Mother’s Day when I was growing up was all about pampering mothers in whatever way her children could muster. All the children in the neighborhood would make some attempt at things like coffee in bed often made with lukewarm water and grounds floating on the top of the mug or dinner out at over-crowded restaurants giving carnations to all the women who are doing their best to look joyful. Schools sold geranium plants that our mothers gave us money to buy and later smiled and said thank-you for their gifts.
On Mother’s Day, we lived as if every family looked the same with a mother and a father, as if every child was healthy and every parent was employed as needed. We didn’t talk about war even though I grew up shortly after Viet Nam which meant lots of mothers were mourning, not celebrating. We didn’t talk about women who didn’t want to have children but had them any way or women who did want them but who were childless anyway. Mother’s Day was a happy day and if your story didn’t fit the narrative, it was best you keep that to yourself and not ruin it for the rest of us.
Mother’s Day, when it was first founded, though, had nothing to do with breakfast in bed. There are two women credited with the founding of the American Mother’s Day: Julia Ward Howe and Anna Jarvis. Howe was a reluctant mother who; had she been born 150 years later, she would likely not have had children and Jarvis never parented a child. But, it was their work that gave us this day dedicated to mothers.
I’m sure you’ve heard the story about both Howe and Jarvis, and if you haven’t, I promise to tell it another time. The reflections we’re doing on Zoom are significantly shorter, less heady and more pastoral, so I’m going to skip most of the history and backstory and jump to the point.
Julia Ward Howe’s interest wasn’t in motherhood but in peacemaking. She was a Unitarian from NYC originally and her most public accomplishment was the writing of the lyrics for the Battle Hymn of the Republic.
She nursed and tended the wounded during the civil war, and worked with the widows and orphans of soldiers on both Union and Confederate sides, realizing that the effects of the war go far beyond the killing of soldiers in battle. The destruction she witnessed during the war inspired her to call out for women to “rise up through the ashes and devastation,” urging a Mother’s Day dedicated to peace.
In 1870, she wrote the declaration we heard read earlier. Howe wanted this proclamation to inspire an international council for peace run by women. But her vision for a Mother’s Day of Peace was never realized. For about 30 years the Proclamation was read in June, but it didn’t inspire a national peace movement.
The woman who got Mother’s Day on the American calendar was Anna Jarvis, herself not a mother. Anna had grown up in Appalachia in West Virginia as a dirt farmer. She was one of 12 children, although eight of her siblings died. Her move to institutionalize Mother’s Day was in her own mother’s honor. Her mother, also named Anna Jarvis, was active in environmental justice issues, working with other poor mothers to keep their children safe from water polluted by coal mines, and diseases like typhoid and diphtheria.
West Virginia seceded from Virginia over abolition making tension very high in the state that didn’t end after the war was over, and Jarvis took a very public stand for compassion and peacemaking so state officials called on her seeking her healing efforts during what was named Mother’s Friendship Day. Her work is credited with bringing together a horribly divided state.
After her mother died, Anna Jarvis, the daughter, petitioned Woodrow Wilson to declare the 2nd Sunday of May Mother’s Day. She wanted the nation to use her mother as an example of peacemaking and unconditional love. Anna chose the white carnation as the day’s symbol because the petals don’t fall from the stem. By the 1940s, American sentimental-ization had taken over the holiday and Ms. Jarvis regretted the day so much she petitioned for it to be removed from the calendar. She failed. The day had become a perfect expression of what we wanted motherhood to be and there would be no removing it from the national narrative.
And here we are, with these fierce women behind us, women who fought to find and use their voices to transform systems of violence and oppression. We stand in their shadows, grateful for their work.
What we have on this day might be sentimental and it might not reflect the power of Julia Ward Howe or Anna Jarvis, senior. But we are in a moment when women – who may or may not be parents – are fighting for justice in our own context. And today, I’m aware of all the women who are living lives in small spaces, prioritizing personal and communal health over all else which alone is an act of radical love.
I’m particularly aware of women who are working from home while also caring for young children, figuring out a balance most of us know is impossible. And, I’m aware of women who are teachers who love the students they won’t see again this year. I’m aware of the mothers who are stuck at home whose adult children won’t be visiting and the grandmothers who are more alone this year than they’ve been in decades. I’m also thinking today of women who are in the middle of IVF cycles that were disrupted, who, thanks to the quarantine, might have lost their chance to become mothers and I’m thinking of the mothers who have lost their jobs and are now worried about how they will feed and shelter and protect their children.
And while I’m holding all those people, I’m aware that the women who gave us this day, didn’t do it so we could be wrapped in the warmth of our own families, but so that we could be inspired to become healers, activists and peacemakers for a bruised and hurting world.
Even if we are stuck at home, even if we are alone today, today is our encouragement to be a little bigger, think a little grander, and act in love. In the spirit of Julia Ward Howe and Anna Jarvis, I wish for you all, joy and great meaning in your day.