How baby Sussex changes Mother's Day

How baby Sussex changes Mother's Day
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Shortly after the birth of his son, in a statement at Windsor Castle, the ecstatic new father Prince Harry said: “How any woman does what they do is beyond comprehension." The Duke of Sussex’s public appreciation for women’s labor reflects the couple’s progressive mindset, as manifest throughout Meghan Markle’s pregnancy.

Referring to the Queen’s doctors, Markle said she didn’t want “the men in suits” to supervise the birth, and appointed her own delivery team, led by a female obstetrician. Markle has also reportedly expressed her desire to hire an American rather than a British nanny, saying she was “fiercely proud of her American roots.”

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Fascination with the royal couple as emblematic of a new era continues as millions wait for the Duchess of Sussex and Prince Harry to present the first royal Anglo-American multiracial baby to the herd of photographers stranded outside the couple’s new home in Windsor.

A few days later, the 37-year-old former actress will join millions of U.S. mothers to celebrate Mother’s Day. But what would a reinvented version of this annual ritual look like not just for the royals but for mothers everywhere? How could the value of what any woman does be truly appreciated?

The official holiday was declared in 1914 by President Woodrow Wilson as a national “public expression of love and reverence for the mothers of our country.” It was the fruition of an almost decade-long campaign by Anna Marie Jarvis, daughter of social activist Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis, to make Mother’s Day an official U.S. holiday. Jarvis insisted that the apostrophe in Mother’s Day indicated the singular possessive: it was a day for each family to honor and celebrate their own mother. 

Jarvis would have been mortified were she to witness how her initiative, which she explicitly meant to be “a day of sentiment, not profit,” has become so intensely commercialized. However, a cursory look at today’s popular Mother’s Day cards suggests that many of these commercialized cards outsmart the traditional sentimentality of Mother’s Day, expressing gratitude for mom’s hard work by noting, with ironic humor, her stress and exhaustion.

Indeed, today we see a more nuanced and complicated portrait of motherhood from that which marked previous eras. Celebrities such as Cardi B, Serena Williams and Keira Knightley confess that motherhood is difficult, messy and even painful. Popular television shows like CBC sitcom “Working Moms,” BBC sitcom “Motherland,” and CBS’s “Mom” deviate from the good mother/bad mother binary and defy the “mommy myth,” a highly romanticized and yet demanding view of motherhood which sets impossible standards for success. Amy SchumerAmy Beth SchumerDemocrats battle for Hollywood's cash Mo'Nique sues Netflix for discrimination John Kerry says political 'cynicism has grown' on all sides MORE, Ali Wong and other comedians are using pregnancy and motherhood as a rich source for their stand-up comedy. A proliferation of “mommy blogs” and social media platforms include more ambivalent and complex voices exposing the chaos, frustration and extremely demanding labor of motherhood.  

At the same time, these important voices continue to depict motherhood as a private affair, as does Mother’s Day. They highlight mom’s exhaustion as an individual problem that should be acknowledged with empathy, humor, or pity. Rarely do they connect this to the broader crisis of caring and of mothering in particular.

A recent Cigna survey of 13,000 people in 23 countries, revealed that 87 percent of women aged 35 to 49 with childcare responsibilities and responsibilities to care of their elderly parents are stressed at work. Motherhood is now a greater predictor of wage inequality than gender and the single best predictor that a woman will end up in financial collapse.

As mothers gain more powerful platforms for making their voices heard, they are also told that they need to be likable in order to be taken seriously in the workplace.

The imbalance of expectations continues through what Joan C. Williams describes as the “prove it again” bias, heightened attention to women’s mistakes, uneven requirements for employment and promotion and a growing hostility towards and undervaluing of care work. Some worry that the #MeToo movement helped spark a troubling backlash, whereby the “mommy tax” will increase and the “daddy bonus” will get even bigger.

In its current form, Mother’s Day is disconnected from these collective and structural problems. Rather, it constructs motherhood as an isolated and individualized experience, struggle, or achievement. Indeed, instead of collectively demanding resources that value care work, the apostrophe in Mother’s Day maintains that the responsibility remains on the shoulders of individual families and especially mothers.  

It’s time we moved the apostrophe and make this day Mothers’ Day: a day that acknowledges all mothers and all forms of motherhood. A repossessed Mothers’ Day would highlight the unequal conditions that link all mothers and that need to be recreated to support care work more broadly.

In the spirit of valuing the labor of any woman and in the spirit of updating outmoded rituals, let’s create a more progressive Mothers’ Day. Let’s make Mothers’ Day a day to express not only love, reverence and appreciation of their labor, but also public commitment to protect and support all mothers and families. When we open our cards this Sunday, let’s determine to change not only our spelling but also our outlook.

Kate A. Baldwin is professor of English and communication at Tulane University. Her most recent book is "The Racial Imaginary of the Cold War Kitchen." Shani Orgad is an associate professor in the department of media and communications at the London School of Economics. Her most recent book is entitled "Heading Home: Motherhood, Work and the Failed Promise of Equality."