By Deborah Chelette-Wilson
May is a time we get many reminders to pause and take time to acknowledge the contributions of mothers to our lives. Depending on one’s experience with their mother it can be a time of celebration or a time of feeling disconnected and out of sink with the rest of the world.
As usual I decided to research how Mother’s Day came into being. The ancient Egyptians held annual festivals to honor the goddess Isis who they considered the mother of the pharaohs. Though the ancient Romans had a 3-day festival to Isis to commemorate an important battle and mark the beginning of winter their mother’s day was more rooted in the celebration of the goddess Cybele, the Great Mother. The Greeks major mother deity was Rhea, the Greek mother of the gods. Later in Europe a holiday to honor motherhood was on the fourth Sunday Lent. Early Christians honored this day to the church in which they were baptized which they called the ‘mother church.’ A clerical decree in England in the 1600’s expanded the celebration to include human mothers and called it Mothering Day. It became a special holiday to show compassion for the working classes where they were allowed to travel back to their towns of origin to visit families. It also allowed a reprieve from the fasting and penance of Lent where families across England created a family feast with mother as the honored guest. Many visited their mothers and brought cakes and flowers.
The tradition of mothering day was not carried to America with the first English Settlers. In wasn’t until 1870 when Julia Ward Howe, the author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, called on an international Mother’s Day. She was so devastated by the carnage of the Civil War she called upon mothers to come together and protest the futility of “Sons killing the Sons of other Mothers” and for women to come together to celebrate peace and motherhood. By 1873 women’s groups in 18 North American cities were celebrating Mother’s Day on June 2nd. Though her holiday did not catch on it was adapted by Anna Reeves Jarvis. Jarvis made it a celebration to reunite families and neighbors that had been divided because of the Civil War. The group held what was called Mother’s Friendship Day. After she died her daughter, Anna M. Jarvis, in 1908, petitioned the superintendent of the church where her mother had taught Sunday School for over 20 years. She wanted to create an official day in remembrance of her mother and in honor of peace. On May 10, 1908 her request was honored and the first official Mother’s Day was celebrated at Andrew’s Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia and a church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She arranged to have two white carnations, her mother’s favorite flower, given to each woman that day. White carnations are now given to honor deceased Mothers while pink or red carnations are given to honor Mother’s still alive.
A proposal was made in 1908 by US Senator Elmer Burkett from Nebraska to make Mother’s Day a National Holiday at the request of the Young Men’s Christian Association. It was defeated but by 1909 forty-six states and parts of Canada and Mexico were holding Mother’s Day services.
Ann M. Jarvis continued working to honor Mother’s Day by petitioning state governments, business leaders, women groups, churches and other institutions and organizations for years. She finally received the backing of the World’s Sunday School Association who was influential with state legislators and congress. In 1912 West Virginia became the first state to officially recognize Mother’s Day. Former US President Woodrow Wilson declared the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day as a national observance in 1914.
Since then this holiday has become very popular and commercialized. Ann M. Jarvis fought for years to stop the commercialization of this event. In the 1930’s she petitioned against the postage stamp featuring her mother, a vase of white carnations and the words “Mother’s Day.” It didn’t stop the stamp from being made but “Mother’s Day” was removed. This is a good example of when an idea whose time has come it may be alterable but it’s not stoppable.
For me, Mother’s Day has been an emotionally mixed day. First, because I was not able to have children and secondly it is a reminder of the lack of mothering I got from my biological mother. Our connection though weak is still present and I can and do acknowledge her for the things she did right along with holding her accountable for the things that hurt me. I happen to like my mother as well as love her. Now she is not the same person I experienced as a child and who hurt me so deeply. Life has written on her for good or ill. She has her wisdom as I have mine and we share that with each other. I feel her support and love for me as an adult though I needed it as a child. Our relationship is a work in process. I think it has gotten to a good place and I am grateful for that. I’d say we are good friends.
The woman who mothered me when I was a child, my Nannie, died a long time ago. She was my mother’s mother. It has been interesting to learn that my mother felt closer to her grandmother than her mother, too. Such are unconscious family intergenerational patterns. The longing and ache for what I had with Nannie still lingers today. It is not as sharp and bitter as it used to be. Processing my grief at her loss and integrating it has allowed me to open to more memories and senses of what we had together. The contributions of her presence continue living within me today. Those experiences written on my neurophysiology have kept me from self destructing many, many times. Those experiences of the unconditional love and acceptance I felt with her are the reservoir of my ability to love so greatly today. She lives on in my large window of stress tolerance that helps balance me from my multiple traumas. Nuerophysiologically wired within my systems is a sense that no matter how bad it gets I can get over, under, around or through life’s challenges and difficulties. When I get to my bottom, her presence is comforting and guiding me to transcend my limitations. Her belief in me was experienced in how she looked at me, talked to me and listened to me has been an oasis in the desert of human relationships. Moving past my shame and self-blame I now open up and realize that the great pain of her loss kept me closed off and blinded to others who have loved me like she did. I now am opening the gate of my hurt and allowing love to enter. I am learning to mother myself from the love of my understanding and experiences with her. I am learning to give myself to love instead of fearing the loss of it. I think she would be proud.