Elizabeth O’Donnell Gandolfo
I’m standing outside our minivan under the blazing hot sun in an empty parking lot, shielding my three-year-old daughter from passers-by as she sits on the miniature toilet we carry with us for potty emergencies such as this. We have just come from the pediatrician’s office, where I barely managed to keep her, along with her two-year-old and 12-week-old brothers from converting into the completely out-of-control kids you see on Nanny 911. Before leaving the doctor’s, I asked my daughter to use the bathroom and she refused. Didn’t have to go. Of course, five minutes into our 30-minute ride home she did indeed have to go. Number 2. Right now. RIGHT NOW!!! I begged her to hold it, but when she started to cry tears of desperation, I realized that she was serious. My maternal compassion for her plight won out and we pulled over so that she could relieve herself into a diaper I carefully arranged in the toddler toilet. Gross, I know. But what else am I going to do? So there we are in the blistering parking lot, the asphalt and running car breathing fire up my legs, and it takes her no less than 15 minutes to do the deed. I am hot, tired, and hungry and my children are clearly feeling the same. Thankfully the baby is still sleeping, but the two-year-old (at this point long overdue for a nap) is crying “mano, mano, mano, mano” over and over again and I have no idea what he is talking about. Never did figure that one out, but as soon as his sister is done (finally), he insists on going potty too. Even though he just went at the doctor’s. So I oblige him for two minutes and when he doesn’t go, I hoist him back into the car and tell my daughter to buckle herself in. Which she refuses to do, and for what feels like the 23rd time today I crawl into the cramped back row of our under-sized minivan and do it for her. All the while, I am seething with anger and frustration, trying my best to keep an even tone and not lose my cool when all I want to do is explode into a million pieces.
OK, I may have been overreacting here, but being a mom is really hard work. To be fair, so is being a dad. But let’s face it – moms are generally still the primary caregivers, especially for young children. We wipe noses and bottoms, and tears. We prepare meals and snacks day in and day out. We clean up and clean up and clean up after our children again and again and again. We are constantly negotiating the price of good behavior and we almost never get a day off. Don’t get me wrong, being a mother is the most rewarding and personally fulfilling experience I will ever have. I love my children to the point of bursting and I am infinitely blessed by their presence in my life. But taking care of them is really hard work and can drive me just a little crazy sometimes.
I’ve only recently realized that this is what it was like for my mom too. Unflappable as she is, she never showed it. But it was hard. Especially after our dad passed away, leaving her with eight children between the ages of 2 and 24. It was hard for her. Just as it is hard for all mothers. And so it is appropriate that once a year we shower mothers with love and affection, greeting cards and flowers, brunches and dinners, and gift certificates for days at the spa (if we’re lucky – hint, hint!). Mothers deserve all of this and more, for all that they do to make life possible and livable and enjoyable for their children. Damn right I’m expecting some recognition for that heroic trip to the pediatrician’s with three kids, aged zero to three. And I could really use a good pedicure after standing on that hot asphalt for seventeen whole minutes, not to mention the running around I do every day, almost all day long. No matter how complicated and fraught with dysfunction our relationships with our mothers may be, we should at the very least celebrate and recognize the hard work it took for them to give us life and keep us alive to adulthood. So celebrate away! Happy Mother’s Day!
Not so fast.
I finally get back in the driver’s seat and breathe in a great sigh of air-conditioned relief, I look up and I realize that we are sitting in the middle of Greenville’s “homeless triangle,” the geographical points of which are three agencies that offer shelter and other social services to the city’s homeless population. In this moment, the homeless triangle becomes for me a prism which refracts a thousand images of maternal suffering in places and spaces of homelessness, hunger, violence and oppression. I am shamed into recognition of my privilege.
As hard as the hard mothering moments are for me, I am shielded by privilege from the day-to-day struggle for survival which characterizes motherhood for so many mothers right here in my hometown and across the world. I have easy access to a pediatrician when my kids are sick. I can rely on working transportation to get there. I have access to resources with which to feed, clothe, shelter, and educate my children. I even have a froggy-shaped toddler toilet to ease the pains of potty training. What is life like for mothers who lack these basic necessities and amenities? Or worse, for mothers whose own lives and children’s lives are constantly threatened by violence?
Here is a quick glimpse, taken from the documentary film Pray the Devil Back to Hell, which depicts the horrific reality that was the West African nation of Liberia’s civil war. As images of armed combatants, frightened and hungry children, desperate parents, and destroyed homes and infrastructure flash before the viewer’s eyes, peace activist (now Nobel Laureate) Leymah Gbowee shares part of her story:
I am five months pregnant. My son is three and my daughter is two. So under rains of bullets we leave the house and we walk for like seven hours to my parents house. And it was hell on earth. My three year old is sitting down, sweat pouring off his body and he says to me ‘Mama, I wish just for a piece of doughnut this morning. I am so hungry.’ I’m sitting there and thinking, where am I gonna get a piece of doughnut for this three-year-old? The anger built up again, the pain was there and I said to him, ‘Nuku, I don’t have a piece of doughnut to give you.’ He said, ‘I know, but I just wish for a piece of doughnut.’ Liberia had been at war for so long that my children had been hungry and afraid their entire lives.
Now that’s hard work. Unjustly and unnecessarily hard. Infinitely harder than what most readers of this blog or their mothers have ever experienced or will ever experience. Mothering is hard work, even for those of us privileged with peace and prosperity. But it need not be so very hard – or so very heartbreaking – for so many mothers who live and who mother on the underside of privilege. So let’s make this Mother’s Day about more than just honoring our own mothers (though we should certainly start there – bouquets and brunches and pedicures included). Let’s also take some of our time and use some of our resources to rectify the injustice of having to mother – to care for dependent and vulnerable and beautiful children – in situations of poverty, violence, and oppression. Let’s make this Mother’s Day a day for peace AND pedicures, justice AND brunches, bread AND roses. Let’s celebrate the fullness of life given to us by our own mothers, without forgetting the mothers and children throughout the world for whom the fullness of life is unjustly and violently denied.
 Elizabeth O’Donnell Gandolfo is a mother of three and a Doctoral Candidate in Theological Studies at Emory University. She previously wrote On the Path of Peace for the Center for FaithJustice blog.