In a time when we’re told gender is fluid, sex can be changed, and two men can parent a child as well as a man and a woman, is there room for an archaic, non-inclusive celebration known as Mother’s Day?
Some say not.
The observance, which President Woodrow Wilson made a national holiday in 1914, has been under attack for much of its existence. Even its founder grew to rue what she started and started a petition drive to rescind the day.
More recently, people have argued that we should do away with Mother’s Day because it can be hurtful to women who have been unable to have children or who have lost them, and because not everyone has a good relationship with their mother.
Then there’s the contemporary problem presented by those who believe we should do away with the terms “mother” and “father” altogether in favor of “birthing parent” and “non-birthing parent.” It’s been proposed that Mother’s Day and Father’s Day be replaced with “Guardian’s Day,” which sounds like an observance in a Marvel movie.
Hallmark, as usual, is on this, having long offered Mother’s Day cards for people who have not given birth but who are “like” mothers, or who are “dog moms,” or aunts or simply friends. Stretching to the highest rung of inclusivity, Hallmark even sells Mother’s Day cards for dads.
But it was Hallmark’s co-opting of Mother’s Day and the rapid commercialization that led the founder, Anna Jarvis, to hate the holiday. She had started the observance to fulfill her late mother’s wish that there be an annual “home-coming” day in which children honored their mother and showed appreciation, historian Katharine Antolini told the BBC. Jarvis even had a slogan for the day: “For the Best Mother who Ever Lived — Your Mother.”
Mother’s Day was to be about a singular mother, which was why it was Mother’s Day, not Mothers’ Day.
This has been lost on some women of my generation — myself included — who, as soon as we had children of our own, saw the day as a celebration of ourselves.
To my shame, I spent many years as a young mother wondering what my family would be doing for me, rather than thinking about what I should be doing for my mother, who’d been at the business of mothering much longer than I had.
I’d missed the point.
Here is the point, as explained by its founder:
“To revive the dormant filial love and gratitude we owe to those who gave us birth. To be a home tie for the absent. To obliterate family estrangement. To create a bond of brotherhood through the wearing of a floral badge. To make us better children by getting us closer to the hearts of our good mothers. To brighten the lives of good mothers. To have them know we appreciate them, though we do not show it as often as we ought. … Mother’s Day is to remind us of our duty before it is too late. This day is intended that we may make new resolutions for a more active thought to our dear mothers.”
In this description, it becomes clear that Mother’s Day, as Jarvis envisioned it, wasn’t just about the happiness of mothers, but the health of whole families. We are better members of a family for having observed it properly, she said.
It’s true that the day can be painful, especially for women who struggle with infertility and loss. But it’s worth noting that you don’t have to be a mother to find value in the day. Anna Jarvis never had children.
Nor do you have to have a living mother, or even a good mother, to celebrate. In their absence, we can focus on someone who has mothered us in any capacity. (Consult Keiko Kasza’s tearjerker of a book “A Mother for Choco” if you’re unsure how this works.)
Or we can honor a deceased mother by joining efforts to provide Mother’s Day flowers and gifts to people who might otherwise be alone and forgotten on the day. For example, bouquets are being delivered today to widows in North Carolina, to Chicago mothers who have lost a child to violence and to Massachusetts mothers who have lost a child to addiction.
While there’s plenty to complain about with regard to the commercialization of the day, there are also ample ways to redeem it, courtesy of the woman who started it all and envisioned Mother’s Day as a “holy day.”
For starters, eschew the store-bought cards and write your mother (or mother stand-in) a letter. There was no one more scornful of the mass-produced card than Jarvis, who groused, “A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world.”
Second, if you’re buying flowers, consider the humble white carnation, the favorite flower of Jarvis’ mother, which became an early symbol of Mother’s Day. (It’s said that Jarvis ordered 500 for one event, and that in the early years of the observance, “you could not beg, borrow or steal a carnation” around Mother’s Day.)
Finally, unless your mother demands love in a box, consider doing an activity with her (of her choosing) on Mother’s Day or in the subsequent weeks. I have a friend, whose own mother has passed, who gets her children to do yard work with her each Mother’s Day. This started when the children were young, but continues now that they are adults and has become a cherished family tradition.
A Mother’s Day built around wrapped trinkets and brunch is indeed worth discarding in favor of Jarvis’ simple yet meaningful “home-coming.” If we have room on our calendars to celebrate trees, groundhogs and a military victory of another country, we’ve got room for our mothers. If we must rid ourselves of a holiday, I vote for Valentine’s Day.