To All Who Shape Us: Rethinking Parenthood During Coronavirus

Mother’s Day was different this year: understated and quiet, more in keeping with what Anna Jarvis, the single, childless founder of Mother’s Day, intended.

I credit the novel Coronavirus.

Amid a pandemic, advertisers faced a conundrum when it came to Mother’s Day messaging. In a typical year, idealized versions of motherhood depict celebrations many fall short of achieving. But with most big box stores, florists, and jewelry boutiques shuttered, shopping options were few. No spa days or dinners out. Millions out of work are already scraping bottom. Most advertisers went easy on us with short, tasteful messages of hope. I didn’t know a single mother who felt slighted by the lack of airtime and pomp.

This year the unemployed, isolated, and infirm joined those who annually mark a day that can be complicated. We grieve those who died or are distant—our mothers, children, grandmothers, the aunties who raised us; those going through infertility treatments for the umpteenth time who just lost their health insurance; adult children who are incarcerated (it’s a toss-up now whether they’d be safer back on the streets). Parents and non-parents alike spent Mother’s Day either alone, squished with others in tight quarters, or working like maniacs in roles deemed essential. We did our best to cope, united in separate pods, aware of our shared condition. 

I don’t have kids, and Mother’s Day has always been one that reminds me I’m off the celebratory radar. Last May I stopped short when I saw the marquee posted at a local restaurant. “Thanks to all those who shaped us,” it read. For the first time, I felt my contributions and impact were publicly acknowledged. That day I walked the rest of the way home appreciating the many young people I’ve helped shape—nieces, nephews, primary grade kids I helped learn to read. Young women and men who’ve come into my life over the years, whose mothers I barely know.

This May, many of them check in to see that I’m well. I live alone, strong, though of an age deemed at risk. I, in turn, reach out to those who’ve shaped me, let them know how much they matter. With the world overtaken by a bug that might kill us, what we share is the hope we’ll be spared this time. Regardless of bloodlines, hope unites us to do what we must to cope.

As we toggle between acceptance and outrage at our collective plight—physical, emotional, and economic—may we take as our signpost the quiet simplicity with which we marked Mother’s Day 2020. After 9/11, we were urged to go shopping, and we energetically pursued financial wealth and materialism. Shopping isn’t going to solve what ails us now.

The pandemic offers us options for how we live, love, and celebrate in the days and years to come. We’re creating new priorities and practices within our families, friendship circles, and communities. We’re in the process of becoming our future selves. 

Back in 1905, Anna Jarvis envisioned a Mother’s Day celebrated with handwritten expressions of care and single blooms from the garden. She spent her elder years fighting the day’s commercialism, and she lost her family fortune. One-hundred-fifteen years later, as we approach Father’s Day, let’s reinforce the grace with which we celebrated mothers this year, and express our appreciation for all who shape us.

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