Mother's Day: It was never about the flowers
Today is Mother’s Day in Australia.
Whilst touted as a day to acknowledge and celebrate the endless acts of selfless caring carried out by mothers every day of the year, for many, it’s a day of disappointment and resentment.
The mother of young children whose partner forgot.
The mother of young children whose partner did not realise it was Mother’s Day in the first place.
The mother of young children whose partner ‘didn’t think we celebrated that.’
The mother who facilitates the making of her own Mother’s Day card at playgroup.
The mother whose older children make other plans or don’t even bother to call.
The mother who puts differences aside to call or spend time with her own mother (or mother-in-law), only to receive personal criticism in return.
These are just a few common stories from mothers I know personally, many of which I have experienced myself. The list was significantly longer until a friend mentioned it was getting so negative that, whilst all true and valid, it almost put her off reading the rest of this article.
There are many reasons mothers experience disappointment and resentment on this day (along with regret, sadness, anger, loneliness and a whole host of other feelings). If you, too, are feeling it, you are not alone.
Most mothers I speak to feel as if the full extent of their daily work goes uncelebrated. The tiny jobs and chores and things to remember and plan for that all add up. Given our society prizes status and financial success above all else, and the act of caring for a young family brings neither, it’s not surprising that mothers want ‘just one day’ to have their efforts recognised.
It’s all very well to say that mothers should be grateful with the satisfaction of a job well done, or shouldn’t need external validation for everything they do, but this is exactly what we’ve been socialised to desire since childhood. Without a sticker or a certificate or praise from someone in authority, how do we know we’ve done the right thing? A day of celebration just for us? We’ll take it!
Sure, many of us have moved away from offering external rewards (or punishments) to our own children, but we can’t magically switch our thinking over just by reading a couple of peer-reviewed journal articles. Our society has been set up to reward compliance and effort that has recognisable economic benefit, care work is not something that is prized.
So, why do we have Mother’s Day? Is it just a token day of acknowledgment? Why does Australia celebrate with the USA instead of the UK?
For those that aren’t aware, the UK celebrates Mothering Sunday on the fourth Sunday in Lent. The origin and intent of the two celebrations differ, with Mothering Sunday beginning as a Christian tradition where people would return to their ‘mother church’ and spend time with their family, which over time has morphed into a celebration similar to the commercialised ‘Mother’s Day’ later promoted in the United States and further afield.
Mother’s Day in the US, however, started not as a celebration but as a call to action. In the 1870s, on a backdrop of the American Civil War and Europe’s Franco-Prussian War, feminist pacifist and abolitionist Julia Ward Howe penned her ‘Appeal to womanhood throughout the world’.
“Arise, all women who have hearts…….. As men have often forsaken the plough 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 council.
Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them then solemnly take council with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, man as the brother of man, each bearing after his own kind the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God.
In the name of womanhood and of 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.”
This call to action was later renamed the ‘Mother’s Day Proclamation’, and Howe continued to call for an annual ‘Mother’s Day for Peace’ on June 2 every year.
Howe wasn’t the only woman of her time channelling her energies into ‘Mother’s Day’ activism. Fellow peace activist, Ann Reeves Jarvis, had worked to form and promote ‘Mothers Day Work Clubs’ as early as the 1850s. These mother-led public health organisations led campaigns to improve maternal and child health in a time of frequent epidemics and unsanitary housing, and later offered neutral nursing and rehabilitation support to wounded soldiers fighting for both sides during the civil war.
Ann’s daughter, Anna Jarvis, called for ‘Mother’s Day’ to become an annual celebration following her own mother’s death, on the second Sunday in May, in 1905. The intent was to celebrate the life of one’s own mother, hence it’s ‘Mother’s Day’ and not ‘Mothers’ Day’. With Anna’s campaigning, ‘Mother’s Day’ became recognised as a national holiday in America in the United States in 1914 and Canada in 1915. Anna spent the rest of her life in legal battles fighting the commercial exploitation of the day.
I’ve read suggestions that the increased commercial and political support for Mother’s Day celebrations came at a time when women were enjoying increased freedoms outside the home (some by necessity as male workers were off at war, others brought about by increasing social change). Celebrating the role of homemaker and childrearer was a way of visibly promoting more conservative attitudes that a woman’s real place is in the home.
Australian Mother’s Day celebrations began in 1924, as a way to acknowledge and celebrate the many forgotten aged mothers who had lost their husbands and sons in World War I. As this intent tied more closely to the American Mother’s Day’s call for peace, than the UK’s Mothering Sunday, the US tradition was adopted.
Back to today….
As women navigate combinations of full time work, part time work, caring, study and home duties, they are constantly juggling expectations and an inability to fully commit to any one of these tasks. We can call as a society for partners (where present) to share the load, but until they are also offered flexible working arrangements as a matter of course (not to mention making affordable childcare options available to all families) and we as a society can recognise the value in a mother’s work at home as something other than ‘time that she could otherwise be contributing to the economy,’ we’re not going to get very far.
Whilst recognising our unique place in human history, raising our individual families in isolation from those around us without a broader community of support, can bring relief and understanding, it doesn’t offer any solutions. We can recognise that we no longer have a village, but that recognition alone does not bring forth tangible support.
Feeling resentment towards partners, who are statistically doing much more work around the home than in previous generations but still can’t fill the gaps, further burdens us with frustration and adds to our cognitive load as we try to educate and support and wonder why things can’t just get done. Humans haven’t evolved to care for their offspring in isolation, let alone whilst tending home and garden and managing a career under an increasingly critical social lens.
We have been burdened with feeling that we just need to get all the things done and then we can rest, whereas ‘all the things’ are in fact life; there is no end to the to-do list.
Most of us feel we’re not entitled to a break if we still have work to do, and no longer have a religious ‘day of rest’ or set working hours to fall back on. Unlike formal work or study, there is no set due date or exam after which we can rest. There is always more work to be done, so we feel we should be doing it.
Until we can abandon this productivity mindset and, as individual families and a broader society, place greater value onto the more intangible aspects of our work, we are not going to get the rest we need.
Until we can find adequate rest and intrinsic reward in our everyday lives, it’s unlikely we’ll move beyond our feelings of disappointment and resentment on the one day where we finally thought all of our efforts would be recognised.
I appreciate that I don’t speak for all mothers. My journey into motherhood has been smooth, I was offered all the professional accommodations I could have hoped for and, as a family, we have always been in a position to make our own choices. Nevertheless, we cannot fail to notice social pressures and the ways in which our society as a whole devalues the experience of raising children.
Perhaps it goes even further than that. It’s not just the act of raising children, but the legitimacy of children as valuable members of society in their own right that is no longer respected.
Why has it become normalised to send increasingly young children to be cared for in institutions, rather than to grow and develop alongside their families? Many mothers who do manage to navigate suitable working and care arrangements to return to paid employment find that maintaining breastfeeding relationships, managing childcare illnesses and juggling work and family commitments aren’t as easy as they’re made out to be. Not to mention those who feel the very real pressure to return but can’t find compatible childcare and/or employment in the first place.
We are encouraged to place our children in the care of others, for the majority of their waking hours, from increasingly young ages right through to adulthood. A holding pen until they are ready to release. For many, it does not feel like a choice. This is a relatively new experiment in the broader scheme of human history. Whilst improvements are constantly being made to education and care methodologies, who is really reaping the benefits?
It’s not surprising that parents are commonly conflicted when it comes to relating to their young children. While their child’s behaviour may be typical for their age, parents are continually judged by those around them who hold unrealistic expectations (often those who may still hold on to previous generations’ outdated philosophies of child psychology). It can feel as if children are expected to blindly display respectful compliance, any ‘lack of control’ on a parents’ behalf reflects poorly on their own efforts rather than simply reflecting a mismatch between the natural stages of child development and society’s expectations. This dialectic alone is the cause of so many inter-generational conflicts, brought up time and time again as families come together to celebrate holidays such as Mother’s Day. Serve the needs of your child or serve the needs of society around you? Mothers can’t win.
Today, as I do every Sunday morning, I will take the time to sit and write and think. Or perhaps I’ll update my resumé and start browsing ‘real jobs’. We might have sushi and bubble tea for lunch, our Sunday tradition, or my family may have other plans in store. Either way, I will try to direct any resentment I experience towards society as a whole, rather than the individual family members who are also just doing the best they can in a society that continually demands “More!”
Together, perhaps, we can find ways to channel this frustrated energy back towards local and global causes that better reflect the original intent of Mother’s Day.
Take the time to catch up on current world events, reignite some of the passion we once felt for issues outside of our homes and take steps, however small, towards action.