When I was a (precocious, bratty, alarmingly widely-read) child, I used to call my mother “Mommie Dearest” to irk her. I didn’t actually understand what the big deal was, probably because my notions of the obligations of motherhood were yet unformed and because I lacked the experience of widespread judgment, censure, and equally inappropriate approbation and opprobrium with which perfect strangers feel entitled to shower us on the basis of our motherhood. So that little barb, coming from me, wasn’t an indictment of my mother’s parenting skills, kindness, or commitment to her family; it was just a way to make my mom grit her teeth and cast her eyes heavenward.

Now I am an adult, and my husband is an avid reader of Vanity Fair, so I understand a little more about the alleged sins of Joan Crawford. And I have to regret my callow callousness a little bit. But I’m growing up, you know? I’m realizing the depth of my insensitivity, my total failure to appreciate the pressures and circumscription that even my mother, a relatively liberated mid ’70s West Coast mom, experienced. Unfortunately, I have also realized that there’s probably no way to make up for the grief I gave her.

In Salon today, Phyllis Chesler writes about motherhood, parenting, second- vs. third-wave feminism, and Rebecca Walker’s public recriminations of her mother, Alice. It’s a piece worth reading. But what stands out in it is this rebuttal to Rebecca Walker’s public decrying of her mother’s failure to fill the stay-at-home mom role amply occupied by her stepmother, Judy:

Yes, and Alice did all the things that women like Judy don’t want to do and can’t do: Write great poems and novels, devote oneself to world work, crusade for human and women’s rights. Rebecca: Trust me, a woman really cannot do both. The myth that we can is a dangerous one.

Chesler makes some important points about the fact that third-wave feminism may not always appreciate the oppression of motherhood and how it was applied to past generations of women. She describes the danger women risk when they try to do anything else but mother well. And she makes the revolutionary and yet entirely relevant, necessary observation that women are still measured by their success as mothers (and demonized for their failures at mothering):

However, great men are allowed every excess and failure; great women are never forgiven for making a single mistake. Great men are allowed their female mistresses, male lovers, wife-secretaries, binges — and they rarely see their children. Or they exploit and abuse them.

Are we conscious of how ingrained this kind of bias, this negative judgment, is in all of us? Is a writer like Rebecca Walker (whom Chesler damns with the faint praise of being “beautiful and talented in her own right” as opposed to Alice Walker’s “world-class talent”, and, having caught more than one essay, radio piece, etc. by the younger Walker, I have to agree) aware of the unfairness of the lens through which she views her own childhood? Did anyone ask how much time Obama was spending with his kids during this primary — the one where Hillary Clinton was accused of every sin of character in the book, not to mention “pimping out” Chelsea?

I doubt it. And that brings me back to what Chesler says, and what I said a few days ago: you can’t have it all. And you are crazy to even try. Sorry, kids — I know you were hoping that you could raise a beautiful family and have an organic garden and write thoughtful, above-average literary novels and go to your kid’s baseball games, but you can’t, or rather, you could, but who wants to write above-average literary novels? Nobody’s going to remember them in fifty years; above-average means that your date was polite and wearing a pressed shirt and could converse intelligently about current trends in the habits of the bourgeoisie (slow food, tap water vs. bottled water, David Sedaris, and anything else recently featured on NPR). Rebecca Walker is above-average. Rebecca Walker is making a living and has a following (probably of mostly white, upper middle class women too timid to question her assertions and regaled by the exoticism of her mixed-race ancestry and the fact that she named her kid after a Tibetan lama, but that’s another post).

But in love, as in literature, we’re not looking for above-average. “Good enough” is a phrase often tossed around as definitive in mothering, but not so in art. The date that’s adequately groomed and reasonably articulate is OK; we can survive on that, biding our time and confirming our assumptions about life until something sublime comes along, something that will sweep us off our feet and have us waking up, bleary-eyed and breathless, in Tahiti with a new and charming tattoo on our left palm — a tattoo we would never have considered getting, one that challenges our assumptions, one that transforms us.

Alice Walker is not above-average. Alice Walker will take you to Tahiti and to an unbelievable (and sometimes scary) tattoo artist.

In my own life, I’m a lot of things, impatient and stressed-out and caustic and supercilious being chief among them. But I’m usually not a liar. And I hope I’m not a coward. And I think I’m clear-sighted enough to say, again: No. You can’t have it all. Transformative art does not have a lot of respect for families, for stability, for parenting skills, for environmental quality, for regular and thoughtfully-planned meals. So if these things are important to you, make your choice — and that goes for men as well as women, because even if we still tend to blame women when the parenting isn’t up to snuff, men are no longer expected to supply nothing more than a dinnertime appetite and a paycheck.

And if you are lucky enough to be the child of a parent who maybe didn’t make nutritionally balanced meals and wasn’t around as much as you’d have liked, but who transformed this world and the people in it, think about this before you complain: think about how much bigger and more interesting your world is because of it. Think of how not getting the attention you wanted enriched you, even as it stung. Think of how your mother’s “failings” cannot be laid entirely at her door, but must be shared with your father and with every person in your life and in this world who expected the lion’s share of parenting to go to her.

Because the truth is that all our parents fail us, and none of them manages to always give us exactly what we need. And many, many children do not have the benefit of a mother who transformed the world. Many children, in fact, having nothing but human frailty to blame their parents’ failing on.

The full text of the rhyme is like this, and I don’t think I learned it from the playground; I think I learned it from my excavations into books set in the fifties from our local library. They’ve cleaned out those books now, and the kids these days only read books about glossy, poreless vampires having dramatic sexual encounters with that brainy girl from high school, or something, but back in the eighties, my mythology was of a bygone era of jell-o molds and cream sodas:

My mother, your mother,

live across the way;

Fifteen, sixteen,

East Broadway;

Every night they have a fight

And this is what they say:

Icka bicka backa soda cracker

Out goes she!

That’s what those little girls in their knee-length skirts and ankle socks would chant while playing jump rope or hop scotch or whatever. With their pigtails and their Mary Janes and their “It Smells to Heaven” casseroles and their powder-blue convertibles (now I’m thinking of a particular book, Fifteen by Beverly Clearly. Was I the last girl alive to have read that book? The one where Jane wouldn’t eat that casserole even though it was her favorite because “It had onions in it and she did not want to breathe onions on Stan at the movie”?).

Probably. Hopefully. Because although I can’t attest to the feminist cred of poreless vampires, the message of Fifteen pretty much sucked. Jane orders a dish of vanilla ice cream rather than her favorite (a chocolate coke float) because she thinks vanilla ice cream sounds more “sophisticated.” Jane spends, in fact, an inordinate amount of time worrying about what Stan will think of her, and she frets and frets about whether he likes her as much as she likes him, and when he gruffly, charmingly asks her to go steady at the end of the book, she is over the moon, because that is the apex of happiness, apparently. In all, it’s a pretty sick manifestation of the whole Father Knows Best mentality, from the point of view of the willing subjugee.

I often wonder why I didn’t internalize these models more. My own mother, while no doormat, was also not a champion of positive self-assertion; she was also certainly not the economically empowered member of our household, and she didn’t get her master’s until I was in grade school (in a typically female field, teaching). She spent our early years home with us while my dad made the big bucks working for a tech firm. Perhaps it’s that he (apparently) would show up on the dot of five every day, throw off his suit jacket, and take over all household duties until bedtime and beyond, demonstrating that the labor of householding and domesticity was shared, period. Perhaps it’s that the one thing I remember about when she went back to school was him remarking to me that she got straight A’s, and that she always got straight A’s, and that it was clear when he said it that he, Stanford PhD., admired that and thought she was smart (I later learned that, during the one semester at Berkeley when they were dating — they dated three months before getting married — he got “terrible grades,” although “terrible” is a relative term). Perhaps it’s that my dad is the one who taught me how to sew. Whatever it was, something about my upbringing saved me from internalizing Jane Purdy’s wistful sighs as a model for my life, and I’m glad. I felt (relatively) free of those fetters — the fetters of having to be pretty and having to behave myself and having to be “nice;” if there’s anything that happened as my teens solidified into twenties, it’s that I had more agency and behaved more and more as if the way to succeed in life was to be a caustic iconoclast whose love life was completely independent of her activities or self-worth.

But part of that feeling was a subterranean conviction that motherhood was not for me, that if motherhood got its tentacles into you there was no way to have agency, no way to be free, and no way to get out from under a mound of laundry and postponed goals. I could say that it’s because my mother was like that, and she might think it’s true, but what was more true was that as a child, I saw my mother’s activities as threatening to me, and in my teens she basically disappeared entirely in the name of Finding Myself and Doing Something I Want to Do for a Change, and I wasn’t ready for that and so the age-old “good mother vs. fulfilled human being” dichotomy was once again in play.

Or maybe it’s the fact that my grandmother, married and the mother of two by age 22, ended her life with a shot to the head, and that my mother always attributed this to her having been trapped and powerless in her life, in her marriage, in her motherhood; my mom’s childhood was spent bouncing from relative to relative while her mother was in an out of mental institutions prior to the big, er, bang. And so motherhood just never seemed all that appealing to me. Womanhood, okay. Motherhood? Eh.

That was then. Now I’m a mother of two, and I’ve come to see womanhood and motherhood as mutually inclusive terms, from a biological standpoint. We are designed to reproduce; most of us will. While one of the triumphs of feminism is validating the choices of those who choose not to reproduce, another is supporting the viewpoint that just because a woman has children doesn’t mean she no longer can string a sentence together unless it involves the words “diap,” “bibby,” and “num-nums.”

Though I’ve seen it happen. Which is why I avoid baby showers.

Anyway, all of this is a way of approaching the idea of Mother’s Day. It wasn’t a holiday much celebrated in our house (pick a reason! And did I mention that my father grew up motherless?), so I’m pretty new to it. In early adulthood we started a loose sort of brunch tradition, but that was before my sister decided that she might catch a fatal case of the Normals by hanging out with me. When I was pregnant with Thing One, K. gave me a Playstation Two and Tekken for Mother’s Day, which I thought was weird, but I spent a fair amount of time kicking video ass and worrying that my unborn child would be negatively affected by all the adrenaline (stay tuned). I don’t remember if anything happened last year, or the year before, but if it did it probably involved an undesired, grocery store box of candy.

This year we didn’t plan anything, and I spent the day frantic with mundane tasks, from a dawn scrubbing the porch on hands and knees to a dusk grading papers until I finally collapsed in a heap. I didn’t get a Mother’s Day card or a Mother’s Day brunch or a Mother’s Day present, and I barely managed to call my own mother. Which is OK. I think Mother’s Day is kind of a fake holiday, anyway. Not that I don’t honor mothers; I just think that Mother’s Day, as it’s manifest in contemporary society, bears an uncomfortable resemblance to Secretary’s Day: it’s a time to say, Here. For doing all the dirty work, for never getting a night off, for tying up all the loose ends: here’s a card. Or a box of chocolates. Or a brunch where you can try desperately to keep your kids in check/away from allergens/from screaming down the house, while your male benefactor eats Eggs Benedict and beams. Knock yourself out. Here’s a vacuum cleaner so you can clean up after me more, or a gift card so you can end up buying somebody else something, or a “pampering spa day” so you can look pretty for the men in your life and feel slightly less bitter about scraping the poop off the dirty diapers. You’re a peach.

Yeah, there’s something intrinsically disingenuous about Mother’s Day and its trappings, that’s for sure. I can’t think of a single typical “Mother’s Day gift” that doesn’t involve either facilitating the unfun parts of mothering or offering token compensation for them. As a holiday, it’s pretty far behind the times. Or so I’d like to think.

If we are to really celebrate mothers, we need to think about what the meaningful work of mothering is, and recognize how much unmeaningful, but very necessary, work goes along with that. What would I like to see?

Next mother’s day, make the mother in your life a meal and clean it up. Weed the garden. Write her a letter sharing something from childhood that she doesn’t know you remember. Upgrade her software. Fill up her car. Tell her you’ve noticed how much intelligence and forbearance and heart she brings to mothering and how her children are lucky to have her. Talk to her about the other things she does that enrich her mothering (my sister may be batshit crazy, but the nicest thing she ever said to me was that I was a poet and a writer and a professor and spoke fluent French, and all of those things would be gifts to my children. I hope she was right).

In other words, I’d like to see people showing their mothers and the mothers of their children exactly how far motherhood as come, how far womanhood as come, because I know there are people out there who still haven’t been able to shake the nagging voice that says women are nothing but the sum of the men in their lives. And I know I’m not the only one who still remembers the last line of Fifteen, which pretty much sums up a too-long era of gender attitudes:

“She was Stan’s girl. That was all that really mattered.”

So think about all the ways the mothers you know are role models, intellects, and inspirations in addition to being nurturers, tenders, and factota. Ask them what really matters, and let them know how much what they think matters to you.

Then get down on your knees and scrub the front porch.