Mind Matters — Mother’s Day Reflections

Co-optation has always been the way of capitalism. And so it goes for Mother’s Day, which actually had its American origins with Julia Ward Howe’s Mother’s Day Proclamation for Peace in 1870. Not meant to be a florist’s dream or a restaurateur’s nightmare, Mother’s Day for Julia Ward Howe was a response to the horrible carnage of the Civil War. She called upon mothers to protest the “futility of their sons killing the sons of other mothers.” (See www.mothersdaycentral.com.) She promulgated an international Mother’s Day to celebrate not only motherhood but also peace. As this website states,

“Despite having penned The Battle Hymn of the Republic 12 years earlier, Howe had become so distraught by the death and carnage of the Civil War that she called on Mothers to come together and protest what she saw as the futility of their Sons killing the Sons of other Mothers. With the following, she called for an international Mother's Day celebrating peace and motherhood.”

Julia Ward Howe’s Mother’s Day Proclamation of 1870

Arise, then, women of this day!
Arise all women who have hearts,
Whether your baptism be that of water or of tears
Say firmly:

“We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands shall not come to us reeking of carnage,
For caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of
charity, mercy and patience.

“We women of one country
Will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”

From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with
Our own. It says, “Disarm, Disarm!”
The sword of murder is not the balance of justice!
Blood does not wipe out dishonor
Nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plow and the anvil at the summons of war.

Let women now leave all that may be left of home
For a great and earnest day of counsel.

Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.

Let them then solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace,
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
But of God.

In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask
That a general congress of women without limit of nationality
May be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient
And at the earliest period consistent with its objects
To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,
The amicable settlement of international questions.
The great and general interests of peace.

Julia Ward Howe’s efforts to commemorate such a day failed once she stopped funding the events. However, Anna Reeves Jarvis, and later, her daughter, Anna M. Jarvis, campaigned for Mother’s Day with renewed fervor. By 1914, President Woodrow Wilson made it an official national holiday. However, the holiday became so quickly commercialized that Anna Jarvis herself vehemently denounced its exploitation.

Putting aside the exploitation of its origins, Mother’s Day can be a difficult event for many reasons. Consider the pain of the young woman who has just miscarried or is battling infertility and goes to church on Mother’s Day to have the clergy ask all the mothers to stand up and garner applause. Consider the heartache of the mother whose child (or children) have died. And, there, of course, is the grief of those whose mothers have died. But perhaps even more difficult than that loss is the woundedness some feel for not having a “good enough” mother in the first place. Mother’s Day becomes then a poignant remembrance for all that never was. While we honor the idea and the ideal of Motherhood on Mother’s Day—of unconditional love, generosity, kindness, an open heart and a warm embrace—there are those for whom the reality is vastly different, where such a motherhood is neither known nor remembered.

So if Mother’s Day can be so fraught with mixed messages, what is there to do? Recognize that each of us has a unique response to the day, depending on our family histories, our griefs, our longings. Refrain from expectations on ourselves or others for how it “should” be. Reflect upon what Julia Ward Howe wanted of the remembrance: for women of heart to unite in peace to protect all sons (and daughters).