This Sunday is abruptly, shockingly, my first Mother’s Day without my mama. She died just hours before her peers at the Country Music Hall of Fame could demonstrate to her how much they esteem her. She died just days before my sister and I could show her again how much we love and honor her.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. I was supposed to visit her on Sunday, to give her a box of old-fashioned candy, our family tradition. We were supposed to have sweet delight in each others’ easy presence. Instead, I am unmoored. But my heart is not empty. It is replete with gratitude for what she left behind. Her nurture and tenderness, her music and memory.
Motherhood happened to her without her consent
Perhaps it’s indecorous to say, but my heart is filled with something else, too. Incandescent rage. Because my mother was stolen from me by the disease of mental illness, by the wounds she carried from a lifetime of injustices that started when she was a girl. Because she was a girl.
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My mama was an extraordinary parent under duress: She showed my sister and me the power of having a voice and using it, and there has been no greater lesson. But motherhood happened to her without her consent. She experienced an unintended pregnancy at age 17, and that led her down a road familiar to so many adolescent mothers, including poverty and gender-based violence.
Forgive me if my grief isn’t tidy. When I think about my mother, I am awash in the painful specifics. It’s a little easier, this Mother’s Day, to think about mothers in the collective, to wonder whether we value them.
Every day, more than 800 women die in pregnancy and childbirth from causes for which solutions are affordable and achievable. In 2018, I traveled to South Sudan with UNFPA, the United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency, and I sat with women whose bodies were mangled from childbirth. They suffered obstetric fistula, a devastating injury that causes pain and incontinence but is easily preventable and treatable.
As mothers, were they being valued?
Do we value mothers?
Now consider the women in our own communities who return to work before their bodies have fully recovered from creating life. Do we value them? Our country, the richest in the world, has one of the highest maternal death rates in the developed world – with Black and indigenous women two to three times more likely to die.
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And that’s talking only about medical causes of maternal death. Let me tell you what else kills pregnant women: violence and despair. A study last year found that some of the top causes of death among pregnant women in the United States were homicide, suicide and overdose.
But the risks do not start and end with pregnancy. UNFPA data shows that, in countries with available data, nearly a quarter of women cannot say no to sex. Nearly a quarter cannot make their own decisions about health care. So often, motherhood happens because of violence, because of neglect, because schools and health systems fail to provide reproductive health information, because they fail to teach the right of individuals to make their own choices about sex and contraception.
I am not a biological mother. I wanted to devote my time and resources to children who live in poverty and suffering, who languish in refugee camps and wait in brothels to come of age when men will begin to rape them. I never took my bodily autonomy for granted, aware this right is denied to hundreds of millions of girls and women, especially the poorest and those facing discrimination and racial injustice.
We see it in the most disadvantaged places. And we see it in our own country.
What motherhood should be
Motherhood should always be a choice. Does that sound radical to you? Does that sound like I wish my sister and I hadn’t been born? If that’s what you think, I will gladly direct my incandescent rage at you.
How much could we, as a society, possibly value motherhood when it is assumed to be an inevitability? When we accept as normal that women and girls will drop out of school and the workforce because they are expected to take on the unpaid labor of child care? When we fail to protect girls from poverty and violence?
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My mama was a legend. She was an artist and a storyteller, but she had to fight like hell to overcome the hand she was dealt, to earn her place in history. She shouldn’t have had to fight that hard to share her gifts with the world.
This Mother’s Day, I choose to honor my mama for the person she was, a mother and so much more. And I ask you to honor your own mother, if you are lucky enough to have her. Honor her for more than her labor and sacrifice. Honor her for her talents and dreams. Honor her by demanding a world where motherhood, everywhere, is safe, healthy – and chosen.
Ashley Judd is a humanitarian, writer and actor, and has served as a United Nations Population Fund’s Goodwill Ambassador since 2016.