Mother's Day 100-year history a colorful tale of love, anger and civic unrest
The bond between mother and child may be as old as humankind itself, but the day that honors it is celebrating a very big birthday this year: Mother’s Day is officially 100 years old.
May 11 across the nation will see brunches and bouquets, cards and calls. Littler kids will proudly present mom with handprints and crayon pictures and did-it-myself ceramic gifts, while older children may offer gadgets and other store-bought presents.
Numbers aggregator Statistic Brain says Americans spend $14.6 billion on gifts for mom, including $671 million for cards and $1.9 billion for flowers. The average amount spent to honor mom is $126.90. Mother's Day is also the most likely day of the year for mom to be shooed from the kitchen and told to relax while the rest of the family prepares a meal or picks a restaurant.
It's a day to celebrate the natural bond between a woman and her child from their earliest attachment to the relationship they share today. It's also a time to fete other mother/mentor relationships with strong, nurturing women.
As they celebrate the day with their moms, most children — young or old — won’t know it’s in fact a holiday with a colorful history, started by a woman who adored her own mother but later tried very hard to take the holiday back.
A bit of history
When Pres. Woodrow Wilson put pen to paper and designated the second Sunday in May as “Mother’s Day” in 1914, one woman in particular was both excited and annoyed. Anna Jarvis is known as the “mother of Mother’s Day” for her long crusade to see the occasion adopted.
She was 12 when she heard her beloved mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis, praying in a Sunday school class after teaching her young charges about mothers in the Bible. The elder Jarvis would today be called a peace activist. She spent much of her time caring for wounded soldiers on both sides of the Civil War. She organized what in the late 1800s she called “Mothers Day Work Clubs” to tackle public health issues. She was a firebrand.
“I hope and pray that someone, sometime, will found a memorial mother's day commemorating her for the matchless service she renders to humanity in every field of life. She is entitled to it,” is how Jarvis repeatedly recalled her mother’s prayer.
Her mother died in 1905 and, not long after, Jarvis stood near her grave and vowed she would be that person.
She pushed for a national holiday. She hosted a small gathering in honor of her mother in 1907. In 1908, she arranged for white carnations to be handed to mothers in the Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, West Virginia, where her mother had taught Sunday school and where the movement was gaining traction.
Grafton celebrated the holiday's centennial in 2008 because of all the early Mother's Day celebrations held. West Virginia Gov. William E. Glasscock was the first to issue a Mother’s Day proclamation, in 1910. Wilson and Congress were a bit late to the party when, in 1914, they made Mother’s Day an official American holiday.
Trying to recant
Jarvis was a bit irked to see Wilson get credit for Mother's Day.
“When the national government recognized it, it was already being celebrated,” said Dr. Katharine Lane Antolini, assistant professor of history and international studies at West Virginia Wesleyan College. “It bothered Jarvis when Wilson got credit for establishing it.”
Jarvis had envisioned a sweet, even reverential holiday where children would visit their mothers or send handwritten letters. In a thank-you note to Wilson she wrote of a “great Home Day of our country for sons and daughters to honor their mothers and fathers and homes in a way that will perpetuate family ties and give emphasis to true home life.”
She didn’t expect — and she loathed — commercialization of the day she considered her intellectual property, Antolini said. In the 1920s, she thought it was being distorted by those making money with preprinted cards and chocolates and commercial bouquets. She called them, among other things, “commercial racketeers,” Antolini said.
Jarvis applied the same fervor she’d used to push for the holiday to her efforts to reshape or eliminate it. She raised a ruckus at a confectioner’s convention. She wrote angry letters and led boycotts. Store-bought gifts defiled her notion of how to honor mothers.
In the mid-'20s, she was outraged because the American War Mothers sold white carnations — the flower she’d associated with Mother’s Day — to fund their group. She went to their gathering and, according to a Kansas City Star report by Tim Engle, “Jarvis was pulled away screaming and arrested for disturbing the peace.”
Still, Antolini believes a part of Jarvis would be proud the holiday is still popular, not just in America but internationally. She’d also be incredibly upset to learn that it’s second to Christmas as a gift-giving occasion.
“She never made money off it,” Antolini said. Jarvis had inherited a fortune from her dad and her brother, but spent it all trying to bring Mother's Day back to her vision or eliminate it. She died in a solarium. Her only profit was that she invested her self-esteem in bringing the holiday about and she enjoyed the notoriety of being Mother’s Day’s mother, Antolini added.
Mothers: A love story
Homesickness is often a yearning for moms who are somewhere else, said Susan J. Matt, chairman of the History Department at Weber State University and author of "Homesickness: An American History." "When people talk about missing home, across the centuries, mothers have had a really central place in memories of what makes a home a home," she said.
In the 19th century, Americans began what Matt calls a "sentimentalization of mothers," who were featured lovingly in songs and stories and heavily celebrated for their virtue. "It began a new focus on mother love, warmth and tender ties."
Mothers were noted for power to encourage kids to grow into good, pious citizens. Focus tightened on mother-child relationships. And Mother’s Day is a modern tale of love and attachment.
Author, speaker and child development specialist Marian Fritzemeier of Modesto, California, has two adult daughters and three grandchildren who will likely honor her with cards and small gifts, as well as a get-together and dinner. They'll juggle the timing of the actual celebration so that her kids' spouses can also celebrate with their moms.
She believes that a child's very future hinges on developing secure relationships and strong emotional bonds. Mother is often among if not the first place those bonds form.
"Attachment is an emotional bond between an infant and a caring adult. It means somebody is responding consistently to the infant," Fritzemeier said. Cries attract someone to figure out what's wrong, whether it's hunger, a need to be burped or stimulated or changed, or just a familiar and loving voice. Moms are often that early primary caregiver, she noted.
Strong, healthy attachment "provides a foundation for life, not just in infancy, but adolescence and into adulthood," she said.
At home, Fritzemeier is surrounded by trinkets and pictures her children have made her. "You don't have to spend a lot of money. A lot of families don't have it. Mother's Day can be breakfast in bed, a meal together, perhaps a barbecue," she said. Pick flowers from your yard or ask to pick your neighbor's.
“Does it mean more when the kids are small and bring home stuff they make and you keep all that stuff — hold onto the handprints, the stuff they color for us?" asks Antolini. "I guess it depends on the mother."
She suspects the holiday is important to those moms who keep every handprint and colored picture the holiday brought and to those who don’t. Mother-child bonds are important to each person — including those who don't have their mothers.
Remembering "other" mothers
Each year, the original Mother's Day church in West Virginia, now called International Mother’s Day Shrine, celebrates. Since 2008, it has honored a “Mother of the Year” — the 2014 award going to all type of women who mother, not just those with a biological child.
It recognizes the love and honor already being bestowed on birth mothers, step-mothers, adopted mothers and on those who mother without delineated relationships.
That resonates with Teresa Bruce, author of “The Other Mother, a Rememoir.” She is very close to her own mother, but when she was 22 and moved far from home, she accidentally found “another mother,” too: then-82-year-old Byrne Miller, a former dancer and lifelong activist who would impact her deeply until Miller’s death in 2001.
Her own mother was grateful she found a mother figure in her new home so far away, Bruce said. The advantages to the other mother were multifaceted, but she especially appreciated that with no genetic ties or past history, Miller had no specific expectations.
“She just saw me as a person with potential. It’s lovely as you grow and claim your own identity to stumble onto another mother who can help you define yourself, not necessarily by the way you’ve always been known," Bruce said. "And it works in reverse. You have a particular relationship with your own daughters and sons. When you become another mother, you can offer different parts of your own personality.”
Miller spoke in what Bruce called “womenisms.” From “There’s not a contract on earth that cannot be rewritten,” Bruce learned identity is a contract you make with yourself, and it can be rewritten. “You can stop and redefine your own life,” she said. She also learned that “when what is broken cannot be fixed, close the door behind you and walk into another room. The brain has more chambers than the heart.”
Miller struggled. Both her child and her husband were diagnosed with schizophrenia in the 1940s, before good treatments existed. She had to find a way not to let it destroy her, Bruce said.
Bruce, now 47 and still living in Beaufort, South Carolina, where she met Miller, never had children. But she’s helped mother some, too. Over the years she has seen whole communities that rely on “other mothers,” including military families that move around and families battling illnesses that take them to distant treatment sites.
She believes Miller needed the many “other” children she collected and nurtured. “She had mothered people wherever she lived,” Bruce said. Because Miller’s daughter was so limited then by schizophrenia, “the other collected children allowed her to parcel out her hopes and dreams in different ways so she could let Allison become the most independent person she could be.”
That's what mothers do.
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