Mother's Day: Up and At 'Em, Mama! by Hilary Selden Illick

When Mother's Day was first born in 1872, breakfast in bed, Hallmark cards, store-bought bouquets and being taken out for brunch wasn't anywhere near the point. Then called Mother's Peace Day, the holiday was supposed to celebrate the values represented by motherhood -- peace, mercy, charity, and patience -- and the broader social and political implications of those values.
 
I just came across an advertisement for some kind of a high-end breakfast-in-bed kit, with a caption that said, "Celebrating our nation's true heroes," or something along those lines, and I felt a little hostile. It reminded me of what my friend calls Mother's Day, which is, "The Keep-'Em-In-Bed-Another-Year Holiday." Sort of like: give Mom a valium, some breakfast in bed, and keep her down.
 
Mother's Day, at its origins, was intended to be exactly the opposite: it was a day to keep Mom up-up and at 'em, marching in the streets. When Julia Ward Howe first conceived of Mother's Day in 1872, breakfast in bed was never her intention. Nor Hallmark cards, store-bought bouquets, or being taken out for brunch.
 
The role of mother Howe sought to commemorate with Mother's Day, then called Mother's Peace Day, was not the reduced version of mother our culture celebrates today, not Mom confined to her role in the family, but instead the values represented by motherhood, and the broader social and political implications of those values. A million moms marching in our nation's capitol to protest gun violence is precisely the sort of celebration she had in mind. Like the Million Mom March itself, the original Mother's Day began as a reaction against violence.
 
Julia Ward Howe, who had written the Battle Hymn of the Republic during the Civil War to encourage demoralized soldiers, had an epiphany once the war was over. She was surrounded by mourning mothers who had lost their sons. Overseas, the Franco-Prussian War broke out, brutally claiming lives. Howe suddenly saw this war as "a return to barbarism, the issue being one that could have been solved without bloodshed." And a question occurred to her, one that would determine the course of the rest of her life: "Why do not the mothers of mankind interfere in these matters, to prevent the waste of that human life of which they alone bear and know the cost?"
 
War, Howe realized, stood in direct contradiction to all that mothers stand for. "Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of mercy, charity, and patience," she appealed to fellow mothers at home and abroad. Hoping to bring about a global decision to end brute force as a way of solving conflict, in 1870 she tried to establish in the Woman's Peace Congress of the World. Her effort was ultimately impeded by the widespread belief (held by women as well as men, Americans as well as Europeans) that women should not speak in public.
 
Howe felt frustration and disappointment, but she was determined not to lose momentum. She devoted herself to organizing Mother's Peace Day, a day set aside annually to celebrate the values represented by motherhood. In 1872, in cities and towns across the U.S., as well as Edinburgh, London, Geneva, and Constantinople, the first Mother's Peace Day festivals were held.
 
By the early 1900's, another version of Mother's Day was gaining popularity, and in 1914 was adopted by Congress as a national holiday, to be celebrated the second Sunday each May. But even this Mother's Day was intended by its founder, Anna Jarvis, to have broader social implications than the innocuous and sentimental holiday it quickly became.
 
The holiday proposed by Anna Jarvis owed its origins to her own mother's Mothers' Work Days, whereby mothers from her hometown in Grafton, West Virginia would go into Appalachia to work on improving the poorer community's sanitation. Originally this Mother's Day, like the one proposed by Julia Ward Howe, was intended to inspire mothers and non-mothers alike to transcend individual family life and work towards a better world. For the better part of the past century, Mother's Day has been regarded by American mainstream as the sentimental opportunity to give Mom a carnation (or, in thriving economic times such as this one, a state-of-the-art breakfast-in-bed kit) but in the last couple of decades, there have been efforts to revive the original meaning of the holiday.
 
In the early 1980's, when the threat of nuclear war loomed, women's peace groups around the country invoked Mother's Day to demonstrate for peace. Ever since then, in cities and towns across the U.S., Mother's Day has been host to rallies against specific wars going on at the time, protests against local and domestic violence, and festivals celebrating and promoting peace. This Mother's Day serves as an ideal day to publicly renew our national commitment to the values associated with motherhood: caring for others, solving problems without violence. That the Million Mom March takes place on the first Mother's Day of the new millennium is a good sign: it could portend a new era of Mother's Day celebrations devoted to improving the state of our nation.
 
As Julia Ward Howe asked, who knows the cost of violence better than mothers who've lost their children on account of it? There is nothing wrong with celebrating Mom and all she does in the setting of home and family. What mother doesn't deserve flowers and breakfast in bed at least once a year? But to really honor motherhood, after the bouquets and the brunches, get up and take action!