Even by the yardstick of American consumer culture, Mother’s Day has got to be one of our stranger holidays. Foisted on us with the equally strong pressures of sentiment and obligation, one is free to show love and appreciation for one’s mother, or the mother of your children, one’s grandmother, godmother, whomever, through the purchase of anything from nail clippers and blenders to perfume and roses.

The two words “purchase” and “anything” are joined at the hip here, and the commercial aspect has an irony all its own. In moments of irreverence and dissent, I feel Mother’s Day is a pretty meager return, whatever haul you acquire, for a solid year’s expenditure of daily physical caretaking, vigilance and patience exacted by the serious mothers I know. This is probably fueled by memories of my father, who every year purchased some obscure Ronco-like piece of kitchen equipment in celebration (?) of my mother and an attempt to lighten the load of her primary duty: taking care of him. And then there’s my own sweet, British husband who can always be relied upon to proffer a last-minute gift muttering excuses about how “Mothering Sunday,” as its referred to in England, is celebrated on a different day, but when pressed can never say exactly when that is. Hmmm.

A long time ago now, in the years when I was longing to have a child and it seemed everyone around me was reproducing with both the social and physical ease of rabbits, Mother’s Day was actually a very unique torture to me, easily the worst day of the year. Like any mainstream holiday, just look past the glossy ads, lift the rock, and you will find another, very different story. Here in America we are not much given to lifting the rock, but let me tell you, it’s very hard to be outside the mainstream on this one, or any of them for that matter. Since my children have been born I have enjoyed some lovely Mother’s Days, albeit with the Mothering Sunday confusion and a nagging feeling that 364:1 is not a great ratio. But the awareness of how difficult this holiday can be has never left me.

Imagine Mother’s Day for those who do not live up to those glossy ads, if, say, your child has died or been placed for adoption, or has run away from home, or been lost in a custody battle. What if you are infertile or not in a relationship that could support a child? What if your mother was abusive? What if you can’t feed your children or some hostility has estranged you and your mother or child for years? Let me tell you, for far more people than you think, this is one of those times when you just put your head down and hope the second Sunday in May gets itself over with pretty damn fast. Telling yourself to nevermind, and that it’s just commercial hype, is cold comfort and will get you just about as far as a frozen dinner on Thanksgiving.

No, no, I am not saying we should do away with Mother’s Day. Fractured relationships, painful circumstances and dire straits have always been with us, though we seem less clear these days about how to address all that; it’s far easier just to buy an electric skillet. And surely you can tell from the desperation of the hype that something is being sold here besides skillets. We are talking about motherhood, after all, the most primal bond in the human experience.

Yet this is a culture that still allows really bad childcare, is ambivalent about birth control, slashes funding that could help families, and uses women’s bodies to sell everything from toothpaste to automobiles.

So this Mother’s Day, just be aware of the huge pedestal behind those glossy ads, the enormous shadow it casts, and assess for yourself how well the foundation is holding up. It might be a thought to politically (and personally) work to redistribute that ratio, and to take action to truly recognize and support the vital work of parents and caregivers.

And the next Mothering Sunday? March 18, 2007.