The Ironic History of Mother’s Day

alex atkins bookshelf cultureIronically, the person who conceived of the modern version of Mother’s Day — a national celebration for children to honor their mothers — never married and never had children, and became well-known as a staunch opponent of Mother’s Day.

The history of Mother’s Day begins with Julia Ward Howe (born 1819), a poet and social activist who promoted women’s suffrage and pacifism. She is remembered mostly as the author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” In 1861, the Howes met with Abraham Lincoln at the White House. During that trip, a friend suggested that she write new lyrics for a marching song about abolitionist John Brown (the song was known as “John Brown’s Body) that was very popular with the Union during the Civil War. Howe’s stirring words were published in the Atlantic Monthly a few months later in 1862 and became the rallying song for the Union soldiers. Several years later in 1870, she conceived of “Mother’s Day for Peace” to be observed on June 2 — calling women throughout the world to support disarmament and peace. Unfortunately for her, this version of Mother’s Day never took root.

Fast forward to 1907. Anna Marie Jarvis, of Philadelphia, wanted to fulfill her mother’s dream of a holiday that would honor mothers. The first “Mother’s Day” was a memorial service to her mother, held two years after her death, on May 12, 1907. The original idea for the celebration of “Mother’s Day” was a special church service, held on the second Sunday in May, where members of the congregation wore white carnations. With the help of a wealthy local merchant, she promoted the concept until Woodrow Wilson, who clearly loved his mother, declared it a national holiday in 1914.

It didn’t take long for American business to see the potential gold in mining this new national holiday. Within a few years, whether out of genuine love or guilt, sales of candy, flowers, greeting cards, and long-distance phone calls raked in billions for American companies. Anna Jarvis was horrified at the excessive commercialization of the pure celebration and tribute she originally envisioned, and in the early 1920s became a very vocal opponent of the holiday. Almost as if following Julia Howe’s footsteps she became an activist against Mother’s Day, staging protests — even to the point of being arrested in 1948 for disturbing the peace. She had deep regrets: “[I wish I ] would never have started the day because it became so out of control.” Jarvis was no fan of Hallmark — she considered that children who would send a card (letting Hallmark’s wordsmiths do all the heavy lifting) were simply too lazy and uncaring to write a personal letter to their dear mothers. You can only imagine what Jarvis would say about texting and email.

And just how much do Americans love their mothers? According to the National Retail Federation, consumers will spend as much as $28.1 billion saying “I love you Mom.” The average consumer will spend an average $220 this year, primarily on greeting cards, flowers, and meals. This average is $16 more than last year — call it a Covid-19 pandemic tax. Many consider motherhood one of the toughest jobs in the world, but let’s face it — that job got much tougher during the pandemic. So this year in particular, mothers have really earned effusive praise for their Herculean work. As mothers around the globe know well, it came with a price —  mothers’ mental and physical wellbeing were pushed to the breaking point as they cared for their families for over a year with many simultaneous challenges, including long periods of sustained lockdowns and shortages of certain food and household items. This was even more dramatic for mothers who were juggling remote work, raising young children who were home-schooling, and increased housework. As the World Economic Forum recognized in its story “Covid-19 is Damaging the Mental Health of Mothers,” extensive research has indicated that the well-being of mothers is absolutely critical for children to flourish. Sadly, the Covid-19 pandemic had a deleterious effect on the health of mothers. Medical health experts reported that mothers experienced higher levels of stress, depression, anxiety, insomnia, hypertension, and obesity — not to mention that there were many times over the past year that many mothers felt like throttling their spouse or kids — or both (but, of course, didn’t).

In the context of holiday expenditures in the U.S., Mother’s Day ranks fourth in the list below Christmas (1st place, with over $729 billion in spending), Thanksgiving (2) and Valentines (3).

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Read related posts:
Experience is the Mother of Wisdom and Other Idioms About Mothers
Let It Be: A Musical Tribute to Mothers
The Wisdom of Mothers
What is the Toughest Job in the World?
The Legacy of Mothers
Best Quotes About Mothers
Favorite TV Moms of All Time
The Wisdom of a Grandmother

For further reading: The Folklore of World Holidays by Robert Griffin, Gale (1998).

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