Let's make Mother's Day great again
Spare us the saccharine Mother's Day Facebook posts about how perfect your mom is and do something to make the world a better place for women.
It’s time for the Friday Mix — my weekly off-topic post about something that I’ve been enjoying or that has otherwise been on my mind. Today, we’ve got the weird history of Mother’s Day, plus a Mother’s Day playlist that avoids most of the usual cloying ballads we’re all tired of hearing.
My relationship to Mother’s Day is complicated.
On the one hand, Brands have made Mother’s Day just another opportunity to sell things. Mother’s Day has become mere pretext for inundating social media timelines and email inboxes with deals and promotions. It’s also an excuse for Brands to send constant invitations to opt out of Mother’s Day emails if you are, say, mourning the loss of your mother, doubtless hoping that their performance of compassion will be fresh in your mind the next time you have need of their good or service.
On the other hand, mothers really do deserve a day — if not a whole week, or perhaps even the entire year. Besides, Mother’s Day has its roots in pacifism, abolitionism, and women’s suffrage. The holiday traces back to the work of Julia Ward Howe, an author and poet whose credits include writing “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” In 1870, amid the wreckage of the Civil War, Howe wrote an “Appeal to Womanhood Throughout the World,” later called the “Mother’s Day Proclamation.”
Again have the sacred questions of international justice been committed to the fatal mediation of military weapons. In this day of progress, in this century of light, the ambition of rulers has been allowed to barter the dear interests of domestic life for the bloody exchanges of the battle field. Thus men have done. Thus men will do. But women need no longer be made a party to proceedings which fill the globe with grief and horror. Despite the assumptions of physical force, the mother has a sacred and commanding word to say to the sons who owe their life to her suffering. That word should now be heard, and answered to as never before.
In 1914, Woodrow Wilson made Mother’s Day a national holiday, to be observed each year on the second Sunday in May. The push to establish the holiday was led by a woman named Ann Jarvis, whose mother had been a pacifist, community organizer, and a contemporary of Julia Ward Howe’s. Upon her mother’s death in 1905, Jarvis began her campaign to commemorate her mother’s life by making Mother’s Day a national holiday.
But after 1914, Jarvis would spend the rest of her life railing against her own creation. Repulsed by the rapid commercialization of the new holiday, Jarvis organized boycotts and protests against the people and organizations she considered to be Mother’s Day profiteers. In 1920, Jarvis was arrested for disturbing the peace. By the end of her life in 1948, Jarvis had spent down her wealth railing against Mother’s Day; she died in a sanitarium.
Few historical figures have ever felt so relatable!
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As we have seen, the commercialization of the holiday goes back to its very origins. But Web 2.0 unleashed a fresh type of hell: the child/spouse’s Mother’s Day press release.
Instead of embarrassing anyone by posting a screenshot, I asked ChatGPT to “write a saccharine mother's day facebook post”:
🌸 Happy Mother's Day to the most amazing mom! 🌸
Today, I want to express my deepest gratitude and love for all that you do. You're my guiding light, my cheerleader, and my best friend. Your selflessness, support, and unconditional love have shaped me into who I am today. I'm forever grateful. Happy Mother's Day! 💖
#MothersDay #LoveYouMom #BestMomEver
Part of me wants to say, if this is the way you genuinely feel about your mom, then by all means post away. Don’t let my criticism ruin your joy.
But I have to ask: if this is what you have to say about your mom, have you seen her for who she truly is? Or have you projected onto her a vision of motherhood learned from television, that Boyz II Men song, and the Mother’s Day advertisements that drove Ann Jarvis to madness?
It’s tempting to say that these bespoke Mother’s Day press releases are harmless. And taken individually, maybe that’s true. But taken cumulatively, what does constant exposure to these grandiose tales of faultless guardian angels do to us? What does it do to our understanding of what it’s like to be a mother?
By ignoring our mothers’ imperfections, we also ignore their struggles and the “suffering” to which “her sons owe their life” that Julia Ward Howe wrote about in her “Appeal to Womanhood.” We ignore the ways in which, even now, our elected leaders are wielding the power of the state to make the world a more hostile place toward women and mothers.
Thus men have done. Thus men will do. But women need no longer be made a party to proceedings which fill the globe with grief and horror.
I have cut back my social media diet considerably over the past three years, but it’s essential to my mental health that, on Mother’s Day, I stay entirely off the grid. There is something genuinely dystopic about being inundated with all this pro-mom pablum at a time when women’s access to life-saving healthcare is being eroded, moms live in fear of their children being gunned down in their classrooms, and the U.S. remains last in the world in guaranteeing its citizens access to paid parental leave.
So, here’s an idea: what if we made Mother’s Day great again? What if we made Mother’s Day as radical as Julia Ward Howe’s “Mother’s Day Proclamation”? What if we made Mother’s Day not a day when men post nice things about women — but a day of service, where men spend the day making the world a materially better place for mothers?
There are no shortage of ways to achieve this end. Maybe for you that means volunteering. Maybe it means shouldering more than your share of the domestic load for the weekend. Maybe it means skipping the florist’s shop, logging out of Facebook, and spending time thinking about your mom or partner not as a Hallmark Card Mother — but as a fellow human being who is doing her best in a difficult world.
Enough preaching, let’s hear those Mother’s Day bops
Here’s a link to a Mother’s Day playlist I’ve been curating since 2018, the year my son was born. I think it says a lot about the vibe of the playlist that the very first song I added was “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” told from the perspective of a single mother raising a child in a town of busybodies, who have many sexist — and, we find out, hypocritical — criticisms of her lifestyle.
One of the more recent additions is a track from Julia Jacklin’s 2022 album, PRE-PLEASURE. Jacklin is, for my money, the best lyricist in the game today, and that comes through on “Less Of A Stranger,” where she contemplates how the mother-daughter relationship she has with her mom acts as a barrier to really knowing her mother in the way that, say, her mom’s close friends from college might.
Looking in from the outside Don’t want her to change Pick apart or rearrange her Oh, I just wish my own mother was Less of a stranger
This topic is well-worn ground for Jacklin, who sings on the eponymous track of 2016’s Don’t Let the Kids Win:
Don’t let the time go by without sitting your mother down And asking what life was like for her before you came to be around And tell her it's okay if she puts herself first Us kids will be alright if we're not the center of her universe
There’s also a run of songs about working class mommas doing their best:
“Mama Tried” - Merle Haggard
“Lady Madonna” - The Beatles
“Redesigning Women” - The Highwomen
“Coat of Many Colors” - Dolly Parton
And the agonizing choices that go into deciding whether or not to become a mother:
“Down From Dover” - Dolly Parton
“To Zion” - Lauryn Hill
“My Only Child” - The Highwomen
“The Pill” - Loretta Lynn
Mother’s Day music is a lot harder to find than Christmas Music! And since Mother’s Day is a day and not, like, a whole damn season, I spend less time far less time sitting with this one. So I’d love to hear recommendations for songs I should add.
I guess “Mother” by Pink Floyd was not exactly the vibe you’re going for here