Mothers have long been celebrated – and why not, because without mothers and their many labors of love and commitment, none of us would be here. The Ancient Greeks honored Rhea, the Romans celebrated Magna Mater, and in the 17th century, England recognized “Mothering Sunday.”
What we now recognize as the official holiday celebrating mothers originated in the United States in the late 1800s, when suffragist, pacifist, and Battle Hymn of the Republic scribe Julia Ward Howe in 1872 suggested Mother’s Day as a day focused on peace. Alas, Howe’s idea did not catch fire in a nation depleted by the Civil War.
The holiday finally took hold through the efforts of Philadelphian Anna Jarvis, who sought to honor her own mother, Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis, who founded Mother’s Day Work Clubs in West Virginia in the 1850s. The elder Jarvis had lost eight of her 12 children, all of them dead before age 7. She organized the clubs, later called Mother’s Friendship Clubs, to address poverty, sanitation, and high children’s mortality rates. Her daughter Anna wanted to honor this legacy.
Thanks to Anna Jarvis’s efforts and that of her many supporters, by 1911 Mother’s Day was celebrated in all states. President Woodrow Wilson recognized it as an official holiday in 1914 and it has been celebrated since. But Anna herself grew to loathe a holiday that quickly became commercialized in ways that eclipsed its radical roots in care for women and social justice.
Today, the commercialism remains with little recognition of the holiday’s origins. Of course, mothers are so overworked that most of us are delighted to have our own day involving, perhaps, brunch, a spa treatment, gifts, or simply time with family.
But we denigrate motherhood when we reduce the work of creating and nurturing human beings to flowers and candy one day per year. We claim to value mothers and children, yet our policies and practices evidence the contrary. We are the only industrialized nation without adequate maternal (and paternal) leave. Our workplaces are typically not family-friendly, and women who mother are punished with lower wages and the lack of stable career paths.
It is worth noting that 22% of children in the U.S. live in poverty while 35% live in single-parent families, with women much more likely to be the sole parent. The math is simple: the number of children living in poverty could be substantially reduced if women were offered the same job opportunities as men, made equivalent salaries (instead of 79 cents on the dollar), and if the U.S. enacted family-friendly workplace policies, as for example Norway has done.
More troubling, our infant mortality rate is 6 deaths per 1,000 live births, and among African American women, it is almost double. In some U.S. counties, the infant mortality rate parallels high rates in sub-Saharan Africa. The CIA World Factbook lists the U.S. as having the 58th lowest infant mortality rate in the world, which places us between Serbia and Croatia and well below our economic peers. Our maternal mortality rate, especially among women of color, is higher than all other industrialized nations.
With statistics like these, Mother’s Day feels like a national con. Flowers and candy are wretched substitutes for dead women and children.
Motherhood in the United States is profoundly shaped by what anthropologist Shellee Colen termed “stratified reproduction.” In other words, motherhood, like human reproduction writ large, reflects and reproduces inequalities of gender, race, class, and citizenship status endemic to our nation. And not all women enjoy the fruits of their maternal labors.
Some women mother from inside prisons. Others, especially in African American communities, mother in the shadow of constant fear their children will be profiled, arrested, or killed. Others mother without adequate food and shelter for their children and themselves. Still others mother in the face of brutal violence from intimate partners. And many mothers risk their own lives to deliver their children to safety across national borders.
It is also the case that some women mother because they have no choice – they did not have knowledge of or access to contraception and abortion that might have prevented motherhood. This is especially true of younger mothers and poor mothers. Of course, many of these women do their very best under challenging circumstances, but they do so without assistance and support from the very individuals and groups who interfered in their reproductive lives in the first place.
I have written elsewhere of the need to practice sustainable feminisms. This means recognizing the invisible labor of women, including those who mother. But in the absence of more progressive policies supporting women and children, sustainability feels like a luxury many women simply cannot afford. How does one achieve sustainability when there is no money to pay rent, put food on the table, or fill a child’s asthma prescription?
Motherhood on the best of days can be fulfilling and beautiful – there is no work equivalent to that of creating and nourishing human beings. But it is also exhausting, challenging, messy, unsupported, and uncompensated. If we really want to honor mothering, we should not limit our efforts to just one day per year. Imagine what our policies could look like if we put women and children at the center all year long.
Monica J. Casper, Ph.D. is Professor of Gender and Women Studies and Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs and Inclusion in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Arizona. A sociologist, she is the author of the award-winning book, The Making of the Unborn Patient: A Social Anatomy of Fetal Surgery as well as many other books, articles, and essays. Her essay on sustainable feminism was reprinted in New Maternalisms: Tales of Motherwork (Dislodging the Untinkable), published by Demeter Press in 2016. Learn more about her work at www.monicajcasper.com.