Americans have celebrated Mother's Day for over a century, and the observance has grown to become one of the nation's most popular annual events. But is it good for motherhood?
Back in 1858, Anna Reeves Jarvis organized the precursor to Mother's Day as a way to protest a lack of sanitation in rural Appalachia. Later, Julia Ward Howe would organize what became "Mother's Days for Peace" in protest of all war. Howe, who wrote the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," pledged: "Our husbands shall not come to us reeking with carnage. . . . Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy, and patience."
Then, as Ruth Rosen reports at Slate.com:
When Anna Jarvis died in 1905, her daughter, also named Anna, vowed to honor her mother's political activism by creating a national Mother's Day. The gift card and flower industries also lobbied hard. As an industry publication, the Florists' Review, put it, "This was a holiday that could be exploited." In 1914, Congress responded and proclaimed the second Sunday in May to be Mother's Day.
As Rosen explains, the women behind Mother's Day were convinced that the moral superiority of women was grounded in the experience of motherhood.
In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed the legislation setting Mother's Day as the second Sunday each May. The focus was not to be on honoring all American mothers in common, but each family's mother in each home, thus Mother's Day -- not Mothers' Day. Wilson's statements reflected both moralism and sentimentalism.
Before long, however, the observance became commercialized. It came early enough to outrage Anna Jarvis, but she fought a losing battle against the florists, marketers, and other commercial interests. She died regretting that she had conceived the idea of Mother's Day in the first place.
Now, Mother's Day ranks number one among all annual occasions in terms of eating out. As for total spending on gifts, some analysts believe that Mother's Day has now pushed Valentine's Day into third place. While not everyone has a valentine, almost everyone has someone to honor on Mother's Day. Counting grandmothers, mothers-in-law, and assorted other maternal figures, this adds up to a huge consumer event.
All this was enough to make Anna Jarvis regret her idea, but consumerism is not the worst thing to happen to Mother's Day. The worst part of Mother's Day is the flood of sentimentality that masquerades as affection and honor.
Sentiment drives Mother's Day as a gargantuan observance. We Americans feel better about ourselves when we honor motherhood -- or when we spend a few dollars on overpriced greeting cards, flowers, and food and convince ourselves that this is honoring our mothers.
There is nothing wrong about sentiment in itself, but there is something pornographic about the pathos of sentimentalism that this observance produces -- a sentimentalism so often devoid of content.
The Christian vision of motherhood is more about courage and faithfulness than about sentimentalism. The mothers of the Bible are a tough lot. Jochebed put her baby in a floating ark of bulrushes, defying the order of Pharaoh that all Hebrew male children be put to death. Rachel, mother to Joseph and Benjamin, died giving birth to Benjamin. Hannah promised her son to God, and presented Samuel as a young boy for service in the House of the Lord. Mary, the mother of Jesus, risked shame and disgrace to bear the Savior, and to provide all Christians with a model of brave and unflinching obedience. She was there when Jesus Christ was crucified. As Simeon had told her just after the birth of Christ, "Behold this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed." [Luke 2:34-35]
A corsage hardly seems appropriate.
Christians must resist the reduction of motherhood to sentimentality, and particularly that sentimentalism that undermines what mothers are truly to represent -- nurture, fortitude, courage, dedication, faithfulness, discipline, and trust in God.
Mother's Day is a bad idea because it subverts the reality of faithful mothering and robs faithful mothers of their true glory. Mothers deserving of honor are handed cards and taken to lunch, when songs of praise should instead be offered to the glory of God. Undeserving mothers, who abdicate their true responsibility, are honored just because they are mothers. Children, young and old, who ignore and dishonor their mothers by word and by life throughout the year, assuage their guilt by making a big deal of Mother's Day.
So, Mother's Day is a bad idea.
Then again, Mother's Day is impossible to ignore. What quality of ingratitude marks the son or daughter (or husband) who does not honor mothers on Mother's Day? There was I yesterday, with son and daughter, honoring both their mother (my dear wife, Mary) and my mother-in-law. Yes, we had a celebratory meal out and we passed out greeting cards with our own personal inscriptions. Gifts were delivered, and all the right things were said. Calls were made to my mother, several states away.
In the end, we are all like little children who push crumpled hand-made greeting cards toward Mom, who then accepts our grubby offerings with love and gratitude.
So much for avoiding sentimentality. Let's just make certain that there is more to Mother's Day than sentiment. The mothers we should honor are those who raise children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, who honor their marriages and live faithfully, who teach and nurture and discipline by the Bible. These are mothers who defy the spirit of the age, protect their children from danger, maintain godly discipline and order in the home, and feed their children the pure milk of God's Word.
These mothers deserve honor upon honor, and their reward will be great in heaven. Yet, in the meantime, a card and a kiss on Mother's Day won't hurt. It's just not nearly enough.