Mothers Day - 100 Years

Mothers Day – 100 Years

Mothers’ Day is complicated for lots of us.  Women who’ve lost a child, or struggle with infertility, or who are waiting to adopt, or who have placed a child in an adoption, or who somehow don’t fit in the traditional mold for motherhood, or who have chosen not to be mothers…  Yet the view from the margins is more expansive, and gives us the opportunity to ponder what the day is for, and what motherhood means.  And those conversations are always full of hope, and open-heartedness, and larger love for one another.

This year is actually the 100th anniversary of the official national celebration of a Mothers’ Day holiday, so it’s kind of interesting to look back at what it was originally for, and what its founders saw in the concept of motherhood.

Mothers’ Day was not invented by Hallmark.  It was invented by radical activists working for peace, justice, and the welfare of children.  In 1870 Julia Ward Howe, famous suffragette, wrote the Appeal to Motherhood in which she asked women of the world to convene and consider how world peace might be accomplished.  Her Mothers Day holiday was a day for mothers to mourn for sons lost in battle, to let shared grief become compassion surpassing nationality, and to grow that compassion into the beginning of a great international peace.

Arise, then, women of this day !  Arise, all women who have hearts, Whether our baptism be of water or of tears ! Say firmly : We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We, women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country, to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs. From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says: Disarm, disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice. Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence vindicate possession. As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of council.

Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them then solemnly take council with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, man as the brother of man, each bearing after his own kind the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God.

In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women, without limit of nationality, may be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient, and at the earliest period consistent with its objects, to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace. 

For decades during the late 1800s Ann Jarvis, another influential activist, was organizing “Mothers Day Work Clubs” to improve sanitation for the poor, fight infant mortality, and nurse soldiers from both sides of the Civil War.  According to her biographers she closed a Sunday School lesson in 1876 with this idea:

I hope and pray that someone, sometime, will found a memorial mothers day commemorating her for the matchless service she renders to humanity in every field of life. She is entitled to it.

Her daughter, Anna Jarvis, remembered this and when her mother died, decided to make the idea a reality.  She started the actual celebration of Mother’s Day, and in her view, it was always Mother’s Day in the singular sense – a national celebration of each person’s own mother, rather than of the idea of motherhood in general.  From what I’ve read, I wonder if maybe she also intended it, in her heart, to be a national celebration of her own mother and the work her mother had done for the greater good.

She introduced the white carnation as the symbol of the holiday:

Its whiteness is to symbolize the truth, purity and broad-charity of mother love; its fragrance, her memory, and her prayers. 

But it was only a scant few years before the greeting card industry and professional florists completely took things over.  Jarvis spent the rest of her life (and the rest of her inheritance) trying to wrest the holiday back from corporate clutch.  But Mothers’ Day had absolutely become pluralized in every way, and Jarvis died penniless and alone.  She herself never had children.  According to many sources her final bills at her nursing home were paid for by a florists’ association.

“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.

And candy! You take a box to Mother—and then eat most of it yourself. A pretty sentiment.

Any mother would rather have a line of the worst scribble from her son or daughter than any fancy greeting card.”

Hmmm.  Maybe the tone is a little harsh, but still.  You don’t get a bad-ass without a little bad-assery.  She was dead serious about preserving the holiday as a personal, family-oriented, private celebration of the person who raised you.

These early feminist activists were working and writing in a time when parenting was still very much the task of women, and men as fathers were not generally considered to be the ones raising children.  I think these women would have readily agreed  – and rejoiced at the idea – that fathers now share the close, nurturing bond with children which connects the broadly political with the deeply personal.

I think Anna Jarvis would have welcomed the idea that on Mother’s Day, each person honors the person who raised them, whether that person is your biological mother, or another kind of mother, or a father, or maybe a close and loving constellation of people.  Since the holiday is completely personal it’s also completely unique for each family.

Ann Jarvis and Julia Ward Howe, though, would have liked the idea of Mothers’ Day, in which we as a society celebrate the deep and passionate impulse towards the greater good which is ignited in the hearts of anyone who loves a child.  Love for people who cherished us in our own infancy, love for the children of our own hearts, an expansive compassion for all children and families, and a deep passion for peace  – this is the core of Mothers’ Day, and it’s not at all relevant whether or not you are actually a mother, or even a woman.

So this year I wish a Happy Mothers’ Day to my mom, and to my dad, too, who raised us and fed us and played with us and taught us how to be good people as much as our mom did.

I honor my grandmothers and their mothers and grandmothers who raised their babies while stepping out to make a mark for women in the world of politics and power.  To those haunted by sad memories on this day, of mothers lost or children lost, of the intensely private grief of infertility or miscarriage or the intensely public grief of children lost to violence and war, I wish the blessings of peace and comfort.

I rejoice with my friends who have small children to hold, long-longed for.  I applaud them for swimming so strongly through the early years of parenthood – totally immersed in the water but keeping their heads above the waves; devoted to their kids but still their own true selves.  Some people seem to lose themselves in parenting; some seem to find themselves.

Happy Mothers’ Day to all those dads who are warming bottles, kissing tummies, tying sneakers, and singing along.  Happy Mothers’ Day to the families with two mothers, and the ones with two fathers.

Happy Mothers’ Day to my friends who decided not to have kids.   Your wide-open arms and wide-open hearts are the exact meaning of how expansive love connects us all.

Happy Mothers’ Day to the mothers who, like me, are waiting.  When I first signed up at IAC, they said, “All of you are already parents.  You just haven’t met your children yet.”  This day is yours, too.  Keep breathing.

Happy Mothers’ Day to the woman who will be my child’s birthmother.  I love you already and I always will.

And Happy Mothers’ Day to me.