The why and how of Mother’s Day

Apoorva S.
“Arise, all women who have hearts…our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy, and patience.”
These are the words from the 1870 Mother’s Day proclamation penned by the American poet and social activist Julia Ward Howe. Howe and Ann Reeves, a peace activist, urged in their Mother’s Day work clubs for the establishment of a Mother’s Day for Peace to appeal for thwarting the ongoing slaughter of young men in the American Civil War in the 1870s. However, it was not until 1905 when Reeves died that Anna Jarvis, her daughter, started actively campaigning to make it an official holiday. In 1907, Jarvis conducted the maiden Mother’s Day service at a Methodist church in West Virginia. Thereafter began Jarvis’s political quest to transform a liturgical service into a legislatively recognized holiday and by 1911, most of the U.S. states had given in to her strenuous efforts.
Centuries before Mother’s Day found its place in the Western canon, Ancient Greeks revered the mother as a life-giver and nurturer. Greeks had an annual spring festival to celebrate Rhea, the goddess of nature and fertility and who was also worshipped as the ‘Mother of gods’. Ancient Romans too marked Hilaria, a spring festival, as a way of propitiating mother goddess Cybele around 250 B.C. With the advent of Christianity in Greece, the feast of Ypapanti was organized to honor the mother figure. However, in the 1960s, Ypapanti lost its traction among the Greeks and the second Sunday of May instead became a popular day to celebrate mothers, like in the West. These ancient Greco-Roman rites had more symbolic overtones since they were meant to honor goddesses as representatives of motherhood. A more personal and familial approach to Mother’s Day is a fairly recent phenomenon.
In the 17th century, an English decree expanded the locus of this day from one focused on the Church to the working-class mothers of England. This Lenten Sunday came to be known as Mothering Sunday as it also happened to offer adequate relief and rest from the fasting observed as part of Lent. The tradition, nevertheless, was discontinued in America after the arrival of the Puritan English settlers in 1630 as Mothering Day came into conflict with the practices and customs of a more conservative and dogmatic version of Christianity. The concept of a North American Mother’s Day was born only after Howe’s proclamation in 1870 and Jarvis’s intervention in 1905. However, as Mother’s Day gained recognition in America after 1911 and began growing as a significant holiday, a streak of commercialization entered its celebration. Flowers, chocolates, and cards made their way into a capitalist onslaught on the holiday and Jarvis vociferously opposed what she perceived to be a perversion of this day. In 1930, Jarvis was arrested for allegedly disrupting public peace as she protested the sale of flowers on Mother’s Day. Nevertheless, today, more than 70 countries observe the second Sunday of May as Mother’s Day and what began as a bid to prevent wars and conflicts has metamorphosed into yet another money-making venture.
In India, Mother’s Day has often been used as a measure to install the mother onto a pedestal so as to glorify her as an idol of sacrifice, care, nourishment, and unconditional love. Of course, these traits in a mother’s personality cannot be called into question but unnecessary and blind idealization of any figure leads to a precarious distinction between what is taken to be the “good” and the “bad”. For instance, take a look at the advertisements launched around Mother’s Day. The whopping sacralization of the mother in these ads inevitably shrinks the space needed to identify mothers as individuals in their own right and womanhood invariably gets shadowed by motherhood. In a universe brimming with disparities, women who seek a work-life balance and are not able to perpetually give priority to their kids are, as a result, looked down upon; women who refuse to behave like Nandini Raichand of K3G are questioned vis-a-vis their love for their children; women who refuse to conform to societal expectations or women who actively reject motherhood as the only way to define their selves are constantly vilified. This leads to an unhealthy distinction between who the society considers to be ‘saintly Madonnas’ and who are disparagingly labeled as ‘whores’. It also conditions young children to expect their mothers to leave their individual existences and dedicate their lives to the kids.
Beyond doubt, a mother is the most important person in any individual’s life and her love can never be measured as it is vast and boundless. James Joyce writes in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, “whatever else is unsure in this stinking dunghill of a world, a mother’s love is not.” A mother definitely completes one’s life and there can be no dearth of love with a mother by one’s side. However, it is equally important to respect mothers as women with their own ambitions and desires in life. For the longest time, I felt, and quite regrettably so, that my mother’s only dream was nothing but fulfilling mine. I chose to remain oblivious to the fact that my mother had a life aside from my own, dreams and desires from before I was born, tastes and cravings different from mine. It is only when the burden of traditional gender expectations befell me that I began looking at her as an individual in need of a freer life and had a newfound admiration for her continuous sacrifices to make me a better person.
Though I do not propose a disavowal of the tradition of Mother’s Day or any disrespect toward the position of mothers, I believe that as a society, we need to engage in prolific celebrations of the mother as a woman who chooses to embrace motherhood of her own volition and provide necessary care and love to her baby. All the same, we have to be wary of an unmindful deification of the mother figure and start appreciating and acknowledging their de-mothered lives as well. Moreover, we need to try and prevent motherhood from translating into a gendered category. The meanings of motherhood are undergoing massive revolutionization with the new generations of trans parents. Medicine aided by technology has led to a drastic shift and expansion in the definition of mothers and motherhood. The trans movement is, thus, going to be of great advantage in combating age-old prejudice and mistreatment, and in engendering the concept of inclusive parenthood.
In addition, as much as possible, we have to discourage Mother’s Day celebrations from becoming another slave to marketing tactics like the days of Valentine’s and Halloween. This Mother’s Day, instead of resorting to perfunctory displays of affection on social media, it will be profoundly gratifying if you can devote the day to making the first woman of your life feel special – so, shower your mother with love and attention, surprise her with a favorite meal, gift her the chance to fulfill a long forgotten but still cherished dream, desist from buying cliched cards and flowers, write a heartfelt poem for her instead, make a DIY present to uplift her mood, take her to a favorite movie/restaurant and most importantly, appreciate and value her contributions in your life because as Joanne Rowling affirms in Harry Potter, “love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark.”