On the second Sunday in May, the daycare centre that my 20-month-old grandson attends presented his mother with a card: Happy Special Person’s Day!
When the centre first invited her to attend a celebration of Special Person’s Day the previous week, she had assumed it was for people with special needs.
It hadn’t occurred to her that it meant mothers – or people performing a mothering role.
Such is the power of language to affirm or erase.
We in Australia learned this in 2017 from the campaign for marriage equality, which replaced the cruel and pejorative terms aimed at the LBGTIQA community with the words “equality” and “love is love”.
As a result, people who had previously condemned same-sex marriage, now understood. In the acceptance of marriage equality something was gained.
But in accepting Special Person’s Day instead of Mother’s Day, something is lost.
There may be many special people in a child’s life: aunts, uncles, teachers, carers, mentors, but they are not always mothers.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a mother may be defined as “the female parent of a human being; a woman in relation to a child or children to whom she has given birth; (also, in extended use) a woman who undertakes the responsibilities of a parent towards a child, esp. a stepmother”.
As the dictionary notes, there are many different types of mothers – birth or biological mothers, surrogate mothers, foster mothers and adoptive mothers – who all share the profound, life giving and life-changing experience of mothering.
The word “mother” describes not just a person but an experience. A mother is not just a special person, she is someone who mothers.
Regardless of how one comes to motherhood, it is a title that is earned – and hard won – just as the day named in honour of mothers was hard won. It took its founder Anna Jarvis years to win recognition for a national holiday honouring the sacrifice of mothers for their children and more years to fight the commercialisation that resulted.
As the best-selling novel The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams so eloquently reminds us, women’s experiences have historically been denied in so many ways, and often with words.
Perhaps it was not the intention of my grandson’s daycare centre to take away that power, but in the desire to be inclusive, we must take care not to erase the experiences of those who have already historically been excluded in so many ways.
Flowers and cards are lovely, but words are powerful and when they are used to affirm and empower they are the greatest gift of all.