"Oh great, here we go again. Another annoying rant about some sourpuss who hates Mother's Day," you collectively groan. "Why can't the internet ever let us have nice things?" Now, just hold on you guys. No, seriously. It's not like that! It's not that I think Mother's Day is awful. It's just that, if you look at the origins of the holiday and the way it's celebrated today, Mother's Day is a damn lie. So please, stick around for a bit. Honestly, you might learn something interesting.
I guess I should admit I'm a little bit of a killjoy with a tendency to over-analyze and pick everything apart. So, yes, I'm skeptical of Mother's Day. I sort of sniff at the holiday the way a cat does when it knows you've put medicine in their food, but they eat it anyway, because food. It's not the holiday itself that irks me, though, it's how homogenized it's become. Actually, when you get down to it, I like Mother's Day. Every year my partner and children get me a simple bouquet of flowers (which I really like getting under non-Mother's Day circumstances) and the cheesiest card from the store they can find, which they elaborate upon with jokes of their own. The rest of the day we spend doing basically whatever, and if my husband doesn't cook we order take-out. That's about it and it's always lovely.
However, and even though I keep Mother's Day relatively simple, I'm perpetuating some of the lies inherent in the holiday. Let's take a look at the history of Mother's Day (and the way we observe it today) to show you what I mean when I tell you this whole thing is a sham. A sham, I tell you!
Because It Started Out As A Service-Oriented Holiday
Well, sort of. Precursors to what we now think of as Mother's Day began in the 1850s with "Mother's Day Work Clubs," established by West Virginia homemaker Ann Reeves Jarvis. Jarvis and her cohorts worked to educate local mothers about unsanitary conditions that were leading to infant mortality, especially contaminated milk.
(Incidentally, seven of Jarvis' 11 children died in infancy or early childhood, so clearly this was personal.) During the Civil War, these ladies would tend to wounded soldiers.
Because It Moved On To Become A Melancholy, Pacifist Holiday
After the Civil War, the work clubs banded together to do what mothers often do: bring people together. They organized Mother's Friendship Day Picnics in an effort to bring together former foes from Union and Confederate factions. The women had witnessed the horrors of war up close — many had lost sons — and, as a result, were committed to unity and pacifism.
Because It Was Always An Activist Holiday
Mother's Day isn't about rest, actually, but about activism. Not only was that evidenced by the aforementioned predecessors above, but further evidenced by suffragette and pacifist Julia Ward Howe in her 1870 "Mother's Day Proclamation" (initially called "Appeal to womanhood throughout the world") which states, in part:
In this day of progress, in this century of light, the ambition of rulers has been allowed to barter the dear interests of domestic life for the bloody exchanges of the battle field. Thus men have done. Thus men will do. But women need no longer be made a party to proceedings which fill the globe with grief and horror. Despite the assumptions of physical force, the mother has a sacred and commanding word to say to the sons who owe their life to her suffering. That word should now be heard, and answered to as never before. ... 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.
I'm not crying tears of emotional and righteous inspiration. You are.
Two years later, Howe would ask for the observation of an annual "Mother's Day for Peace" every June 2, but it didn't catch on. Needless to say, all this is a far cry from a prix-fixe in the restaurant of a local hotel.
Because Modern Mother's Day Is Predicated On A Memorial Service
Mother's Day as we know it (again: kinda) was established through the efforts of Anna Jarvis. No, not the Ann Jarvis I mentioned above, but Anna, who just happened to be Ann's daughter. (She was also friends with Julia Howe, just FYI.) Anna thought her mother was just the bee's knees, and never forgot the time when Ann had prayed with her Sunday school class, "I hope and pray that someone, sometime, will found a memorial mother’s day commemorating her for the matchless service she renders to humanity in every field of life. She is entitled to it."
The two remained close until Ann's death in 1905. Three years later, Anna held a memorial service in Grafton, West Virginia (with a corollary event in a department store in Philadelphia, where she spoke) to honor her mother and all mothers, which is largely seen as the first "Mother's Day" as we think of it.
Because Anna Jarvis Hated What It Has Become
Anna Jarvis didn't want the momentum to die there, arguing that national holidays were biased towards male achievement. So, she petitioned politicians (directly and through public discourse) to establish a national holiday, which Woodrow Wilson did in 1914. By all accounts, Jarvis wanted this to be a sweet, simple holiday — visit with mom, maybe go to church, and hey, let's wear a carnation because, "The carnation does not drop its petals, but hugs them to its heart as it dies, and so, too, mothers hug their children to their hearts, their mother love never dying." (Also, carnations were her mother's favorite.)
But shortly after becoming a national holiday, greeting card companies, florists, and confectioners were like, "Aw snap! Can we bilk people out of money with this?" And bilk they did. Jarvis was not amused. "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," she scoffed. "And candy! You take a box to Mother — and then eat most of it yourself. A pretty sentiment." She called for protests, boycotts, and even filed lawsuits against those who would try to make money off her holiday.
By the 1940s she was so fed up with the gross commercialization of the holiday, she began a petition to rescind the holiday she had worked so hard to establish. The response to this request? Throw her in a sanitarium. According the Anna Jarvis historian Olive Ricketts, the card and floral companies literally imprisoned a woman to protect their profits.
Because There's More Than One Mother's Day
Yeah, I don't know if this is so much something that makes Mother's Day a lie, but I figure it's relevant to point out that this isn't some set-in-stone, immovable, eternal observance. Plus, now seems as good a time as any to point out that different countries celebrate at different times of the year and in different ways.
For example, in Israel Mother's Day is observed on the 30th of Shevat (between the end of January and beginning of March) to correspond with the death of Hadassah founder Henrietta Szold. The Nepalese observe Mata Tirtha Aunsi, a celebration of mother's observed with a pilgrimage. Austalian Mother's Day is also observed on the second Sunday in May, but was established in the 1920s when Janet Heyden noticed lonely, seemingly forgotten women in a local nursing home.
Because "Mom's Day Off" Isn't A Thing
Haha. Ha. OMG, you are hilarious! That's adorable! You're adorable!
Because Mother's Day Brunch Is Not A True Brunch
I'm sorry, children, I love you very much, but Mother's Day brunch is amateur hour. The food is meh, there's usually a limited menu, and the waitstaff (bless their intrepid hearts) is pressured to make sure tables turn over as quickly as possible. After all, Mother's Day is literally the busiest day in the restaurant world and, much to the displeasure of the ghost of Anna Jarvis I'm sure, restaurant owners want to cash in on the holiday as much as possible (and, less cynically, ensure that everyone gets a chance to dine with mom in a timely fashion).
Look, I think brunch should last at least as long as I had to wait to eat by skipping breakfast. If I can't luxuriate with bottomless mimosas for at least that long, it just ain't brunch. Instead, it's me wolfing down an omelette and mediocre alcohol which I could have done at home.
Because We Don't Want 3/4 Of What You're Selling
Seriously, just no. I don't want mass produced jewelry. I don't want a stuffed animal hugging a vase of flowers. I don't want whatever treacly crap is being hawked from television commercials or featured prominently in a store window for last minute shoppers. I don't know what mothers these companies are talking to, but I seriously can't imagine a world in which even a small percentage of the stuff appeals to more than an eccentric handful of us.
Because It Does That Creepy Thing Where We Fetishize A Very Particular Brand Of Motherhood
Because of the de-personalization and commodification of Mother's Day made necessary in order to market the holiday to a mass audience, the idea of what a mother is in regard to Mother's Day has been boiled down to a familiar trope: mothers are saintly and self-sacrificing and, moreover, motherhood is the most important accomplishment any woman can aspire to. Sure, mothers can know a thing or two about sacrifice and, yes, motherhood can be an aspect of oneself that is intertwined with one's concept of her own identity, accomplishment, or even womanhood. However, to simply leave it at that (and to celebrate this version of womanhood above all others) does a disservice to mothers and women everywhere.
I feel like it's relevant to bring up Anna Jarvis again. Around the time she was protesting the commercialization of her holiday, the press unfailingly referred to her "spinsterhood" as a means to belittle her achievements as the "founder of Mother's Day" and discredit her as crazy and bitter. In other words, "What does she know? She doesn't even have kids."
Unlike Jarvis, I don't think we should rollback Mother's Day. I enjoy the sentiment, but maybe let's steer away from the creepy, uniform, empty gestures and get back to sincerely and simply letting our moms know that we see them as individuals who mean a lot to us.