you” cards, and “just because” cards. And I can spend hours in a Hallmark store, looking through the off-the-beaten track cards, searching for the funny one or the clever one that says it just simply and just right.
Yesterday, I went to the store to pick out Mother’s Day cards for two of my in-laws. Since they are both lovely ladies, I thought it would be easy to find just the right card for each of them. But I was completely out of luck! The only cards in stock were those cards that go on and on and on in a sappy way, expressing how mother is so wonderful, supportive, kind, beautiful, generous, and wise! The sentiments were so over-the-top that they might as well have included adjectives like holy and perfect or—better yet—can leap tall buildings in a single bound! Picture that with a lot of hearts and floral curly-qs, and you can see what I’m talking about.
I had mixed feelings during this shopping experience. First, I was disappointed and felt thwarted as there was no “just right” card on that shelf for these two mothers in my life! Second, I was fascinated to see the intense need and wish and pressure to idealize our mothers.
Some of us are mothers; we certainly all have or have had mothers. And no mother can live up to that kind of hype.
Yes, mother is the first person every baby girl or boy falls in love with. As psychoanalyst Melanie Klein would say, she is felt to be the source of all beauty and goodness, the wellspring of life itself. She is the center of the baby’s universe—our first love, our first savior, our first provider, our first hero, our first comforter. And so these cards do capture some pretty intense and primal feelings we have about our relationship with our mothers.
But mothers—and our relationships with them—are more complex than that. No mother is perfect—and, frankly, she would be of no use to us if she were. A good mother is there with us in the nitty gritty of life. She is there in the heart of our confusion, growing pains, and intense feelings of love, anger, disappointment, separation anxiety, greed, envy, and jealousy, to name a few. She changes our wet and poopy diapers, in both real and metaphorical senses, and does so for a very long time. And she makes sacrifices on our behalf, some of which we do not recognize and most of which we do not appreciate until much, much later.
And this good mother that I am describing has complex feelings about being a mother and doing all of these things for us. A good mother loves and hates being a mother—just like, if we are honest, she both loves and hates us. We give to her and we take from her; she feels generous and resentful. She would do anything for us, and sometimes she would just like a nap or a shower or a day to herself. She is utterly in love with us, and sometimes she would like to give us away to the traveling circus or sell us on e-Bay.
A good mother is an imperfect mother—and she inevitably will disappoint us because she is a human being and therefore limited. She can only do, give, and be so much. But a good mother also will disappoint us because she can never be all that we wish her to be. Our wishes are just too much for anyone to fulfill because, at a very primal level, we babies feel entitled to having everything we want, when we want it, just the way we want it. And that is just not possible.
But I also want to add that a good mother SHOULD disappoint us. If she tries to give us whatever we want, when we want it, and the way we want it, she contributes to shaping us into greedy, spoiled, entitled creatures who are poorly equipped to make our way through the inevitable challenges and disappointments of ordinary, real life. To be a good mother, she must help us learn to bear disappointment.
I guess it is easier now to see why it is so hard to design a Mother’s Day card, since the relationship between children and their mothers is so darn complicated! And that is true in the case I have just described, when the mother is a GOOD mother–or as psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott would say, a GOOD ENOUGH mother. We can only imagine how hard it would be to design a card that would aptly express the sentiment about a mother—and the relationship with her—that is very broken or troubled. And yet that is the kind of mother that many people have.
So, where does that leave us? I don’t think that we should abandon the quest for the “just right” Mother’s Day cards. We need to honor our mothers—both for their sakes and for our own. Some of us will honor them in person, some through a card across the miles or the differences, others only through a memory tinged with loss. But whatever our lot, we do well to pause and thank them for their love and sacrifice on our behalf, imperfect though they and we may be.
So, in the spirit of short and simple, I urge card-makers the world over to consider the following inscriptions:
*Mom, thanks for everything (you know what I mean)
*Mom, thanks for trying (just that means a lot)
*Mom, thanks for putting up with me (I know I’ve expected a lot)
*Mom, thanks for loving me the best way you know how (it’s all I could ask for)
*Mom, thanks for getting me started in life (it’s been a wild ride!)
*Mom, thanks for all the little things that you do for me that I forget to thank you for
Maybe you have some ideas, too. Please post a comment and share them! Meanwhile, I’m off to the card store in my determined search for just the right Mother’s Day cards…