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Mother's Day's Radical Roots

The mom who started it all worked for peace and community activism, saying a firm no to commercialization.

Fiona Tinwei Lam 6 May

Fiona Tinwei Lam is the author of two books of poetry and a co-editor of the non-fiction anthology Double Lives: Writing and Motherhood. Her non-fiction, fiction and poetry have been included in over 15 anthologies.

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Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis, mother of Mother's Day.

Say firmly:
"We will not have great questions decided
  by irrelevant agencies
Our husbands shall not come to us,
  reeking with carnage, for caresses and
Our sons shall not be taken from us to
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
To allow our sons to be trained to injure

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."

(from Julia Ward Howe's Mother’s Day Proclamation, 1870)

Good luck finding a greeting card containing those historic lines composed by one of the notable women who set the stage for the establishment of Mother's Day over 100 years ago. In contrast to the celebrations related to mother goddesses conducted by Ancient Greeks and Romans thousands of years ago, the North American holiday has civic and pacifist roots. Julia Ward Howe, abolitionist, suffragist, poet and author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, wrote her Mother's Day Proclamation, calling for an International Mother's Day to promote international peace in response to the horrors of the American Civil War and Franco-Prussian War. In 1873, several women's groups held celebrations on June 2 to observe Howe's Mother's Day for Peace, which endured for a few years with her funding in over a dozen U.S. cities, and for a decade in Howe's hometown of Boston, despite the lack of official national recognition.

The notion of "Mother's Day" also had its origins in the community activism of Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis in West Virginia. In 1858, the 26-year-old mother organized women in her area to form "Mothers' Day Work Clubs" to deal with poor health and sanitation conditions in her town of Webster and surrounding neighbourhoods in an effort combat high infant mortality rates. (Only four of Jarvis's dozen children survived into adulthood.) The clubs coordinated care for families whose mothers had tuberculosis, provided medicine for the poor, and conducted milk and food inspections.

When Jarvis's area of Taylor County was occupied by armed camps of both Union and Confederate soldiers due its location near a strategic railroad terminus, the Mothers' Day Work Clubs provided essential nursing care to soldiers on both sides when epidemics of typhoid and measles broke out, as well as medicine, clothing and food.

In 1868, after the war, Jarvis arranged a momentous "Mothers' Friendship Day" at a local courthouse, inviting a large gathering of soldiers and their families from both sides to overcome their deep-seated enmity and come together in peace. The profoundly moving and emotionally charged event was highly successful in healing a divided community, and continued as an annual celebration for several years.

'Matchless service to humanity'

After Ann Reeves Jarvis's death in 1905, one of her daughters, Anna Jarvis, campaigned and lobbied for years to fulfill her mother's wish for the establishment of an official holiday to honour mothers. She recalled her mother stating a hope that "someone, sometime will found a memorial mother's day commemorating her for the matchless service she renders to humanity in every field of life." Although Mother's Day was celebrated in most U.S, states and Canada and Mexico by 1909 as a result of Jarvis's efforts, it was not until 1914 that U.S. President Woodrow Wilson finally declared Mother's Day an official national holiday in 1914. Official recognition followed in Canada a year later.

In the 1920s, Jarvis switched course, withdrawing her support for the holiday as the florist industry and other businesses began to capitalize on the potential for sales. She initiated lawsuits, and was even arrested for creating a public disturbance in her attempts to prevent the commercialization of the holiday. Jarvis had intended that individuals honour their mothers through simple, heartfelt gestures, such as the gift of a single white carnation and a handwritten note: "I wanted it to be a day of sentiment, not profit," she said, denouncing the use of greeting cards as "a poor excuse for the letter you are too lazy to write."

She and her sister spent the rest of their lives and inheritance trying in vain to repeal Mother's Day. Impoverished, blind and partially deaf, Jarvis died in 1948 at the age of 84 in a care facility.

The shift of the underlying basis for holiday from activist to consumerist probably was a result of the official holiday's emphasis on the individual mother's role within the private realm of the home and family, as opposed to the role of women in the public realm to improve their communities. As noted by others, the subtle but significant relocation of the apostrophe from "mothers'" to "mother's" helped to sap the holiday of its symbolic potential to commemorate women's collective efforts to promote peace.

No mother is a cliché

For many reasons, it might have been easier for me to celebrate a commemoration of women's pacifism and civic contributions while I was growing up. When I was in my teens and 20s, I found Mother's Day particularly difficult. The social expectations around the holiday seemed to revolve around honouring a type of Leave it to Beaver domestic goddess. I could never find a card that could even start to describe the complex feelings I had about my complex mother. We had a challenging relationship. Even though I deeply respected and admired her devotion to medicine, her hard work and many talents in making music and art, I mostly tried to stay out of her way, leery of her sudden rages and tirades. Even back then, I realized she was parenting as best as she could with no parenting role models herself. During her childhood, her own mother had disliked her for being a daughter and had little to do with her upbringing. And my maternal grandmother in turn had been sold as a young girl by my great-grandmother, her mother. My class-conscious paternal grandmother was distant and disapproving.

As a result, I grew up somewhat alienated from the inherent glorification and idealization of motherhood embodied in Mother's Day, forced to profess sentiments I didn't necessarily feel, while being riddled with guilt for not feeling them.

When I became a mother myself, I questioned gender stereotypes and the unequal division of domestic duties the same way my own mother did, but gained a deeper understanding of the significance, challenges and pleasures of parenthood from the years of sleepless nights to the delights of receiving another bouquet of freshly plucked dandelions. Perhaps Anna Jarvis was right that greeting cards could never suffice: no parent can be reduced to a few cliché-ridden stanzas in a store-bought card.

The global mom

The opportunity to celebrate women's social and political achievements can still celebrated through International Women's Day on March 8, a U.N.-designated holiday with its roots in the socialist and labour movements at the turn of the 1900's to promote equal rights for women. Also, women's essential role in the social cohesion and cultural survival of communities has been acknowledged by agencies and institutions around the world.

One important example is Stephen Lewis Foundation's highly successful grandmothers' campaign, which provides funding to grassroots organizations that support grandmothers in sub-Saharan Africa, in recognition of the crucial role that they play as caregivers and advocates for the sizeable number of children orphaned as a result of the AIDS pandemic. The foundation recognizes that African grandmothers are " experts and agents of change [who] nurture, feed and put their grandchildren into school. They work to educate their grandchildren about HIV prevention care and treatment, tend to the sick in their communities, help the recently bereaved, set up support groups, harvest the crops, and advocate for women's rights."

So over the next few days, as you are struggling to find an appropriate card amongst the pink and lavender floral depictions and saccharine rhymes in your local store's greeting card aisle, or on the phone hunting for a restaurant that still has a table free for Mother's Day brunch, or possibly grieving or even trying to forget the mother you had, or -- more happily -- being feted yourself in small or large ways for your sacrifices as a parent, it might be worth remembering the historical origins of the celebration, and taking a moment to consider those rare but essential gestures, small or large, private or public, that any of us can make which pave the way for reconciliation and peace.  [Tyee]

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