Sunday Times


Almost from the moment it was inaugurate­d, Mother’s Day has divided opinion on how, and whether, to mark it


According to Mother’s Day lore, in 1908 an American woman named Anna Jarvis petitioned the press and various politician­s to institute an annual holiday that would give children an opportunit­y to honour and remember their mothers. Jarvis is said to have been inspired by her own mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis, a Sunday School teacher who — literally — prayed 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”. The first Mother’s Day celebratio­ns were organised by Jarvis, and took place at a church in her home town of Grafton in West Virginia; over the next few years, the idea took hold in neighbouri­ng towns and counties, and by 1914, President Woodrow Wilson was signing off on a bill that consecrate­d the second Sunday in May as “Mother’s Day”.

Towards the end of her life, however, Anna Jarvis turned her back on the holiday she’d worked so hard to inaugurate, actively urging people to boycott Mother’s Day. Jarvis said she felt that the singular, spiritual quality of the original celebratio­n — as she had conceived of it — had been tainted by its rampant commercial­isation over the years — that is, by the advertisem­ent-driven emphasis on cards and floral arrangemen­ts, in lieu, I suppose, of personal thanksgivi­ng and genuine engagement on the parts of fathers and children.

Indeed, Jarvis was so outraged by the transmogri­fication of her holiday that she initiated legal proceeding­s against merchants who were using Mother’s Day to promote their wares. At one point she was even arrested, for disturbing the peace at an American War Mothers convention that was selling Mother’s Day carnations to raise money. Long story short, Jarvis was livid, but by the mid-1940s it was already much too late: the holiday had long overtaken her, gaining more and more traction every year as a wellspring of profit.

Mother’s Day elicits mixed feelings for a multitude of reasons, including its neartransp­arent status as a money-making racket with no real religious or cultural significan­ce. Of course the holiday has some merit, in that child-rearing and unpaid domestic labour should be celebrated and acknowledg­ed by society at large; but then, relegating our appreciati­on for our mothers or domestic caretakers to a single day can hardly be said to advance their cause.

It’s also no secret that, for many people, Mother’s Day is deeply traumatic. If you’ve lost a parent, it can be a devastatin­g, daylong reminder of your bereavemen­t. If you’re struggling with infertilit­y, or if —

God forbid — you’ve lost a child,

Mother’s Day constitute­s an annual reminder of your grief, right in the thick of other families’ performati­ve joy and plenitude.

If your own mother was indifferen­t or abusive, this is not a holiday you’re likely to revel in.

There is also the fact that Mother’s Day is deeply gendered and, frankly, often offensivel­y anachronis­tic, almost comical in its pink-saturated, buy-your-mom-amanicure emphasis on a 1950s-esque genre of femininity and “What Women Want” (spoiler: it’s state-sponsored childcare).

Yet Mother’s Day persists, more or less unchanged, every single year, in spite of the fact that we know that families are frequently single-parent or same-sex households.

Some women raise children they didn’t give birth to; some women cannot raise their own children or don’t want to. Pregnancy and motherhood are not necessaril­y mutually constituti­ve, and I cannot help but feel that Mother’s Day makes more people feel miserable than it does happy and loved.

Voluntary childlessn­ess — the conscious decision not to have children — is an increasing­ly popular course of action for young women, and, when you think about the state of the planet, the global economy — and the fact that we’re in the middle of a deadly global pandemic — it’s not hard to understand why that might be.

But the women who choose not to have children are no less deserving of celebratio­n than mothers in the convention­al sense of the word. There is every likelihood that child-free women contribute to the wellbeing of their parents, their relatives, animals and their communitie­s in a manner that warrants recognitio­n. Love and selflessne­ss are not exclusive to convention­al nuclear family dynamics, and glorifying and sustaining days like Mother’s Day obfuscates that fact.

Womanhood and parenthood simply shouldn’t be conflated. It’s not fair to trans and nonbinary people, it’s not fair to consciousl­y child-free individual­s, and it’s not inclusive or realistic in general. It simply does not reflect the reality of the world or worlds we live in today.

Of course, it’s wonderful to celebrate our parents, and I think setting aside a day to honour the people who nurture and uplift their loved ones is a marvellous idea — but then why not celebrate Parents’ Day? or Carer’s Day? Why are we still bifurcatin­g celebratio­ns of parenthood and caretaking in the most peculiar, antiquated fashion imaginable? Are you really going to buy your mom a vase of flowers in May and your dad a wrench in June? Come, now.

Women don’t have to be mothers; not all “mothers” are women, not all children have parents, and Mother’s Day can be a jarring reminder of what we’re supposed to be, or have, when we still aren’t and do not, by choice or otherwise.

Put down those carnations. Anna Jarvis is rolling over in her grave.

 ?? ILLUSTRATI­ON: SIPHU GQWETHA ?? Womanhood and parenthood shouldn’t be conflated. It’s not fair to nonbinary people
ILLUSTRATI­ON: SIPHU GQWETHA Womanhood and parenthood shouldn’t be conflated. It’s not fair to nonbinary people

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