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Musing on Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day is bittersweet. During my childhood, I would get insanely excited about finding just the right gift and buying the most gushing card. As an angst-ridden adult, I dreaded the day and balked at sending a card to my estranged mother. It seemed too hypocritical to send one of those loving messages to someone with whom all communication had broken down.

Now I am a mother and stepmother myself. Given the anguish I went through as a daughter, I am determined not to give the day too much weight. At least I try not to hand down the stress.

Mercifully, when my sons were young, the Mother’s Day thing was taken care of in preschool and in elementary school. A class project enabled every child to produce a handprint in painted ceramic or a homemade card. This took the pressure off the little tykes.

Then came middle school. Classroom projects went out the window as preteens were expected to have the wherewithal to figure it out for themselves. From that time on, I’ve noticed that my expectations have risen. Every year, with less and less help, my sons bring me breakfast in bed. This year, I expect breakfast to be a little more elaborate because of all the hours they spend watching the Food Network. (Bring it on, yetzer harah — the evil inclination better known as self-absorption.)

So here’s the rub. As Mother’s Day approaches, I feel a smidgen of expectation creeping up on me, like English ivy smothering an aging tree. In fact, I’m beginning to feel possessed. Is there something about being a mother that invites this incursion of narcissistic yearning, this need to be celebrated?

This is fresh in my mind, because I spent the better part of a day last week ferrying my 17-year-old son back and forth from one activity to the next. By the end, exhausted, I waited for him to say something to me. When he didn’t, I said, “Do you mind if I say something about acknowledgement?” Getting the green light, I told him that it would feel really good to me if he would say thanks. I said that acknowledging people for what they do not only makes them feel good, but (appealing to his sense of self-interest) makes them feel good about him, too.

He gave my shoulder a few rubs and said dutifully, “Thanks, Mom.”

I felt a pang. For some people, showing appreciation every day is inborn; however, it takes some of us (including myself) many years before we understand that telling people about the good they do in the world is a blessing for both parties.

The Jewish discipline of Mussar, which I study with Rabbi Ira Stone in Philadelphia, is grounded in the idea that we are put on this earth to take care of other people. In Mussar lingo, it’s called “relieving the burden of the other.”

Mothers know all about this. From the proverbial kiss on the boo-boo to grappling with the bigger problems that arise in adolescence and beyond, trying to relieve our children’s burdens is what we do.

It’s a cliché to say that Mother’s Day exists for the benefit of the greeting card industry. It might be more accurate to say that Mother’s Day exists to begin teaching children some of the principles of Mussar: to express gratitude, to learn humility, equanimity, calmness, patience and orderliness. Then again, no wonder my brand of Mussar is taught only to adults; children are too busy figuring out their own lives to be concerned with anyone else’s.

And what about Stepmother’s Day? When do those of us who work to make a blended family successful get acknowledged? On orientation day at my stepdaughter’s acupuncture school, the head of the program declared that each parent was the parent of everyone in the class and invited us to introduce ourselves. I didn’t, but I wanted to get up and say, “I am your stepmother.” I am not a mother to my husband’s children, nor did I raise them. But it is my goal in life to be caring to them.

On my office bulletin board, I have posted a Prayer for a Stepmother:

“You showed us how great is the merit to bring up stepchildren and to treat them kindly. This merit is much greater than that of bringing up your own children, because the attachment that you have for your own children is natural; all animals have it. The hen raises her own chicks, but she has no instinct to care for strange chicks, so she pecks at the stranger and chases it away. Raising stepchildren is a holy task. It shows a higher human feeling, one that is higher than that of any other living creature….”

So here’s to women — mothers and stepmothers alike. May we all get an elaborate breakfast in bed, fit for the Food Network.

Linda Kriger lives and writes in Philadelphia. She was a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Providence Journal.

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