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  • Jan Flynn

Mother’s Day is Awkward

I can’t be the only one who feels that way

Don’t get me wrong; I love the cards and flowers

What mother doesn’t enjoy being treated by her offspring? Mothering is hard work with high stakes, with brutal hours, a constantly shifting job description, and an uncertain retirement plan.

If you’re lucky and nothing catastrophic interrupts the carrying out of your duties, eventually you work yourself out of a job. But the emotional investment never lessens. Motherhood leads otherwise rational women to believe in the prophylactic power of worry, long after their children are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves.

So yes, it’s nice to be recognized

I’ve gone through multiple bouts of downsizing, approaching what the Swedes call death cleaning — but I’ve kept the tributes, tchotchkes, and artwork my sons made for me at school or Scouts or camp. Like a lot of moms, that stuff means more to me than fancy furniture or costly bibelots.

And I know perfectly well that those creations were prompted by some adult — a teacher, den mother, or camp counselor — who initiated the mom-pleasing project. Still, those trinkets and ceramic sculptures feel organic and genuine. I’ll part from them when I shuffle off the mortal coil, and not before.

Mother’s Day, though, feels a little different. Performative. Commercialized. Even mildly forced. Does saying so make me a bad person? Far worse, does it make me a bad mother?

According to, I’m not alone in having mixed feelings about Mother’s Day. Anna Jarvis, who is credited with establishing Mother’s Day in the U.S., conceived of it as a day when one would wear a white carnation in honor of Mom, visit her, and probably go to church.

But once it became a nationally recognized holiday in 1914, the greeting card companies, florists, and candy merchants were quick to capitalize on it. Jarvis became so disgusted with the commercialization of the occasion that she launched a campaign against it and tried to get it removed from the American calendar.

Needless to say, trying to dismantle Mother’s Day didn’t get her very far.

Like Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day is a have-to

I mean, how low or callous do you have to be to ignore a call to make a fuss over your sweetheart or dear old Mom, even if we all know there’s a corporate conspiracy behind the invitation? There’s really no fighting it without coming across as a total jerk.

Like Valentine’s Day — so rife with potential heartbreak or embarrassment for everyone from kindergartners to adults — Mother’s Day can put us in an emotional bind.

All those beautifully lit, heart-tugging commercials that show three or four generations of smiling women blissfully celebrating with flowers and candy (or jewelry, or new cars, or whatever the advertisers would like you to believe is necessary to prove your love)?

They can tug your heart in a painful direction if Mom is no longer alive, or if your relationship with her was complicated or disastrous, or if you have a child whose life trajectory has gone severely off course, or even ended prematurely.

In that sense, Mother’s Day is like Christmas: lovely if you’re in a position to genuinely celebrate it, intrusive and impossible to avoid if you’re not.

For moms, Mother’s Day has a strange life cycle

In the early days of motherhood, any special treatment on Mom’s big day is largely up to Dad — who, as a young father is trying to find his feet in his new role and is approximately as overwhelmed and bewildered as she is.

Once the kids are out of toddlerhood and slightly more self-sustaining, they may, if properly coached, take on producing some of the festivities themselves. Hence the well-worn trope wherein Mom adoringly accepts an inedible breakfast in bed.

All of this begins with the default notion of a “traditional” nuclear family. A cisgender female mommy, married to a cisgender male daddy, and the fruit of their (and only their) loins. Less and less families nowadays align with that template.

But following the cultural assumption: eventually, the fledglings leave the nest. There follow a number of years while their adult plumage settles in. During this period, Mom faces a dilemma: wait to see if her semi-adult children will get their act together to remember Mother’s Day all on their own, or deputize Dad or somebody else to remind them — in which case, do the last-minute deliveries from Flowers R Us really mean all that much?

Meanwhile, Mom’s own mother is getting older, and eventually passing on — adding further heft to the emotional freight. It’s a bittersweet passage at best.

With luck, though, a certain equilibrium is reached once the kids fully settle into adulting, and Mother’s Day assumes its rightful place as an occasion of affection, appreciation and respect — without too much fuss.

Until the adult children start having babies, and the cycle begins again.

Speaking of carnations

My mixed feelings probably have their root in the stories my mother Helen told me about what Mother’s Day was like for her growing up. Her own mother died in 1921 when Mom was eight years old. The cause of death was never explained to her.

When it became evident that my grandmother was not going to recover from whatever it was, Helen and her older sister were taken to the hospital to bid their mother goodbye.

“Be a good girl,” Mom’s ailing mother whispered from her deathbed, “and don’t fight with the neighbor girl.” And then little Helen was led away.

Beulah Beam Dayton, my grandmother, died a few days later. Four months after that, my grandfather married the woman who had been his late wife’s nurse during her illness. In Iowa in the early 1920s, such things weren’t particularly unusual.

But Helen’s stepmother, while hard-working and competent, was sensitive. She didn’t take well to reminders that she wasn’t the first wife. The girls learned not to talk about their dead mother.

At the small-town Methodist church they attended, Mother’s Day worked like this: you wore a red carnation if your mother was alive, and a white one if she wasn’t.

This placed nine-year-old Helen, the little girl who would be my mother, in an inescapable snare. If she wore the white carnation, as she desperately wished to, she’d earn the silent but abiding resentment of the woman upon whom she depended so deeply. She could wear the red carnation, pleasing her stepmother and keeping the peace, but at the cost of abandoning her late mother’s memory, driving the pain of her unexpressed grief even deeper.

Not that Mom ever put it that way to me. “I wore the red one,” she’d say, “but I felt awful bad about it.”

Apparently, wearing two carnations, one of each color, was out of the question.

Mother’s Day used to have a different purpose

In 1868, shortly after the Civil War, Anne Reeves Jarvis — the mother of Anna Jarvis mentioned above — organized “Mother’s Friendship Day.” The event brought together the mothers of former Union and Confederate soldiers with the intention of healing the nation’s psychic wounds and bridging its divisions.

Two years later, abolitionist and suffragette Julia Ward Howe called on mothers to unite in the cause of promoting world peace, so that no more mothers would have to see their sons sent off to war. She wrote an impassioned plea, the “Mother’s Day Proclamation,” which reads in part:

Arise, all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be that of water or of tears! Say firmly: “We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies, our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. . .” “Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.” Julia Ward Howe

In 1873, Howe campaigned for a Mother’s Day Peace Day to be celebrated annually on June 2. Regrettably, it seems to have never taken hold.

I’m happy to do brunch and eat chocolates

Believe me, I wholeheartedly enjoy and appreciate any treats and overtures that come my way on Mother’s Day. Or, any time for that matter. I just don’t want my kids to feel like it’s a thing they have to do.

On the other hand, I’d be kind of bummed if they didn’t. Such is the murky power of a corporate-colonized holiday.

But I’m all in for June 2.

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