Mother’s Day as we know it is usually credited to Anna Jarvis. The story goes that after her own mother died, the grief-stricken Anna became a driving force in creating a nationally recognized day to honor mothers. The later commercialization of the holiday disgusted Anna, and she spent the remainder of her life combating mother’s day.
What this story ignores is why Anna would choose that particular model to honor her mother, and why she was angry at the popularized success of the holiday. So … why?
Well, the concept of a Mother’s Day actually began with Anna’s mother, Ann Reeves, who was a pacifist and humanitarian. Before the Civil War, Ann would organize Mother’s Day work clubs who tried to lower infant mortality, fight disease, and improve sanitary conditions. During the Civil War, they became a way for grieving women to honor fallen soldiers, care for wounded soldiers (on both sides), and work for peace. After the war, Ann continued to organize Mother’s Friendship Day picnics and similar pacifist events in an effort to unite the former foes.
So when Ann died in 1905, her daughter Anna saw the continuation of this pacifist, humanitarian, charity-based holiday as a natural way to honor the life’s work of her mother. Anna was successful in getting her town and several other cities to hold several Mother’s Day events on May 10, 1905.
Over the next several years, Anna was instrumental in encouraging more towns to adopt the holiday. By 1918, it was so widely recognized that President Woodrow Wilson officially set aside the second Sunday in May for the holiday. Then everything began to go downhill, at least in Anna’s view.
Anna conceived the holiday as a reverent day to spend in charity work and honor the guiding influence of your mother. She stressed the singular “Mother’s Day,” rather than the plural “Mothers’ Day.” But when the holiday went commercial, it was a commercial goldmine. Suddenly the holiday was celebrated by buying candy, flowers, and greeting cards. Fundraising events and charity galas took the place of humanitarian aid within the community.
Anna tried to fight the commercialization of “her” holiday and return it to its intimate, reverent roots. She spent everything she had on lawsuits, protests, and boycotts. In the end, she died alone and penniless in a sanitarium. Mother’s Day as a commercial juggernaut powered on, and is now celebrated around the world.
According to CNN, 141 million Mother’s Day cards are exchanged each year in the United States alone, and one-fourth of all the holiday sales of plants and flowers are attributed to Mother’s Day. The National Retail Federation estimated that USians would spend nearly $20 billion to celebrate Mother’s Day in 2014. And according to Hallmark Cards, Mother’s day ranks in a close third behind Christmas and Valentine’s Day for the top three card-exchange holidays. This is exactly the type of commercialization Anna hated. She once said,
“A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world … and candy! Your take a box to Mother — and then eat most of it yourself. A pretty sentiment.”
Anna did start one tradition, albeit one that has largely faded from public consciousness — that of wearing a red or white carnation on Mother’s Day. The red carnation indicates a person’s mother is living, while a white carnation means their mother is deceased.
I remember the youth passing out pin-on carnations each year at church when I was growing up, and they were red and pink and white. I do not recall any discussion of the meaning of the colors, and I usually grabbed the white for my mom because I thought it was prettiest. My grandmother did not die until 2007, four years after my mom died.
So what is a mother worth? A Hallmark Card? Some chocolates? A single day of focused appreciation? Well, according to the Insure.com 2013 Mother’s Day Index, the domestic labor typically performed by mothers would be worth $59,862 in the professional world. According to this salary.com calculator, the local professional worth of my domestic labor is worth $145,940 annually.
You might be surprised to learn that we are not the first generation to attempt to bring recognition to the value of unpaid domestic labor. Home Economics courses were actually started by the Mother’s Movement at the turn of the 19th century, as a means to educate young women in the science of motherhood. Students were taught biology, economics, and nutrition. The idea was that by quantifying the work of domestic labor, the worth of it would become more apparent and valued.
Obviously, that didn’t work out, and although motherhood is often called the “noblest of all callings,” it is not noble enough for a U.S. movement to actually reimburse stay at home moms (or dads) and make it financially viable for all families to have a stay-at-home parent to manage the domestic labor of the household.
Myself, I’ve had a complicated relationship with Mother’s Day. I used to love it. I would find the sweetest, funniest, goofiest card I could — something sure to make my mom’s face break out into her beautiful smile. We would make my mom breakfast in bed and give her gifts (both store-bought and homemade). At church, they passed out carnations and chocolates during Sacrament meeting, and all the lessons and talks were about the value of mothers. Dad usually made the Sunday dinners, but on Mother’s Day he would add a special flare — like flowers or candles on the table.
When mom died in August 2003, I kind of existed in a state of shock for several months. I didn’t cry very much. I felt numb and shut away. Occasionally I’d have bouts of rage or grief, but they were mostly private, witnessed only by my husband and toddler son. The first Mothers Day after her death crept up on me.
I was shopping at Target in May 2004 when I passed the card aisle, with its huge, focal Mother’s Day display. Automatically, I went to the display and picked up a card. It was cute and funny, and I smiled, forgetting for a moment as I thought how much my mom would like it. And then it hit me all over again, a 1000x worse because of the momentary lapse. I burst into tears right there in the card aisle, holding the card I wouldn’t purchase and my mom would never read, and I ached for the loss of her.
For the next several years, I tried to avoid stores around Mother’s Day, and most definitely avoid the card aisle. I wasn’t always successful, and I did have a few more (quieter) weeping fits in random card aisles. Since John and I don’t really celebrate “Hallmark” holidays, there was nothing to fill the void of my grief.
Then my son entered Kindergarten, and every year he would come home with some homemade trinket or card to give me, his little elvish face gleaming with barely-constrained excitement. His love and delight in the holiday began to supplant my grief, and now the loss of my own mother is a soft ache in the background, secondary to the love of my son.