Sunday, May 9, 2010


It’s a wonderful tribute to the complexity of motherhood that most moms I know secretly wish to celebrate the holiday by getting a break from the very things that entitle them to it.

Just give me a day off.

I’ve never actually asked for that, and to be honest, I don’t know many moms who have. We don’t need a Grimm’s Fairy Tale to caution us about the dangers of such extravagance. Somewhere in our subconscious, we all know that if you take one full day off, you’ll return to find the three little pigs asleep on the couch and Rumpelstiltskin in the backyard playing with fireworks.

Or something like that.

But, the holiday is often a time when moms are given small departures from their routines—breakfast in bed, flowers, or trips to a restaurant and envelopes....with gift cards.

We tell our mothers how grateful we are to them, but the tacit message is that we want them to feel special. It doesn’t matter that millions of others are doing variations of the same thing ---this holiday is about the individual and the specific family who loves them.

And, the 14 billion we’re willing to spend to show it.

It’s this amount, and the focus on the individual mother, that strike me as the biggest differences between what the holiday is now and what it was conceived of being a century ago.

I’m going to keep this blog short (as a mother’s day gift to me, and you) and I don’t want it to sound like a seventh grade research paper--or an excuse for my husband to send back those flowers--but the evolution of the holiday is striking.

I really do like scented candles and bath soap as much as the next mom, but this day was supposed to be about peace, and it was supposed to be about mothers reaching out to other mothers to achieve it. Julia Ward Howe, reacting to the devastation of the Civil War, conceived the first international day celebrating peace and motherhood, according to Anne Huffman, on the website Mother's Day Central.

Howe’s 1870 Mother’s Day Proclamation ends with:

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.

According to Huffman, Howe wanted mothers to put an end to, “sons killing the sons of other mothers.”

Howe’s holiday had moderate success, but it was given new life decades later when Anna Reeves Jarvis, a woman from West Virginia, called for a Mother’s Friendship Day as a way of reuniting families and neighbors from the north and south.

And, it was Anna Reeves Jarvis’s daughter, Anna M. Jarvis whom we have to thank for getting this holiday on the calendar.

An accomplishment that haunted her, according to Huffman.

And, that is why this story is worth knowing about. Even if only half of it is true.

Huffman says that the younger Jarvis worked for years, “endlessly petitioning state governments, business leaders, women groups, churches, and other institutions and organizations," to have the holiday recognized. Finally, in 1914, Woodrow Wilson declared the second Sunday in May, Mother’s Day.

Jarvis lived long enough to see the original mission of the day corrupted by one bastion of commerce still monopolizing the holiday today: florists.

In 1923 she sued to stop a Mother’s Day event, and in the 1930’s Huffman says Howe was outraged by the sale of flowers at the American War Mother’s Group, and was, “arrested for disturbing the peace...”

Even her mother’s depiction on a US postage stamp became a point of contention because of the iconography—an image of her mother, the words Mother’s Day, and worst of all....a vase of white carnations.

Today, Americans spend more than 1.98 billion on Mother’s Day flowers. We heeded little to Jarvis’s warning: “What will you do to route charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, kidnapers and other termites that would undermine with their greed one of the finest, boldest, and truest movements and celebrations?”

You might argue that a holiday’s popularity is subject to a Darwinian test. Only those that evolve to suit their (capitalist) environment are going to flourish. And, women today do not need one day a year to congregate and voice their agenda, nor are they a homogenous group with the same priorities or visions of world affairs.

And, yet—perhaps the collective smell of nail polish, perfume, peonies blooming, and waffles cooking, has blurred our vision. A cynic, or purist, might say we have squandered or been distracted from the holiday’s potential.

I am not feeling particularly cynical as I write this, so I will say Mother’s Day is now a holiday with an untapped potential—with a new or renewed mission waiting to happen.

Given the spirit of the times, and the outrages and concerns cropping up daily on the front page, I don’t think it will be long before mothers take back the holiday.

Instead of commerce it will be about change.

Instead of the individual it will be about forming a community.

The second Sunday in May.

Millions of moms already know the date by heart.

All it needs now is the right cause at the right moment.

(Not to say that getting a break, or a waffle, is not a worthy mission for this day. But, perhaps we don’t need a national holiday to expect that....)

No comments: