Katrina Onstad on motherhood

Author Katrina Onstad never thought Mother's Day was worth celebrating — until now.

Photo: Nancy Friedland.

My mother wore silver jewellery and long flowing shirts in stormy sky colours and native prints, the fabric so soft and loose I could disappear in its folds. This was Vancouver in the 1970s, so she cut my hair boy short and I danced to anti-princess anthems on the Free to Be…You and Me album. I loved the counterculture parts of my childhood, and my mom especially — funny and sensitive with a great, bellowing laugh.

But I wasn’t allowed to love her more on Mother’s Day. “Greeting-card holiday! Bullshit!” she’d declare. Like Charlie Brown crossed with Lenny Bruce, she was fighting holiday commercialization. No one would tell her when to be celebrated. So the day went mostly unmarked, except when the teacher would have us make cards out of construction paper which I’d bring home anyway, a little perplexed by how happy they seemed to make her.

Because of this strange relationship to Mother’s Day, I never knew it was such a big deal in the wider world. One May day in my 20s, I went to a matinee with a friend whose mother had died. After the film, she started to cry, “I hate Mother’s Day!” I hadn’t even noticed the date. I was living on the other side of the country from my parents, and hadn’t called home on Mother’s Day in years. But as we walked through the mall, mom-loving teddy bears, chocolates and balloons screamed of the holiday.

My inherited aversion took on a new dimension: Mother’s Day excludes so many women — the childless, the grieving, the struggling-to-conceive. Why can’t we commemorate all women, not just those with kids? We went for beer, and I tried to comfort her. “Greeting-card holiday! Bullshit!”

Then I had my son. I was love-crushed. On my first Mother’s Day, he was five months old with a head like a bowling ball and eyebrows perpetually raised. The women in my moms’ group were not equivocating aging hippies; their wish lists included spa dates and restaurants. There were rumours of a new mom who had been given a trip (alone!) to New York.

I was worn out. My son’s easy disposition didn’t stop me from crying every morning when my husband left for work. I missed my job. Everything in my life felt different, and, suddenly, I didn’t want all women to get a parade; I wanted my own. I craved some recognition that this new identity of “mother,” with its sacrifice and abundance, was monumental. I wanted to be celebrated.

So I sent out mixed signals, swinging between contemptuous and needy: “Do you know who started Mother’s Day? Suffragettes! Did they have spas?” Then again, I could’ve used a massage — or New York (alone!).

That first Mother’s Day, I awoke to a simple picture frame on the dresser, holding three black-and-white photos: two of me with our son, and one close-up of his moon-shaped cheeks while he was sleeping. “Your boy loves you,” my husband wrote on the card. It was perfect: loving and homemade, and to scale. We had found our own groove.

Having children taught me that every idea and emotion shifts and tilts, even the most firmly held convictions. Now my crafting-fiend daughter and her brother arrive from school with their construction-paper cards, which are exactly enough. And I never forget to call my mother. She doesn’t seem to mind.

Katrina Onstad’s latest novel, Everybody Has Everything, was long listed for the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize.