Americans’ uniquely individual, all at the same time expressions of affection and regard for their mothers in the culturally sanctioned medium of dollars spent is big business. Mother’s Day is the 3rd ranked spending holiday, after Christmas and Valentine’s Day. It will account for something like $15.8 billion in retail sales, including $2 billion on flowers (which makes it vital to the cut flower industry, and the low-wage economy of Ecuador and Chile, key competitors in that sector), $3.5 billion on full-service restaurant meals, making it the leading eating-out holiday of the year, $2.7 billion on jewelry, and over $650 million on greeting cards. (Sources: Forbes, Godweb, Rabobank, National Restaurant Association)
None of this was what Anna Jarvis had in mind when she vowed to her dearly departed mother, Anna Maria Reeves Jarvis, to create a holiday to honor and celebrate mothers and their importance. She seems to have been thinking less mothers’ importance to the economy, and more their importance in the lives of their children. Some of her early allies in the campaign to make Mother’s Day a national holiday, including retail giant John Wanamaker and prohibitionist forces in Congress, may have had something like this in mind after all.
The annual consumer festival would not have pleased Julia Ward Howe, either, who in addition to being the author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, one of the founders of the National Women’s Suffrage Association, and a fundraiser for the Johns Hopkins University medical school – on the condition that it admit women – is credited with the original US Mother’s Day concept, “Mother’s Day for Peace.” Howe authored a proclamation of the day in 1870, calling on mothers to leave home and hearth and take counsel together for the general interest of peace. (Full text of the proclamation.)
Recently, a group of US celebrity mothers have joined together to revive the Mother’s Day for Peace concept, by producing a video encouraging viewers to think about motherhood and the interests of peace. Perhaps ironically, or perhaps only predictably, the group’s recommendation of something their audience can do to act on the commitment to the peace concept is donate money to an organization that benefits children in Iraq. Not that this is a bad thing. Just that it’s interesting how the way we Americans communicate what we care about, whatever it is, is to spend money.
Maybe I should suggest donating money to the Women’s Center Fund as an appropriate way of honoring mothers. The Center could use some of that $13.5 billion.
The Women’s Center does support motherhood, after all – as a risky and sometimes deeply rewarding possibility for human relationship, as one womanly vocation among others, and as a vital and dignified human activity that is often, ironically, cited as justification for practices that oppress women.
But let me suggest something else: namely using the occasion of Mother’s Day to consider whether spending money on mothers really constitutes an expression of affection and regard, or whether there might be some alternative representations of these sentiments that would be both more genuine and more substantive. Advocating for national policies that safeguard the interests of mothers – like, say, making sure mothers will be able to obtain health care for themselves and their children – comes to mind as one alternative. No doubt there are many others. We might all be able to think of them, if we were not so distracted with making sure we have bought the right color flowers and chosen the perfect card.