Ode to Mother’s Day


For the past 100 years, Hallmark has inundated society with Mother’s Day cards, gobbled up by eager shoppers prepared to pay ever increasing costs for non-environmentally friendly paper and envelopes. Florists do robust sales in advance of May’s Mother’s Day Sunday, dispatching vases and bouquets with tiny cards or balloons. 

Let’s face it: Mother’s Day is big business. It is celebrated worldwide with roots going back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, who held festivals in honor of the mother goddesses Rhea and Cybele.

In the United States, the American incarnation of Mother’s Day was created by Anna Jarvis in 1908 and became an official U.S. holiday in 1914. Ironically, Jarvis spent much of her later life trying to get the holiday removed from the calendar after seeing the commercialization of Mother’s Day. Having convinced Woodrow Wilson to make Mother’s Day an official Sunday celebration, Jarvis, who had no children, later railed against confectioners, florists and even charities and launched countless lawsuits against groups that had used the name “Mother’s Day,” eventually spending most of her personal wealth in legal fees. By the time of her death in 1948, Jarvis had disowned the holiday altogether, and even actively lobbied the government to see it removed.

Which leads to the obvious question: What’s the point of this “holiday,” especially when, for many, it dredges up old memories of lost mothers, estrangement or related sadness, especially this year as COVID-19 has taken hundreds of thousands of lives? Do we really need to be reminded that motherhood is important? 

Yes, mothers matter and women matter, especially now.

Pandemic stress and mental health issues have rocked all segments of society. But mothers have endured multiple challenges, as they always have, of balancing work and family, caregiving and career advancement, which is not to undercut the notion that more and more men are sharing fully in family responsibilities. 

But in families where both parents have been working from home, studies show that mothers have borne a disproportionate share of the burden. For example, a survey last October found that, among employed parents who were working from home all or most of the time, mothers were more likely than fathers to say they had a lot of child care responsibilities while working (36 percent vs. 16 percent). Working mothers with children younger than 12 at home were also more likely than fathers (57 percent vs. 47 percent) to say it had been at least somewhat difficult for them to handle child care responsibilities during the coronavirus outbreak.

Many mothers have spent more time with their children than any in previous year, given at-home virtual learning, lack of daycare and the absence of opportunities to get a babysitter and go out for a night on the town. Others have not been able to see their grown children or grandchildren due to quarantines, travel restrictions and concerns about transmission of the virus. 

Another problem for mothers this past year was leaving jobs to be home with children. Almost one million mothers have left the workforce — with Black, Hispanic and single mothers among the hardest hit. According to economist Michael Madowitz at the Center for American Progress, “Just before the pandemic hit, for the first time ever, for a couple months, we had more women employed than men, and now we are back to late 1980s levels of women in the labor force.”

The greatest gift to mothers this year – and to all parents – would be a complete overhaul of the child care system in America — something President Biden is proposing along with affordable, high-quality early education. 

We have reached a tipping point in America for women, especially with the rise of women in politics making this Mother’s Day a time for celebration. For the first time in history, two women sat on the dais behind the presidential podium when President Biden delivered his recent address to a joint session of Congress. Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) – both mothers – occupied two seats of prominence — a reminder of the cracks in the political glass ceiling, although women still face challenges with pay gaps, discrimination in the workplace and sexism in society writ large.

So, let’s keep moms in our minds this year. For those who lost mothers this year, nothing can ease the pain. For those who are remembering mothers who have been gone a long time, the grief is unending. For those moms awaiting babies, excitement and anxiety are co-mingled.

The truth is that despite our cynicism about “holidays” that promote sales and slogans, this year is a good one to celebrate Mother’s Day and to think about the sacrifices mothers make for all of us, everywhere.

Tara D. Sonenshine is a former U.S. under-secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs.

Tags Anna Jarvis Hallmark Joe Biden Mother Mother's Day Nancy Pelosi Single parent Traditions Working parent

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