Mother’s Day is celebrated all over the world, but the American version was initiated by Anna Jarvis as an attempt to bring reconciliation between the North and the South after the Civil War. Ms. Jarvis started the first Mother’s Day celebration in 1908 and it eventually became a nationally recognized holiday in 1914. Ms. Jarvis was so disappointed with the commercialization of Mother’s Day that she spent much of her wealth and time in legal battles trying to end the national holiday.
It’s also interesting to note that this woman who founded Mother’s Day was herself never married and had no children. Ms. Jarvis founded the day to honor the death of her mother and celebrate the contributions of mothers across the country. Today, many women like Ms. Jarvis (women who are single, women without children, women who’ve lost their mothers) feel excluded and injured from our contemporary celebrations of the holiday.
Rather than working to ban the holiday as Ms. Jarvis did, I propose we adopt a broader view of Mother’s Day that is more inclusive and more in the spirit of Ms. Jarvis’ original intent. This more inclusive view of Mother’s Day focuses on the act of mothering, in stead of the status of motherhood. In this expanded focus we are able to embrace all women in our national celebration.
Women Excluded from Mother’s Day Traditions
It’s may be hard to believe that Mother’s Day celebrations can be seen as exclusionary and painful for a number of women, but it’s true. As someone who struggled for years to conceive a child, I know first hand how isolating and painful our Mother’s Day celebrations can be. It seemed as if every woman my age was already a mother and that left me feeling even more alone and like a failure because I was not able to achieve this sacred status of motherhood.
Mother’s Day and the days leading up to it are already an emotional challenge for many of the 6.7 million women struggling with infertility. In the Savvy Auntie Facebook community, courageous women shared honestly about how they feel being childless on Mother’s Day. These women reported feeling:
- “lonely and left behind”
- “anxious about my ticking clock”
- “not in the club that I assumed I would be in”
- “like I’m sitting in a great cloud of sadness — it’s just the most awful day.”
The painful feelings associated with Mother’s Day are not limited only to women who are childless. Women who have lost a child or are separated from their child also report feeling excluded on Mother’s Day. Women who have put a child up for adoption or have children in prison or in the streets struggling with drug addictions are frequently left out of our cultural celebrations of motherhood. These women’s separation from their children is often thought of as examples of bad motherhood and their own moral failings. Women who’ve placed their child up for adoption or who have children in prison or on drugs experience the pain of not living up to what society expects of you as a mother.
Finally, there is the pain of women who have loss their mothers or have emotionally distant relationships with their mothers. For both these groups of women, celebrations of Mother’s Day can remind them of their loss, grief, and anger. The lack of public acknowledgement of these feelings can result in these women feeling even more isolated and alone.
So how do we help to ease the suffering of these women and include them in our cultural celebration?
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Focus on Mothering instead of Motherhood
Let’s draw a bigger circle of love that can include all these women in our celebrations of Mother’s Day. We can not change the fact that they do not have a child, or their child is in prison, or their mother is no longer living. However, we can acknowledge that we see them and their pain and that we celebrate them and their generous gifts to our world. This more inclusive celebration of Mother’s Day can be achieved if we switch our focus from the status of motherhood to celebrating mothering.
Mothering focuses on the act of nurturing others.
Motherhood focus on the status of having a child. Mothering is more expansive and allows us to celebrate the ways in which we have been nurtured by our mothers and other women in our lives. Mothering also encourages us to reflect upon and celebrate the ways in which we all have nurtured others- regardless of whether they are our biological children.
When we recognize the potential that is in a person and we give both the encouragement and correction necessary to develop that potential, we are mothering. When we generously invest our time, money, and resources for the physical, spiritual, intellectual, and emotional development of person with no expectation of reciprocity or self-benefit, we are mothering. When we affirm and protect the dignity of a person’s life regardless of their social status in the world but simply because we know that this individual is of immeasurable value, we are mothering.
Sometimes we have the opportunity to mother our own children, but all of us have the opportunity to mother other people’s children. In fact, this public mothering (mothering other people’s children) yields the most benefit to our society and merits a public celebration.
In her groundbreaking book, Black Feminist Thought, Patricia Hill Collins uses the concept of “othermother” to discuss the central role of black women’s activism and community building efforts. Othermothers are sisters, aunts, grandmothers, cousins, neighbors, teachers, or any women who actively cares for the well-being of a child that is not their biological child. These othermothers are a critical source of support for both the child and his/her biological mother. Othermothering includes social activism as a loving action of care and protection of our children. The practice of othermothering builds a network of love and support for children and adults that affirms the value of caring, ethics, teaching, and service.
This connection between mothering and community building was central to the ideas of the original founders of Mother’s Day in our country. Ann Jarvis organized the pre-cursor to Mother’s Day, “Mother’s Friendship Day”, to build community and promote reconciliation between former Union and Confederate soldiers. Another precursor to Mother’s Day, “Mother’s Peace Day”, was organized by abolitionist and suffragist Julia Howe to promote world peace. For these women and many others like them, Mother’s Day provided an opportunity to reach beyond our households, biological families, and narrow group identities to embrace those different from us and to affirm our common connection. This is what we need to reclaim in our current celebrations of Mother’s Day.
The fact that we are still here implies that we are the beneficiaries of some quality mothering. Someone cared for us when we were unable to care for ourselves. Someone invested in us regardless of our ability to pay or reciprocate. Someone cared for us enough to expect greatness from us and to create opportunities for us to see and develop that within ourselves. These acts did not stop when we turned 18. We are always in need of this mothering. And the best way to say thank you for these tremendous gifts is to literally say thank you to your mother and/or othermothers and to continue to extend this gift to others.
Think about the many women who have and are currently mothering you. Write down the names of your othermothers. List the specific memories you have of moments when you could clearly see their generous gift of mothering to you. As you reflect on this list, say thank you.Express gratitude for each of the women who individually and collectively nurture life within you and within our community.
Reach out to your othermothers and share your gratitude with them. It may surprise them to hear your comments about their mothering and what it has meant to you. Like many people in our culture, they may only associate mothering with motherhood. Help them to see themselves in the celebration of this day. Help them to experience the the warmth of the light they create in the world through their acts of mothering.
Reflect on and renew your commitment to mothering other people’s children. Regardless of whether you have children in your household, we all share responsibility for the children of our world. Mothering provides us to reach beyond the narrow boundaries of ourselves and invest in the care and well-being of others. This is a tremendous privilege and a great responsibility. Our mothering nurtures, protects, and sustains life, dignity, health, and love in this world. Do not limit these valuable gifts to your household, we are all in need of your gift of mothering.
Mothering is hard work. It is unpaid labor and rarely receives the gratitude and appreciation that is due. We would not be able to continue as a species without mothering. Every woman who engages in this critical, life sustaining act should be acknowledged and celebrated this day and every day.
So let me say to each one of you who so generously gives of your time, resources, and attention to lovingly invest in the nurture and development of others, Happy Mother’s Day!