The Many Sides to Mother’s Day

Sunday, May 14, is known as Mother’s Day.  We like to think of it as a day when we show our appreciation and love for our mothers with cards, flowers, candy and gifts.  Walk into any restaurant that day and you will no doubt be greeted with ‘Happy Mother’s Day.’  A feel good day.  But that isn’t the case for all women.  For many it is a difficult day – a day which reminds them of a mother that was abusive – or of a mother they never knew, a mother whose hugs they never felt.  It reminds some women that they could not become mothers.  Others are mothers whose child has died or is missing.  What about the feelings of the women who have made a choice not to be mothers?  And what about all those women who have been “as mothers” to others, but are never acknowledged because they are not their ‘mothers’?  Mother’s Day can be a day of mixed emotions – a combination of celebration and joy, as well as of sorrow and sadness – a day welcomed by some and dreaded by others. 

But does the way we celebrate Mother’s Day today reflect its original intent?  If we check the internet, we can read various articles on how Mother’s Day came into being.  Apparently three women, Ann Jarvis, her daughter Anna Jarvis, and Julia Ward Howe, were instrumental in trying to establish a Mother’s Day in the late 1800s/early 1900s.  But what they had in mind is nothing like what is celebrated today. 

Ann Jarvis founded Mothers’ Day Work Clubs in 1858, with the goal to improve sanitation.  Many children were dying due to infection and disease.  The intent of Mothers’ Day Work Clubs was to teach women how to improve sanitation and prepare food properly – an opportunity for mothers to learn about cleanliness and good health.

Julia Ward Howe sought equality for all people and the end to all war.  She was upset by the tragic effects of war, of soldiers being killed and injured, women being left as widows, children being left fatherless.  She called for women of all countries to work together to end war.  In 1870, Julia Ward Howe, in her Mothers Day Proclamation, called upon women to rise up and oppose war in all forms and to commit to finding peaceful resolutions to conflicts. She organized Mothers’ Day for Peace, the first being held in June of 1872 in Boston.

In the meantime, Ann Jarvis’ daughter, Anna Jarvis, wanted children of all ages to recognize and appreciate their mothers for their devotion and service, by honoring their mothers, not by buying things, but personally in word and act.  The first “official” observance of Mother’s Day was held May 10, 1908, in Anna’s church in West Virginia.  She then campaigned to have Mother’s Day recognized nationally, which occurred on May 9, 1914, when President Woodrow Wilson signed the proclamation which included these words: “do hereby direct the government officials to display the United States flag on all government buildings and do invite the people of the United States to display the flag at their homes or other suitable places on the second Sunday in May as a public expression of our love and reverence for the mothers of our country.”

Over the years, the focus of Mother’s Day has changed but inequality, unhealthy living conditions and the need to end all war, remain.  How might we remember the original intentions of Mother’s Day as we follow Anna Jarvis’ wish that we honor our mothers with words and actions?