Happy Mother’s Day
I met another mom last week, much younger than me, and we struck up a conversation. She told me a little story about when she was out walking with her 4-year-old daughter. The girl picked up something from the ground and started to put it in her mouth. My new friend then told me what happened next:
“I took the item away from her and I asked her not to do that. My daughter quickly asked, “Why?” ” Because it’s been lying outside, you don’t know where it’s been, it’s dirty and probably has germs,” I replied.
At this point, her daughter looked at her with total admiration and asked, “Wow! How do you know all this stuff?”
The woman thought quickly and said, “All moms know this stuff. It’s on the Mommy Test. You have to know it, or they don’t let you be a Mommy.”
They walked along in silence for 2 or 3 minutes, as the little girl pondered this new information.
“Oh…I get it!” she beamed, “So if you don’t pass the test you have to be the daddy?”
The mom smiled and replied, “Exactly.”
I want to thank esteemed historian Katharine Antolini and the entire board of the International Mother’s Day Shrine for inviting me to come to speak today. I also want to thank the people of Grafton, West Virginia for welcoming me to their community. I am going to do my best to keep this presentation short and sweet. My goal is to keep you inspired, for you are all doing good work creating an important place with regard to what I shall call HER-story in America. The fact is we need more of it. I’m confident that Katharine Antolini, who as you all know is the resident expert on Anna Jarvis, will correct any historical inaccuracies I may inadvertently introduce.
Today we’re going to talk about three things: you, me, and mothers. I am going to invite you to participate in the conversation. Now, don’t get nervous. You can participate by simply raising your hand or giving up an “ah-men” or an “ah-woman” if something particularly strikes you.
You ready to start? Okay – first question, “How may of you have a mother?” (Wait for people to raise their hands)
Great! That takes care of the “you” part of the talk! You’re off the hook and you can just sit back and listen.
I am blessed to say that my mother is here today. I picked her up over in Ohio about three hours away, and brought her with me for this service. Which is exactly the spirit Anna Jarvis intended for Mother’s Day. She intended that Mother’s Day would be “a be a day of sentiment, not profit.” “She said (and I quote), “A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world.”
So Mom, I didn’t get you a card. Instead we get to spend time together. And let this presentation be my love letter to you – In the spirit of what Anna Jarvis would have wanted, one hundred and six years ago.
Now Anna Jarvis was a pretty serious character. She really didn’t mess around. She spent the bulk of her adult life securing a day in the calendar that would be devoted to the woman who bore us, raised us, or “cared the most for us.” But, you see mothers really can be a lot of things. We have birth mothers these days; those are the women who procreate, gestate and give birth to us. But, those aren’t always the mothers that raise us. Sometimes it’s a grandmother, or an adoptive mother. It can be a guardian or a foster parent. I’ve even known some Dad’s who have been pretty serious mothers.
Now in Anna’s case, as most of you probably know, the first intimate Mother’s Day gathering was held here in Grafton, in 1907 two year’s after Anna’s mother’s death. Anna lobbied hard to spread the word about Mother’s Day. She enlisted businessmen and politicians to commemorate “the second Sunday of May”, a phrase incidentally that Jarvis went on to trademark.
In 1908 there were two ceremonies held: one in an auditorium that belonged to a Philadelphia businessman named John Wanamaker, and one right here in this space where Jarvis sent 500 white carnations to be distributed among the moms– carnations being her mother’s favorite flower. By 1909, white carnations had become a symbol to honor all mothers, and 45 U.S. states, Canada, and Mexico had also adopted Mother’s Day. By 1914, President Woodrow Wilson issued a Mother’s Day proclamation. Today we celebrate 100 years.
Let us take just a moment to close our eyes and contemplate in quietude those who have gone before. Feel free to whisper their name. Reflect well on your foremothers, the ones from who’s blood, bones, sweat, and toils you are formed. Better or worse, these are the lives we are given. As Adrienne Rich wrote in Of Woman Borne, “We know more about the air we breathe and the seas we travel, than about the nature and meaning of motherhood.”
Let us pause to reflect. Let us speak aloud quietly the names of those we hope to remember.
I was raised the Granddaughter of a minister, who was one of five brothers. They all found their calling in the church. An old vinyl recording of a service they performed together circa 1960, celebrates their love of their wives; the mothers of their children, and jokingly affirms how they like their ladies to “act” like “ladies” and how a woman’s place is “in the kitchen.” This rousing testimony from all six of my ancestors helps lay the framework for my feminist and scholarly inquiry.
My Grandfather’s place was in the pulpit, preaching to the masses. My Grandmother’s place was in the kitchen, cooking for the family. My place is the blog-o-sphere, the radio, and the classroom, or anywhere I can find an opportunity to peel back the layers to examine the social construction of women and men’s roles in the world, particularly around the subject of birthing and caregiving. I am a Mother Studies freak.
There are not a lot of high profile, female-specific, mother-oriented institutions though. We have to look very hard. A few of them are:
1) The International Mother’s Day Shrine, here in Grafton, West Virginia (formerly known as St. Andrews Methodist Church)
2) The National Women’s Hall of Fame organized by the women and men of Seneca Falls In 1969 to honor the contributions of great American women in perpetuity
3) The Museum of Motherhood conceived in 2003. The first and only facility devoted to exploring the evolution of family. It opened its doors to scholars and neighbors on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in 2011.
These establishments are significant because bricks and mortar make things real. As the great American poet and scholar Adrienne Rich went on to write, “ women’s relationship to the past has been problematic because in the written records we can barely find ourselves.” We cannot argue with this. We must create a HER-story of our own. With buildings and monuments to match.
In an essay I recently read, called “Finding Common Ground: The Importance of Place,” the writers acknowledge a sense of rootedness that emerges when community projects come together in a physical location. Why not have more places that focus on topics of birthing and caregiving-work? As Lori Walls suggests, “Mothering can be a difficult journey and a mother’s role is perhaps woman’s most enduring role in the Western world.” Yet, even as I write this, many ill-equipped humans are just beginning the impossible task of mothering. While more and more men and non-traditional families are exploring starting families of their own.
This is why I believe we need more intellectual discourse on the subject. This is why I rally people around festivals; performances, books, classes, conferences, churches, and even a museum to better explore this mysterious subject. Motherhood is not what social protocol says it is. It’s not what we see on TV or read about in People Magazine. Mothers are not perfectly manicured humans blithely shopping in fabulous retail outfits for the sharpest designer wear. And its not their opposite; messy harassed women running from children’s activity, to children’s activity – (alright. Maybe it is).
What we need, not just on Mother’s Day, but on every day is a profound reconciliation of acknowledgement, and a reconciliation of knowledge itself when it comes to the individuals who for better, and sometimes worse, have served up the work of raising the preceding generation(s). We need a new HER-story that studies women’s labor through the ages to balance our HIS-torical accounting.
When I look back at my family I try to imagine my Grandmother’s quiet servitude elevated to a more public sphere. This would create an opportunity to better examine the value of her work. I keep thinking if we could increase the intellectual understanding of “the most important job we’ll ever do,” it might at the very least encourage compassion, and at its best, facilitate the evolution of humanity. I invite you to look in unexpected places for the legacy of mothers past and present.
One humorous example of this can be found on the website “Roadside America” where they describe the kinds of MOMuments in America that can be attributed to mothers. The website goes on to say, “Throughout history, moms have toiled anonymously. When they were ennobled in a statue or monument, it was usually for something super-duper-momlike. Fair or not, love and caring were expected in a mother, so the mom extra-credit qualities most often celebrated involved grim determination and uncomplaining endurance. Tight-lipped matriarchs predominate, often staring toward the horizon.” If you’d like to see some of these ‘MOM’uments, I invite you to go to the Museum of Motherhood website where you can access a list of: Pioneer Mother of Kansas, Big Mother Goose, Madonna of the Trail, Sad Gold Star Mother and more.
I hope that we can each look to ourselves and our families to better cultivate a more multi-dimensional viewpoint of the women who have birthed and raised us and that we can continue this conversation about “Putting Motherhood on the Map.”
As each of us searches for HER-story in our community, and works to bring it to the fore, let us consider our time together a meaningful meditation in the spirit of Anna Jarvis’s truest intention, to reflect upon, and accord due diligence to the labor of love mothers have performed in perpetuity.
I love you Mom.
Thank you for having me.
BIO: “In Search of HERstory and the Importance of Place” is a presentation by Martha Joy Rose at the International Mother’s Day Shrine, on the 100th anniversary of Woodrow Wilson’s Mother’s Day Declaration, and Saturday, May 10th on WFUV, CityScape with George Bodarky. Martha Joy Rose is the founder of the Museum of Motherhood in New York City, and a Master’s Candidate at The Graduate Center of Manhattan, in Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies. She is also the founder of the annual Mamapalooza Festival, dedicated to empowering women through Mom-Branded Entertainment, Education and Business. This year’s free family festival is on May 18th at Riverside Park South in Manhattan. She wants you to know that “Moms Rock” and you can find out more by going to JoinMama.com NOTES:
- Miss Jarvis suggested the observance of Mother’s Day in honor of her mother, Mrs. Anna Reeves Jarvis, who served as a teacher in the primary department of the Andrews church for over 20 years. The first Mother’s Day observance was held in the local church on May 10, 1908.
- The importance of place – places encourage emotional bonds within neighborhoods, affect individuals, and facilitate external social processes.Attachment to Community Participation and Planning”, Lynne Manzo and Doublas Perkins write “(Bonaiuto et al. 1999; Feldman 1996). Riger and Lavrakas (1981) found two dimensions of attachment that are communal in nature:
- Lori Wall “The Social Construction of Motherhood: Implications and Interventions”, Edmonton, Alberta. 2007
Articles: 100 Years; Love, Anger and Civic Unrest Motherhood Scholarship: ADRIENNE RICH decided to write “a book on motherhood because it was a crucial, still relatively unexplored, area for feminist research” (Rich 1976, 15). That was 38 years ago. Have we progressed? Check out Project MUSE.