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The Mother’s Day Mystique

Mother’s Day is coming around. Even if you don’t own a calendar app, you would know. You can not open a newspaper, walk through a pharmacy, or click on anything, without a pinkish flower festooned banner reminding you that the day is near. The ‘holiday’ was first conceived as a call to disarmament (a family friendly version of Lysistrata) and later revised as a way to honor mothers. But it did not take hold in the public’s imagination until an enormous department store got behind it (evidently the miracle of motherhood takes place on 34th street too.) So it really should come as no surprise that the day is seen as such a major retail event.

What always does take me somewhat by surprise is how marketers and publicists view mothers and motherhood. If you were to try and understand motherhood by reading greeting cards (presumably created for adults to give to their mothers) you would believe that throughout her entire lifespan a mother gives selflessly of herself, denying herself to the extent of needing a ‘special day’ on which she can put up her feet. You would be hard pressed to find even one card that speaks to how an adult may feel about his/her mother (ex. “Thank you for helping to make me the person I am today.” OR “Isn’t it nice we’re still speaking?”)

The gift suggestions that have been bombarding consumers since midnight on Easter would have us believe that every woman who has ever parented is in fact Donna Reed (who in fact is not even Donna Reed.) Her interests (if I can use that term) include; decorative scarves, perfume, manicure devices, make-up sets or cardigans.This time of year is when any and every version of “chicken soup for the postnatal soul” is strategically placed on a table front and center of the store. (Noticeably absent from the displays are copies of Mommie Dearest or that lovely book by Bette Davis’ daughter.) There are stores that offer specially decorated (cue pink and roses) gift cards for the day. You know, for the person who’s never actually met his/her mother.

Mother’s Day is one of the more profitable days for retail. Some of that cash is coming out of husband’s wallets (which from a psychological perspective seems a bit icky.) I suppose when a macaroni necklace simply won’t do… Grown men purchasing gifts and passing them off as being from their children (which is kind of the inverse of Santa, isn’t it?) might explain the Mother’s Day marketing of some youthful apparel. An adult is not buying his/her mother “whimsical/retro apparel” unless there’s a biologically improbably minute difference in their ages. Nor are most adult children buying mommy a diamond tennis bracelet (I said, most; I can just hear the dissent of professional athletes, captains of industry and show people.)

Many of us have (or are) mothers who have actual interests, and who read books not pitched to them from a mass retailer or talk show hosts. We delight in the many gift options we enjoy giving and receiving, and don’t use promotions or advertising to guide us. But isn’t it just mildly offensive to walk through these few weeks with a vague sense of being caricatured? If we were to jot down each and every message being broadcast (re: Mother’s Day) and try to distill it into a portrait of motherhood, we’d find ourselves with some sort of apron wearing, vapid drag version of motherhood. Isn’t the whole point of this holiday to honor the woman (not the cartoon) who has played an important part in our lives?

*Photo – Liza Minnelli, Lorna Luft and Judy Garland

 

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Fill Up The Stockings*

Have you written your list?  Checked it twice, choosing to ignore who’s been naughty or nice?  Are you still at the “I’m giving only lovely gifts this year” stage?  The panic has yet to set in and you’re still looking at the gifts in the chain drugstore with condescending disdain?  Perfect!  We can calmly discuss the season of gift-giving.

Giving and receiving gifts should be a simple and joyful expression, but it has a tendency to get a bit muddled, especially during this frenzied time of year.  Receiving an utterly thoughtless gift can smart, particularly when some well-meaning, if a bit daft person, reminds you that “it’s the thought that counts.”  Exactly!  That is precisely why it stings to receive a maternity top when one is a size four single woman with no thoughts or signs of pregnancy.  What were they thinking?  Probably the same thing the giver of the coconut/banana scented lotion gift basket thought; “It’s December, I think I’ll clean out my closet!”  So before we go one tiny step forward, I implore you dear reader to try not to see gift-giving as retribution.  If you do not care enough to give a thoughtful gift, do not give a gift.  It’s really that simple.  Gifts are not contracts.  It is an act of generosity and thoughtfulness not obligation.  Your list will be shorter, your focus sharper, and your heart fuller, if gift giving feels meaningful.

So with our edited lists in tow, we head out to fill up our sacks and sleighs.  If you are (like me) not blessed with any gift making skills whatsoever, it is time to shop.  Let’s pause for a moment, yes?  Shop does not mean buy a gift card.  Gift cards are the work of the devil.  Many cards come with an expiration date(!) and teeny tiny print which when deciphered states “ha ha ha ha ha ha.”  Also, how is a gift card less offensive than cash?  It is not.  Sometimes it is far worse.  I don’t want to know what discount chain you think I would enjoy.  Our relationship is not strong enough for that.  So to be clear, we are shopping for things, not cards.

The easiest and most fun shopping is that for recipients who share our tastes!  Narcissistic?  Perhaps a tad.  But isn’t it fun to stroll though a holiday market, vintage fair, department store, museum shop, and think: “I would like that!” and buy it?  For the recipient who doesn’t share our taste or gender, it’s a bit more of a challenge.  The better you know someone of course, the easier it is.  Never underestimate the power of sentimentality.  Was there a favorite childhood toy or book?  Imagine the look on Uncle Stephen’s face when you “Rosebud” his behind!  Is there a cause that really means a great deal to your partner’s father?  A donation in his name is a beautiful gift.  For older recipients, a drop of nostalgia will yield joyful results.  Old photos scanned into a photo book or a single photo restored and framed makes a fine gift.  Teenagers (or savvy adults) can give the gift of technology navigation.  A gift certificate for: setting the DVR, setting up the contact list in the mobile, making the computer stop doing that thing it does, will be truly appreciated.

And the children, what about the children!?  I could talk until I’m blue in the face (not an attractive color on me) and people will still buy children simply horrid things.  There is no more than 5 minutes of enjoyment that can be derived from any gift which does not engage the child whatsoever.  Try and remember the gifts that gave you exquisite joy when you were young.  I’m guessing they had little to do with cross-marketing of television or film.  They might have been something you hadn’t even known you’d wanted.  That element of surprise and wonder is what we’re after here.  Consider books (I still recall the weight of the entire Little House collection) toys made from something other than plastic (what I would give to have that dollhouse again,) games which engage the mind (Miss Scarlett in the Conservatory, anyone?) music (such sweet memories of torturing my parents with my Creative Playthings instruments) or a beautiful item of clothing (I miss my first big-girl party skirt!)

Gift giving should be fun.  Truly.  Beyond the mall (real and virtual) there is an embarrassment of lovely possibilities.  You may still be the unfortunate recipient a theme sweater or prepackaged “food gift” this year, but you will feel a lightness of spirit knowing you a part of the solution.  Happy Holidays!

* We Need A Little Christmas – Jerry Herman (1966)

 
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Posted by on December 2, 2011 in Cultural Critique, Holiday

 

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