Not one to typically honor traditions, I have often been heard saying that the concept of Mother’s Day was invented by Hitler, therefore I would not be participating in this celebration.
I was citing a bit of misinformation, though I wasn’t entirely wrong about the misuse of a day devoted to motherhood. But Hitler’s message was more about encouraging German women to have bigger families as the Third Reich needed a growing population to reign over the rest of the world. Women could be awarded the “Mother’s Cross” for bearing four or more babies — and this award was delivered on Hitler’s mom’s birthday in August, as grotesque as that sounds.
Our Mother’s day, which takes place on the second Sunday of May, was invented by American Anna Jarvis in 1907.
Misperception aside, the idea of Mother’s Day can bring up all sorts of uncomfortable emotions for people. It could be the loss of your mother or that you’re not a mother and had hoped to be; it could also be that you have had a difficult relationship with your mother.
Jersey City resident Hannah, who lost her own mom at a young age, feels this type of ambivalence toward the holiday. “I wish my mom could be here to enjoy her only grandchild; while I somewhat reluctantly celebrate myself, I also mourn my loss, ” she said. She feels the holiday is bittersweet.
But this complexity is not what you see reflected in the overly cheery ads for jewelry and the click-bait articles about the “Top 10 Mother’s Day Gifts that companies bombard Americans with every year. Nor do people like to talk about their mixed feelings toward Mother’s Day unless you prod them a bit.
“Frankly, I find this holiday very difficult,” one mom confessed. “I don’t have a mother anymore, meanwhile I’m trying my hardest to become the kind of mom I wished I had had. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by that task, so a superficial holiday like this makes me feel bereft for several reasons.”
By all means there are women who genuinely like Hallmark’s money maker in May. “I like to celebrate myself,” said Kira. “I’m doing a ridiculously demanding job — from growing two humans inside of me to wiping butts all day long. Bring on the roses, the spa day, and the diamond bracelet! I’ll take every ounce of commercialism.”
And there are women for whom the holiday serves as a useful bridge. “When I became a mother,” said Alicia, “It made me feel overwhelmingly empathetic to my own mother. Where we had friction and conflict, I suddenly felt how much pain that must have caused her. I suppose that becoming a mother gave me this window into my mother’s world that I hadn’t understood before.”
After I got through my “this is all Hitler’s fault” stage about Mother’s Day I matured enough to go through the motions for my own mom. A card, a call, a potted lily plant were all nice — and I could do that without feeling like I was compromising my untraditional bona fides — but when I became a mom, the first thing I did was adjust my attitude toward the day. I was happy enough to have it but didn’t want anything more from it than a day off. Life with two small children felt relentless and similar to what I imagined being a dairy farmer was like. You couldn’t just take the weekends off and sleep late. The cows required attention every morning at the same ungodly hour. If I wasn’t waking early to get to work, I was waking early to start my day with a two- and four-year-old.
Some moms I knew thought of Mother’s Day as a time to spend with their children, and what … revel in the splendor of parenting them just like every other day? For me a day off from the rigors of childrearing sounded great because I rarely got that.
Turns out that Mother’s Day inventor Jarvis, also hated the pressures and commercialization that became associated with her idea. Jarvis intended to create a day to honor mothers because she believed your mother is “the person who has done more for you than anyone in the world.” Soon though she saw companies exploit the concept for profit.
Jarvis organized boycotts of Mother’s Day suggesting people write letters to their mothers expressing love and gratitude rather than buy them flowers and candy. One such protest at a candy makers’ convention in the 1920s even led to her being arrested for “disturbing the peace.”
Perhaps if the cultural pressure wasn’t so intense and ubiquitous around this time people would treat this Sunday like any other day — sort of like Valentine’s Day when you don’t have a partner. But something about Mother’s Day cuts a little deeper because we all have or had a mom, and the myriad ways we relate to her run the spectrum from reverent to dysfunctional.
Whatever your relationship to your own mom, observe this holiday the way Anna Jarvis would: devoid of commercialism and forced celebration. Make a card, take a walk, or if it’s something you’d rather not think about at all, stay at home and binge Netflix — where you are definitely won’t come across brunch revelers anxiously waiting for the best table.