What we're really saying with Mother's Day gifts

When it comes to Mother’s Day’s presents, I love a honey jar covered in floral wrapping paper and flowers made out of pipe-cleaners and tissue as much as any mother.

It’s the bought presents I have a bit of a problem with.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love free stuff. But nine years into this whole motherhood gig, and watching the annual consumer festival around motherhood, it’s clear that Mother’s Day gifts aren’t free.

Forget the gifts – I want compensation.

At that point many of us will tell our children that friends don’t have to bring presents; that they are invited solely for their presence, not because they come bearing presents. But let’s face it: that’s a lie.

While no one wants to come right out and say it, the truth about gift giving is that it’s not the altruistic act we like to pretend it is. It’s a transaction. French anthropologist Marcel Mauss worked this out almost a hundred years ago when he wrote that the ritual of gift exchange comes with obligations. It is an exercise in reciprocity.

The transactional nature of gift giving is so fundamental to our culture that even my four-year-old could have explained it to Mauss. I overheard her say to her little kinder friend, “You’re coming to my birthday party so you have to bring me a present.”

If gift giving is optional, why have you forked out hundreds, possibly thousands, over the years for wedding gifts? Essentially your wedding gift is payment for your ticket to the wedding event, and often they cost roughly the same amount. Quid pro quo.

But when it comes to the Mother’s Day gift transaction, well, a lot of mothers are getting the rough end of the deal. This is especially so when you consider that the Mother’s Day gift is often organised by and paid for by dads.

A fluffy dressing gown or a scented candle once a year doesn’t come close to compensating for the domestic inequality that so often comes with motherhood.

According to the 2016 Australian census data, women do an average of 33 hours of domestic work a week. In transactional terms, a $50 Mother’s Day gift in exchange for 1716 hours of unpaid labour is, depending on your point of a view, a bargain or a pretty crappy hourly rate.

And when you factor in the reality that the unfair burden of domestic work and childcare often means women take part-time, flexible, lower paid work, one pretty present once a year doesn’t come close to compensating for unsatisfying work, financial insecurity, and dismal superannuation.

But the transactional nature of Mother’s Day gets even worse for mothers, since it’s often mothers doling out yet more free labour to celebrate their own “special day”.

As one of my mother friends quipped: "Mother's Day is the day you don't do everything you normally do in a day and leaves you with twice as much to do the next day."

To earn their "day off" on Mother's Day, many mothers are staying up to midnight preparing for it, and then spending all day the next day cleaning up after it.

Take the ubiquitous school Mother’s Day morning teas, which are often organised, catered and attended by — you guessed it — mothers. Compare that to Father’s Day events, which rarely require free male labour, but are instead often organised by women.

And then, in exchange for a self-baked scone and pat on the back at school Mother’s Day events, mothers are called upon to give a massive amount of free labour in class helping, school exertions, and fundraising actives. Without the free labour of mothers, schools could not function.

But a gift is not just a material transaction, it is also an emotional one. In the case of Mother’s Day gifts, and the whole framing of the day, what we are really saying with our gifts is, “thanks for being so good about that whole unfair domestic work thing”.

We give mum some compliments and buy her something pink and fluffy in recognition of the fact that she’ll continue doing more than she should, so the rest of the family can continue to do less than they should.

Putting your hand in your wallet once a year is easy. If you really want to give mum a gift she deserves, then step up and give her domestic equality.

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