Individually, we define Mothers Day for ourselves: our one breakfast in bed all year; a day at the park with our kids; a gathering of the generations in our family to break bread together. Commercially, Mothers Day is continually defined for us as the purchase of greeting cards, hearts, flowers, and candies. But so many of us are unaware of the history of Mothers Day, the real meaning and empowerment of women that fueled the creation of this day.
For me personally, I used to love Mothers Day. It was one of those holidays where I crafted goodies for the women in my life: hand-painted flower pots with a packet of seeds; hand-made cards expressing my thanks and appreciation; hand-beaded bling, especially sparkly. And when I was pregnant with my own son, I so looked forward to my own first Mothers Day. But after a full term, perfectly healthy pregnancy, my son died at birth. Mothers Day was nothing but rage for me then.
It was amazing to me how grief and death work so hard to erase mothers like me. All the other moms are getting flowers at some public or religious event, but the childless moms are ignored. The physically present children are celebrated while everyone desperately tries to avoid eye contact with the bereaved mothers for fear they might want their children’s names said, too. Grief is treated as pathological instead of as a normal response to overwhelming loss.
And so in silence, and sometimes starting to believe I was crazy, I began hating Mothers Day. I did everything I could to avoid it. I purposely spent the day making angry, morbid art, or shouting at the ocean, or breaking dishes with the intent of making mosaic from the broken pieces one day. Then something happened.
In a little park on the little island on which we live, a group of mothers gathered for a parade and protest. As part of the festivities, they were celebrating their maternal feelings for ALL children of any race, nationality, religion, gender, alive or dead. In doing so, they were spreading the story and true meaning that started Mothers Day. Wait?! What!? I couldn’t believe I was hearing for the first time that Mothers Day is more than a made-up, greeting card company exercise in commercialism?! But there it was. In black and white.
They were handing out fliers sharing the writing of Julia Ward Howe, first published in 1870 as a protest against the carnage and violence of the Civil War. This was a protest led by women whose sons had died! Bereaved mothers started this tradition of Mothers Day! In the beginning, this was a day of protest, an expression of horrified grief from bereaved mothers who were parted from their sons!! Wow. Okay. That’s a different spin.
So what did Julia have to say back in 1870? You read and see for yourself:
Arise, then, women of this day! Arise all women who have hearts, whether our baptism be that of water or of fears!
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. From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says “Disarm, Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.”
Blood does not wipe our dishonor nor violence indicate possession. As men have often forsaken the plow and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel. Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them then solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, each bearing after their own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God.
In the name of womanhood and of humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women without limit of nationality may be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient and at the earliest period consistent with its objects, to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.
Julia Ward Howe
Mothers Day came as an answer to Julia’s proclamation. It started as a ceremony of bereavement and then as a movement for peace and action to stop the senseless deaths of children everywhere. Our society can commercialize all they want. Because in my heart of hearts I know the real meaning of this day came from pain, loss, and grief — the same things I am prone to feel on any given Mothers Day. And from now on, when people urge me to celebrate the day, I tell them this:
I’ll celebrate with you if you will first mourn with me. It is the combination of the two that lends itself to the true meaning of Mothers Day!
So I encourage you, too, as you celebrate in your ways this coming weekend. If you are crafting goodies for the mothers at your gathering, please don’t forget the bereaved mums. If flowers are given to all the mums whose children are playing and laughing that day, please don’t ignore the mums whose children physically gone, but still loved. If you want to do more than just hearts and flowers, make your own meaning of this day. Sit with the women in your family and pour over the family tree. Find out if there were any children born, who died, who are now left off the family tree. Find out the full scope of motherhood for all the women in your family. Filling out your family tree completely, not only honors all the women who birthed children, but gives your children and generations to come, a view of their full family and medical histories. Mothers Day can include hearts and flowers, but it can also be as substantial and empowering as you want it to be!
About the Author
Kara LC Jones aka Mother Henna is the Grief & Creativity Coach behind the works at MotherHenna.com and co-founder of KOTA: Knowing Ourselves Thru Art, an expressive arts outreach for bereaved parents after the death of a child.