Monday, May 5, 2014

To Retail and Other Service Industry Employers on Mother’s Day

First let me make a few things very clear. I don’t hate Mother’s Day, nor do I hate mothers. I’m not unemotional, unpatriotic, or lacking in empathy or compassion. I’m not looking to rain on anyone’s parade, or trying harsh your mellow. I’m not working up to a feminist (or anti-feminist) screed. I bear no ill will toward anyone with progeny, and I don’t hate babies or children. None of that. Adoption is a viable option for many people but that’s not what this discussion is about. Are we good? OK.

Employers, please, for the love of all that is civilized, do not require or even strongly suggest to your employees that they should express a greeting of “Happy Mother’s Day!” to every female patron past puberty.

I get that pleasantries are an accepted part of transactional relationships. Have a nice day, thanks for shopping with us, please come again, these are warm, time-honored snippets of conversation. Where we start running into trouble is when we impose assumptions on the private lives of customers and patrons. I’m certainly not going to touch the “Happy Holidays vs. Merry Christmas” fracas with a 10-foot pole. While it arguably may be a similar debate, faith and religious beliefs is not where I’m going with this.

Where I’m going instead, is the assumption that is made when a “Happy Mother’s Day!” greeting is made indiscriminately to any post-pubescent female. Logically we all know that not every woman is a mother. Some may not be by choice. Some may not be by happenstance – that is they’d like to be a mother someday, but just haven’t had the opportunity yet. There may be a few militants in the child-free-by-choice camp that get offended at the suggestion that they’d have any urge to breed, but even that’s not my point.

Beyond those who aren’t mothers by choice or happenstance, are those that used to be mothers, have tried to be mothers, or simply can’t be mothers. Women in these categories all deal with that status in different ways, dependent in part on how recently they found themselves in that status, and how they’ve dealt with processing it and the grief that comes along with it.

A woman of almost any age could have recently lost their child due to illness or accident. A woman may be in the middle of a long, on-going, and costly attempt at getting pregnant. A woman may have come to the end of that journey of trying to conceive without success.

Many of these women work hard at graciously smiling and saying, “Thank you,” to the throw-away “Happy Mother’s Day!” Many times they will succeed outwardly, but inwardly those words have just driven a spike through their heart. Yet another reminder of their loss imposed on them during a transaction that should have nothing to do with motherhood.

But for some women, the pain may be so fresh or still so close to the surface, that the chirpy greeting will cause them to dissolve in a puddle right before your employee’s eyes, bringing tears instead of a smile, then mortification as she realizes she hasn’t been able to contain her reaction.

The thing is, we don’t know. For all anyone knows, your female customer could have buried her son last week, or had a miscarriage yesterday. She just wants to pay for her groceries, buy that pair of jeans, or pay her restaurant tab without being reminded yet again that she doesn’t have that status that she used to have, was about to have, or desperately wants.

Too often we think of motherhood as something that all adult women will want to experience in their lifetimes, and that blanket greetings like this do no harm. The good wishes, if not directly applicable, should just be accepted with aplomb. The speaker didn’t know of your private pain, and the greeting makes other people happy, so why shouldn’t it be given?

We engage in these conversations as a matter of social form. The content of the exchange is intended as pleasantries and good will, not as an evaluation and adoration of someone’s reproductive history.

So unless your customer has a small child with her that’s tugging at their hand and repeating, “Mama!” endlessly, please don’t assume that she’s a mother. Don’t put her in the awkward position of either feeling the need to disclaim motherhood status or to hide a painful emotional reaction that may come. 

My birthday falls on Mother's Day this year. I used to resent it as a child, having to share "my day" with my mother. This year, having just closed the final chapter on our attempts to have a family, for me to be a mother, I resent that the calendar lined up that way this time. I'd like to be able to go out to dinner with my husband on my birthday and not have everyone assume we're celebrating Mother's Day. So instead, I'll probably be a hermit for the day, though with all the hoopla going on already, it may be more like a hermit week this week. 

I know this is my issue to deal with, but I do not believe I am alone in this sentiment that the indiscriminate greeting doing harm, even if it's a relatively rare event, is worse than sticking with your every day neutral greeting on Mother's Day and the time leading up to it. 

There’s nothing wrong with “Have a nice day!” Truly.

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