My turn: The birth of Mother’s Day

For the Monitor
Saturday, May 13, 2017

Choosing a Mother’s Day card was always a challenge. Cards with verse were automatically out. There wasn’t to be any doggerel. Likewise, cards with a saccharin religious message were out. The hard choice came when the selection was narrowed to humorous cards and cards with simpler greetings.

Most of the humorous cards were self-deprecating. They depicted an ill-behaved child with a near-saintly mother, thanking her for enduring all the hardships and frustrations of motherhood. Not funny. Not for a mother who didn’t tolerate such shenanigans. That left two types of serious cards. The first was obviously designed for those friends of mine whose mothers took naturally to child rearing; the ones who played and shopped and cooked and laughed with their children. I knew a few mothers like that.

The latter were the cards I always chose. They didn’t say what great companionship and guidance the recipient mother had provided. They didn’t say the giver would cherish forever the mother’s love. They said, “Happy Mother’s Day.” That was it. Often such cards came with tasteful illustrations, some by famous artists. My cards would sit on the mantel shelf next to my sisters’ rhyming cards and “love you forever” greetings. The truth was, I didn’t know how I felt about my mother, and I still don’t. I am able to see she sacrificed materially to provide us with braces, dancing lessons, summer camp and education. I don’t believe she ever meant to harm us. But I am not the only sibling who wonders how she felt about us. Was it us, or did she have mixed feelings about motherhood?

That is why I am looking at Mother’s Day from another angle, one that is perhaps closer to what inspired Anna Jarvis of West Virginia in 1908. In that year, Anna designated a day to honor mothers, but also to honor the influence of motherhood in society. Her mother Ann was a peace activist who had cared for wounded soldiers on both sides of the battles in the Civil War. She is memorialized at a church in her hometown. Anna’s request for national recognition of the day was at first met with skepticism in Congress. But in 1911, President Woodrow Wilson designated the second Sunday in May to be Mother’s Day. Anna Jarvis wanted to honor motherhood. That, to me, is the essence of this day, because motherhood is transformative.

Anna was disappointed at how fast Hallmark appropriated the day for card sales and the public observed the day with gift buying, which has only escalated over time. She wanted the day to be observed by delivering handwritten letters, and after 1920 actively protested the commercialization of the day. Although Anna would be astonished at how motherhood has changed since her time, I believe she would still insist that it comes with great social responsibilities such as those Ann Jarvis assumed, and that these are worthy of honor.

For me, as for most mothers worldwide, bearing a child is absolutely life-changing. It opens a world of wonder and amazement that can’t be described to those who haven’t had the experience. Yes, there are some mothers for whom neglect and abuse is the best they can do, but it’s likely that even they would say they love their children. For the rest of us, Mother’s Day is less a day to collect tributes and more a day of gratitude for the joy and maturity and connection to the future our children teach us.

My imperfections, as they translated into the business of child rearing, do not seem to have dimmed the radiance of a beautiful daughter, nor have they impeded her exploration of a complex world. She has been publicly recognized for her achievements, which have not made her conceited. They are, to her, stepping stones to whatever comes next. Her creativity is versatile and engaging. Her generosity of spirit is her greatest gift to me, and to so many others who are her friends or colleagues. Yes, she gets discouraged and feels the frustrations of difficult times. But she has never lost the bright-eyed curiosity I saw during her first minutes in the world.

Raising such a child has been a gift Hallmark couldn’t even touch. There were times when I felt I couldn’t love her the way she loved. I had to grow, and because she was always a light in my world, I did. In some ways, I’ve never caught up with her, but I understand that our lives are framed in different times; we come from different experiences. The bridge between these worlds is her kindness and a sense of humor that can be outrageous at times and subtly funny at others. I can still hear the wry laugh she’s had since childhood.

That is what Mother’s Day honors. I want to send my daughter a card thanking her for my experience as a mother. As daunting as it seemed at first, rocking a colicky baby who would not stop crying, motherhood has been an immeasurable gift that continues to grow within me. Yes, I liked the tomato plants she brought me last Mother’s Day. Anna Jarvis would appreciate the handwritten notes I receive in cards on Mother’s Day and birthdays. But for my adult child, who will someday face the world I leave behind, the best expression of my gratitude is to carry on the work for which Ann Jarvis was honored.

My grandmother was a gold star mother. I often wish I had met my uncle, but I was born at the tail end of World War II, so I just missed him. Our daughter is named after this lovely lady who carried on despite losses, meeting the world with acceptance and grace. When I think about the loss of a child, I become more mindful of Ann Jarvis’ service. She knew that wars can be won on paper, through treaties. But the real end to war has to begin in the hearts of those who have the most to lose.

Mothers everywhere have often been the first to speak out for peace. They know the love common to mothers and children everywhere. They feel the loss I saw in my grandmother’s eyes when she recalled her son. Every beautiful, innocent baby in the world deserves a chance to grow up in safety. Every mother deserves a chance to experience special moments when a child’s love shines through playfulness.

Mother’s Day thus becomes a call to action for women to stand against injustice, war and ecological damage for the sake of their own children and those yet to come. If the love I have experienced as a mother is immeasurable, it should provide enough energy to at least make a start at this daunting responsibility. When I lifted my newborn child out of her car seat for the first time and brought her into our home, I didn’t know how I would manage the job of raising her. Somehow, I did it. Now, to pay forward what she taught me, I am called to oppose the dark forces that menace our world. As an activist in my younger years, I know the effort it takes and question how useful I can be at the tail end of life. Still, if all of us who love our children take on a fraction of what Ann Jarvis did, there will be strength in our efforts. If mothers stand together, Mother’s Day will again approach the purpose for which it was conceived.

(Christine Hague lives in Weare.)