Celebrate Caretakers Day

It may not be a popular thing to say today, but I’m going to go ahead and say it: Mother’s Day is a super-commercialized, overly sentimental celebration of a narrowly defined myth of women and mothers. On top of that, it skews our sense of how caretaking gets done.

Don’t get me wrong: As a mother of two who also works outside the home, I love nothing more than breakfast in bed served up with a little peace and quiet, at least one day a year. But in reality there are many others who deserve that as well.

Mother’s Day has drifted away from its roots in mothers’ social activism for peace and become synonymous with selfless giving, recognized with a sappy card, a bouquet of flowers, or chocolates (if you’re lucky). A mother’s love and sacrifice for her child, it is believed, are the pinnacle of selflessness.

It’s true enough that motherhood entails giving without compensation. After all, no one pays us to take care of our children. Quite the contrary–my kids have been a drain on my monthly household budget. But we do it anyway. We do it out of love.

Selfless giving, however, occurs not only in the mother-child relationship. Although caretaking has been closely associated with motherhood, it is in fact a much broader social relationship in which many people—even those who are not mothers—engage. And it is one that is enormously undervalued in our culture. In this day and age, as the public sector shrinks before our very eyes and as corporations cut back on social benefits, things we’ve taken for granted in the past like social security, health care, child care, are no longer givens, and individual caretakers are stepping in to fill in the gaps.

Selfless caretaking should encompass not only care of dependent children but to the care that is provided to the elderly, the disabled, the sick, and the unemployed. Many people, like the secretary in my office, can’t afford a nursing home or a visiting nurse service. So she and her sister traded off for years to care for their elderly mother. I know people who shop and cook for unemployed friends. I know of adults caring for their adult siblings who are disabled. I know of spouses caring for chronically ill spouses. I know of family members who care for war veterans with physical or psychological injury. The fact is that caretaking occurs all the time in our society, by mothers and non-mothers, men and women.

It includes the woman on the block who cares for the children of working mothers who can’t afford a full time nanny. It includes the friends and relatives who pitch in to help with babysitting. It includes the older sibling who watches the younger sibling after school. It includes the grandparents, aunts and uncles, sisters and brothers, who help out when they can.

Mother’s Day celebrations are premised on an outmoded vision of a nuclear family in which mother, and mother alone, does the caretaking. In the modern-day version, mothers are generally celebrated for holding down two shifts: working outside the home and caring for the kids. Although many fathers help out, women, of course, are still the primary caretakers. But most families—cannot and do not—do it themselves. Families with means hire nannies and housekeepers to carry out their domestic responsibilities. Poorer families rely on an extensive social network to assist with caretaking.

The withering public sector has left families and communities to fend for themselves. There is very little state-funded day care; few options for the elderly without means; minimal resources for the sick and disabled. This void has forced families and communities to pick up the slack. Often at the expense of their emotional or social health, they have stepped in and taken care of those in need.

It may indeed be important to pause and recognize the selfless giving that is central to parenting. But we shouldn’t stop there. Until we establish a wider and more secure welfare safety net for those in need, caretaking will be a necessary feature of life in modern America, one in which many people from all walks of life participate on a daily basis. To honor all those who sacrifice out of love or generosity, we should transform Mother’s Day into Caretakers Day.


  1. barbara winslow says:

    I totally agree and will put it on my Shirley Chisholm website.

  2. Of course most of us appreciate the care our mothers gave us. Still given the pollution -oil, plastic, mercury, coal – lack of water and starvation due to overpopulation, we should stop celebrating mother’s day as something to be encouraged until we have solved these problems. I know the bible say to “be fruitful and multiply.” Allriight already. Been there. done that.

    I remember meeting a young very attractive woman a few years ago, who was upset because she had just broken up with her long time boy friend. To make matters worse her mother was pressuring her to get married and have kids. She liked her work and resented the pressure. I told her that if she likes kids, there were many child oriented organizations like the Girl Scouts and “Big Sisters” that are begging for help. Being a generally cheerful, outgoing person – she liked that idea. I would imagine she does have a family by now and does participate in her community. But Given how many children in my area who are badly or inadequately parented I would thank girl scout leaders over mothers any day.

  3. Barbara Lynch says:

    How do we officially make a holiday for Caretakers? No one is going to get acknowledged properly unless their is an official holiday noted on the calendar and greeting cards made up for caretakers.

    Thanks for your reply.

  4. Premilla Nadasen says:

    Mother’s Day was established as a national holiday in 1914 through an act of Congress and a presidential proclamation. It was the product of a grass roots movement, petitions, and lobbying. A caretakers’ holiday would require the same kind of grass roots effort.

  5. Fran Luck says:

    I think that Premilla is going in the right direction, with her critique of how Mother’s Day is conceived and enacted. I produce a feminist radio show: “Joy of Resistance: Mutlicultural Feminist Radio @ WBAI” (99.5 FM) and in our eight years on the air, each May we have featured a show that deals with what we call “The real working conditions of motherhood,”–which we implicitly contrast with the sentimentalized “you finally get to sit down and be served” image characterizing Mother’s Day.

    If our society really supported families, and therefore mothers, in the ways that many other countries do, with a “Social Wage” that includes affordable childcare, national healthcare, paid parental leave, real vacations from work, etc., mothers wouldn’t have to be those overworked martyrs who need extra pampering in compensation once a year (an insulting and patroniing idea to imply that women would be satisfied with so little!)

    ON May 7th, our show this year nearest to Mother’s Day, our program featured a rundown of the struggle to save what there is of affordable childcare going on right now in New York City. Yes, as Mother’s Day approached, Mayor Bloomberg was closing 16 more daycare centers (on top of the 32 he’s closed over the previous two years). We looked at this issue of childcare in depth, including its history in NYC and the rest of the country, and asked the question of why it had fallen so low on the femihnist agenda in recent years. Rosalyn Baxendall, who was part of the early militant and feminist childcare mnovement in NYC, talked about those days.

    This show can be accessed for the next 10 days at archives.wbai.org by scrolling to Joy of Resistance, on Thursday, May 7 at 11:00 am.

    Joy of Resistance airs the 1st and 3rd Thursday of every month, 11 am to noon at 99.5 FM. There is presently an article on the show’s history and feminist media in general, in “On the Issues” magazine, and excellent online feminist magazine (www.ontheisssuesmagazine.com).

    Fran Luck
    Executive Producer,
    Joy of Resistance
    contact: joyofresistance@wbai.org

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