It’s Mother’s Day! All around us, people are handing over mushy cards and hopefully some not too badly dented flowers to their mother or mother surrogate, loading up the kids and other significants into the car, eager to stand in a 90 minute wait line for brunch, or planning a visit to dear old mater at the familial manor or retirement home. Others are spending a day in maudlin pining for their dearly departed.
Ah .. Mother’s Day.
No one is born a mother. Nor does the act of birth make you a mother, though the preparation can kill you. Nine months of physical, emotional and often financial trauma can really take it out of a woman, let me tell you, and her reward is a life sentence of blood ,sweat, tears and copious amounts of other bodily fluids, starting just moments after delivery. It takes more than those vaunted male balls to merely survive motherhood, never mind make it to an age when your progeny finally honour your effort.
There was a time when the concept of motherhood was pedestaled. Flowery accolades, songs, and soppy paintings celebrated dear old mum. A mother was a venerated and venerable icon, framed by a strict adherence to the role society had deemed appropriate. The average woman had swapped her youth for the chance of financial security, and she and her progeny were essentially the property of her husband, with very few rights, and less autonomy than a free range chicken.
A hundred years ago, a woman could be married by twenty, have eight kids by thirty, and have keeled over by forty, clearing the way for daddy dearest to glom on to a younger consort to comfort him in his golden years. With little in the way of contraception apart from abstinence, motherhood was very often not a choice at all.
Despite the constraints imposed upon them by their household duties, there were women who worked tirelessly at volunteer positions. One such woman was Ann Jarvis, an American peace activist who was known for her care of wounded soldiers on both sides of the Civil War. After her death, her daughter, Anna Jarvis, held a memorial in 1908 to honour her mother, with the intention of honouring all mothers, and of creating Mother’s Day Work Clubs that would address public health issues.
By 1914, Jarvis’ work had created enough of a buzz to convince American President Woodrow Wilson to proclaim Mother’s Day a national holiday to honour mothers. The notion of setting aside the second Sunday in May for this purpose spread rapidly, and was very soon adopted all around the world.
No one was more incensed at the commercialization of the holiday than Jarvis herself. By 1912 she had patented both “Second Sunday in May” and “Mother’s Day” (always with the apostrophe signifying that each family should be honouring their own mother,) but she loathed the bandwagoning of Hallmark Cards and other companies that were capitalizing on the holiday, and in particular the group, American War Mothers, who had tied their fundraising campaigns to the selling of pink “Mother’s Day Carnations.”
A true daughter of her mother, she organized boycotts and threatened lawsuits throughout the 1920’s against those card companies, candy manufacturers, and fundraising groups, who, she felt, dishonoured the holiday by encouraging the buying of gifts over a heartfelt, handwritten declaration of love and gratitude.
For all her protests, Mother’s Day continues to be one of the most commercially successful of North American occasions, particularly for the sales of flowers, greeting cards, chocolates, and pink (for girls!) tchotchkes.
Modern women have a more ambivalent take on the day. No one’s going to turn down a thoughtful card or gift, given, however willingly or unwillingly, by the person they’ve brought into the world and raised, whether through birth or other means. But you shouldn’t be surprised if your gift is accepted with a knowing smile. After all, mothers invest decades into forming an adult, with all of the attendant duties, unpaid and largely unacknowledged, in the home or out of it. A card is the very least you can thank her with – pretty much the equivalent of the minimum wage. (“We’d pay you less if we could, but the law’s the law!”)
Mothers are not born with an innate ability to withstand pain, and the endless tyranny of childcare. They do not spring fully formed from hours of labour, ready to bear whatever this new being throws at them, physically or emotionally. They are young women with lives and dreams of their own that put aside their own selves in the service of families and societies that place very little value on what makes the actual world turn – cooking, cleaning, planning, organizing, wiping away tears and cleaning tiny bottoms.
Perhaps a more thoughtful gift for mums might be something that recognizes those sacrifices, and puts it into perspective. Mother’s Day, possibly more than any other holiday, is your chance to really thank your maternal parent for putting aside a large portion of their life to create yours.
Get it out of your head that Mumsie will be over the moon with a new pair of fuzzy slippers, and realize that she’d much prefer a gift certificate to a spa of her choice, or a year’s subscription to the Wine of the Month Club. If you’re old enough to read this, and you are lucky enough to still have a living maternal figure, remember her existence and needs more than once a year.
She spent far more years indulging your wants and needs than you have left to thank her for her generosity.
And while I’m in a fever dream of possibilities, address your own attitudes to women of all ages, for every one of them is a mother or a potential mother. While it’s lovely to honour your own mother, remember that many of the women you see every day, of child bearing age or beyond, are also someone else’s honoured mum, and that there is likely someone out there who would take a lot of offense to anyone who treated her with disrespect. The ability to divorce the love of one’s mother from respect for all women, their bodies, and their work, is simply astounding, especially as seen amongst those with the power or clout to affect change.
Ah, Mother’s Day. In theory, adorable. In practice, a day when women – the wives, teachers, chefs, chief bottle washers, multi-taskers, and keeper of the family brain – are granted ‘permission’ to relax for a short while, and enjoy a chocolate, before they get on with the work of making the domestic world go ‘round. Not much of a trade-off, really.
(first published on bobsegarini.wordpress.com/2016/05/08/roxanne-tellier-spotlight-on-mama/)