(Mothers Day Proclamation 1870)
Many of us who are mothers can remember lying in bed (as we had been sternly instructed to do the night before) on Mother’s Day morning, listening to the not-so-quiet kitchen sounds of preparations for our surprise breakfast in bed (“Sshh! Don’t wake her up!”), even as we knew we would be greeted later with a sticky mess to clean up. We can also remember the bouquets of tissue paper flowers and the hand drawn and printed poems about what great mothers we were.
It is a long time since my children were young enough to present me with such offerings and, in the years since, I have become a Mother’s Day cynic, seeing it as little more than a crassly commercialized exploitation of what may be, at heart, sincere human emotions.
According to the National Retail Federation in the United States, Mother’s Day has become a $21.4 billion industry in the US alone, as money is spent on such items as restaurant meals, spa visits, flowers and cards so people can convince themselves that they care about their mothers. Apparently, Americans spend more money on Mother’s Day than on any other celebration except Christmas.
In Canada, the amount of money spent is a little more modest: $492 million in 2016. It is the busiest day of the year for Canadian restaurants serving brunch.
Mothers Friendship Day
Despite its present highly commercial incarnation, Mothers Day, in fact, has very political roots. It was inspired by Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis who, in 1858, organized women into clubs to improve the health and sanitation conditions in their community. Following the end of the Civil War, she called for the first Mothers Friendship Day to reconcile communities that had been torn apart by the war.
A few years later, in 1870, Boston suffragist Julia Ward Howe issued a Mothers Day Proclamation for women around the world to unite to end war.
Until 1914, when it became a national holiday in the United States, Mothers Day was celebrated in a non-commercial way, focusing on the role of women in working for peace, in Canada, Mexico and much of the U.S.
When it became a national American holiday, an apostrophe was added, turning what had been a collective event into “Mother’s Day,” a tribute to the individual mother and her work in the home.
Ann Jarvis was so disillusioned with what her Mothers Friendship Day had become that, in 1922, she began organizing boycotts of florists, eventually being arrested a number of times for disorderly conduct.
This is a holiday that can be exploited!
And it has been downhill for Mothers Day ever since, with the gift, florist, restaurant and card industries the big winners. (In the early 1900s, the Florists’ Review, the industry’s trade journal, wrote: “This was a holiday that could be exploited.”)
But Mother’s Day as it is presently incarnated also reinforces stereotypical images that exclude many and trap others. By celebrating mothers and not women, we are sending a message to boys and girls as well as women and men that, to be feted, women must reproduce. Mother’s Day can be heartbreaking for those who have wanted but not been able to reproduce or who have had children they have not been able to keep with them.
It creates an idealized picture of motherhood and the nuclear family that hides the reality of violence that thrives in too many families.
Seize the day
Why not seize 2017 as the year to turn Mother’s Day back into Mothers Day, a day to celebrate women as activists? We can also celebrate the mothers in our lives, if we want, but let’s make the focus global, inclusive and activist rather than nuclear, exclusive and commercial.
As Ruth Rosen, a professor of history at the University of California Davis, wrote:
The women who conceived Mother’s Day would be bewildered by the ubiquitous ads that hound us to find that “perfect gift for Mom.” They would expect women to be marching in the streets, not eating with their families in restaurants. . . . With a little imagination, we could restore Mother’s Day as a holiday that celebrates women’s political engagement in society. Imagine a Mother’s Day filled with voices demanding social and economic justice and a sustainable future, rather than speeches studded with syrupy platitudes.