Common preaching school wisdom is that we should avoid doing Mother’s Day services, sermons especially, at all costs. While for many it is rightly a time for tribute and celebration, it might bring up painful feelings for those among us who have had fertility problems, or who have lost babies or children, either through death or custody battles, or who are going through hard times with our own sons or daughters.
And despite all the commercials for pampering products or homemade waffles (or waffle irons), telling us not to forget Mom, urging us to give Mom all she deserves, and finally reminding us that it is our last chance to find the perfect gift for Mom, truth is for some of us children, young or older, it is impossible or hurtful to remember Mom.
Mom may not be or, if she has died, may not have been deserving of the adulation it is assumed we are going to heap on her this day, in the flesh or in memory.
That is the truth, as uncomfortable or unpopular as that might be.
Hallmark certainly wouldn’t like this perspective, nor the florists, nor the thousands of other businesses that thrive on, indeed count on, Mother’s Day.
Like Christmas and Easter and many other observances, it has become an incredible pressure on families and enormously profitable for merchants.
The most popular day of the year to dine out and the busiest day for telephone lines.
And despite what I see as the shame and the sham of turning every holiday and holy day into a shopping blow-out, I admit I am hooked into it enough to look forward to, even expect, those gifts from my own three children. The bath oil, the little bottles of cologne, the cards gathering dust on the mantle.
This year’s presents, which arrived later-on last night, FedEx-style, in large boxes with lots of packaging — lovely bouquets of mixed flowers, roses, and calla lilies with sweet notes typed in by a store clerk somewhere. Just in time for me not to be feeling disappointed, and then feeling guilty about being disappointed.
For assuming that’s what the day is about, and assuming my kids are feeling like paying tribute to me as if I were a royal figure, instead of that very young woman who so many years ago now longed to be, presumed she was ready for parenthood. Who was so clueless, so lost, so unready, so unprepared, so clumsy, and yet who so wanted those babies.
The just barely not a teen who had to go to a charity health clinic for my firstborn’s shots and well-baby check-ups, who was forced to go on food stamps, who put him and his sister through a divorce and, for more years than I would ever have imagined, a latchkey life. Coming home to a silent, unpolished house after school, refrigerator half-filled with neglected cans or tomato paste and wilted lettuce, peddling up the street for milk I was too scattered, too tired, to remember.
Because I was miles away working for a nonprofit organization which ironically was formed to make sure all pregnancies were intended, well planned for, and that mothers had the supports they needed to have well cared for and thriving children when they were truly ready.
It might have looked like I was leaning in, working days steadily gaining more footing and more income and more influence, working nights at the writing career which had been my degree and my dream. But I was really just staying upright, at least most of the time.
So it was some sort of comic relief that the first Mother’s Day gift I received a few years back was from my oldest son, who was finishing school in Dallas, Texas.
He sent me one of those free e-mail cards. The one he sent was not actually a Mother’s Day card, but instead a card commemorating national food allergies week.
He wrote that he wanted to remind me to avoid those foods, those almonds and Brazil nuts, the shrimp and the other shell food that made me break out in hives and threaten to stop breathing.
To be safe and to live, so we could continue to be in adult relationship with each other, with its peaks and valleys. Just live so I can do what I can — no more and no less — to make things right between us when things would get a little or a lot tense, even ugly.
And right with the world he was brought in to.
As a mother — as any and all of us who have known what it is like to fiercely love and nurture another human being are called to do. At least part of the time.
Which was the original intention of our American Mother’s Day, which had its beginnings, not in divine adoration but in activism. It started more than 150 years ago when Anna Jarvis, an Appalachian homemaker, organized a day to raise awareness of poor health conditions in her community, a cause she felt would be best led by mothers. She called it a “Mother’s Work Day” when the women of her hometown in West Virginia would work on improving the impoverished community’s sanitation and other direct service projects.
Fifteen years later, Julia Ward Howe, a Unitarian poet, pacifist, suffragette, and author of the lyrics to The Battle Hymn of the Republic, horrified by the bloodshed and the carnage of the Franco-Prussian War — organized a day encouraging mothers to rally for peace. She believed that mothers above all others bore the loss of human life and would be the most moved to act to prevent war.
In 1872, Howe’s vision of a Mother’s Peace Day was ONLY briefly lived out in cities and towns across the country — as well as in Edinburgh, London, Geneva, and Constantinople. The popularity of this Mother’s Day for Peace waned over time and the event finally disappeared in the years preceding World War I.
In 1905, Anna Jarvis’s daughter, also named Anna, began a campaign to memorialize her mother’s social justice work and her vision of mothers working together to promote health and safety by commemorating a national mother’s day, her efforts paying off in 1914 when President Woodrow Wilson signed a bill making it a federal holiday.
However as this holiday devolved into a day when instead of petitions and letters to the editors being circulated, this activity was diminished and then replaced by increasing card-sending, gift-giving and pancake flipping, Anna Jarvis became enraged. She believed that the day’s original sentiment, its original purpose, was being sacrificed at the expense of greed and profit. In fact, by 1923 she was so distressed that she filed a lawsuit to stop a Mother’s Day festival.
By the time she died in 1948, Jarvis was said to have confessed that she regretted ever helping to start the Mother’s Day tradition at all.
She had railed without success against what had happened to Mother’s Day, both how it had become so commercialized and how it had lost its point. It had begun as a reaction against injustice and violence, a way to use the values represented by motherhood for the greatest good.
Not a private celebration or a massive cultural take-over glorifying and idealizing motherhood in a way that few if any mothers can match, let alone sustain. Not a time for lessons on how to be a Tiger Mom, but the inspiration to be a Transforming Mom.
It was meant rather to move mothers and non-mothers alike to transcend their individual family lives and work to make a better society, even a better world.
In recent past years, this has meant events like a Million Mom March focusing on stopping the senseless gun violence that too often marks American life, including the lives of our children — children in elementary school classrooms, the two-year-old toddler shot to death by her five-year-old brother who was gifted with a starter gun.
Or the Georgia mother’s child killed by gunshot once a week for the past decade.
Efforts like the one last year by Christy Turlington Burns, a model turned maternal health advocate who asked mothers to celebrate No Mother’s Day by not answering their phone or email, even when their children called, with the idea being to bring home what it feels like to be suddenly motherless, because around the world about 800 women a day die in childbirth, 90 percent of them from preventable causes.
Or this Mother’s Day 2013, when our own Unitarian Universalist Association Standing on the Side of Love faith in action program has joined a campaign, Strong Families/Mama’s Day for the Rest of Us, to recognize, as blogger Shanelle Matthews has noted, what she describes as those who have generally not been publicly, or at least commercially, celebrated: queer moms, immigrant moms, moms of children with disabilities, and moms with disabilities. If Mother’s Day emphasizes the importance of the maternal bond, she asks, don’t genderqueer moms, adoptive moms, foster moms, trans moms, grandmas parenting grandkids, and single moms experience that same bond. If the purpose of Mother’s Day, she inquires, is to highlight the influence of mothers, aren’t stepmoms, incarcerated moms, young moms, refugee moms, low-income moms, and moms living on sovereign land also influential?
She asks us to consider that the mothers whose lives are not being reflected on greeting cards are in need of something that can’t be delivered, worn, or eaten. They need policies that accurately reflect the reality of their daily lives. They need affordable health care, citizenship, access to healthy foods, transportation, birth control, self-care time, and support. They need safe spaces from domestic violence, visitation rights, affordable and safe housing, and culturally relevant education in languages their families understand.
She tells us eloquently that they need less shaming and more ways in which it is safe and secure to be the kind of moms they want to be.
Despite all the barriers, we are reminded, the mamas in our lives, in our community, are creating strong and resilient families. Happy Mother’s Day to all of us, to all of them. Let’s be about the work, the celebration, of making their jobs easier.
May it be so this day.