Loretta Barnard

The creator of Mother’s Day fought men and hated what it became


Even the founder of Mother’s Day decided the day had become too commercialised. Should we too be thinking about the real meaning of the day?



In many countries, the second Sunday in May is the day society has marked to celebrate mothers. For 364 days each year mothers look after their families, nurturing, cooking, cleaning, counselling, helping at school, taxi-ing, shopping, gardening, caring for pets, looking after grandkids, and more often than not working in paid employment as well where they have to make sure there’s no dried Weetbix on their blouses, that their hair and makeup is just so, and where they’re often overlooked for advancement because they might be called away at any moment to take a child to the dentist or doctor. Not so very long ago, women, no matter how qualified they were, had to give up their jobs when they married; they couldn’t get bank loans if they were single mothers; they took menial jobs just to make ends meet. There are countless stories of mothers who went to university only after they’d raised their children. And there are mothers in war-torn countries who have literally given their lives so their children can live.

Mothers are constantly on the go, putting family before themselves because that’s how it’s done. But for one day of the year, they—theoretically at least—get to put their feet up and be pampered by their children and significant others. It’s a nice gesture, but where did it come from and has it been hijacked by commercialism?

According to History.com, there were celebrations of mothers way back in the classical era. Later, in the early days of Christianity, a festival was held on the fourth Sunday of Lent to mark the return of the faithful to the “mother church”, the symbolism of the institution as motherly eventually making way for a more secular holiday where actual mothers were celebrated.

But the day we now know as Mother’s Day (or is it Mothers’ Day? Seriously, the issue of the apostrophe needs to be addressed. Personally, I’d put the apostrophe after the “s” because it’s a day to celebrate all mothers rather than one specific mother, but I concede it’s a moot point) is commonly regarded as having been “invented” by Anna Jarvis in the early years of the twentieth century. (By the way, Anna herself specified the singular possessive, so perhaps my apostrophe obsession needs to be seen to.)

During America’s Civil War, Anna Jarvis’s mother Ann had tried to bring Union and Confederate mothers together to work towards peace, and after her death in 1905, Anna wanted to do something to honour her mother’s memory and recognise the enormous and mostly unacknowledged role mothers play in society. She tenaciously lobbied politicians, newspaper editors, businesses and even then-President of the United States William Taft. Various American states adopted the practice of Mother’s Day and in 1914 a resolution to mark the day was signed by President Woodrow Wilson. Anna chose a white carnation as its symbol—it was her mother’s favourite flower and represented the truth and purity of a mother’s love. She envisaged the day as one where people would visit their mothers; there’d be a trip to church and Mum would bask in the love and gratitude of her family.

Within a few short years, however, businesses took commercial advantage of the day. Advertising employed the guilt factor and sales of chocolates, greeting cards and flowers surged. For florists, Mother’s Day remains their most profitable period, and restaurants and jewellers do pretty well out it too. The holiday had been usurped and Anna didn’t like it one little bit.

In 1920 she openly condemned businesses for their greed, calling them “charlatans” and “racketeers”. Although she’d worked with the floral industry earlier, now she denounced their inflated Mother’s Day prices. She begged people not to buy flowers, gifts and greeting cards, saying: “A maudlin, insincere printed card…means nothing except that you’re too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone else in the world…any mother would rather have a line of the worst scribble from her son or daughter than any fancy greeting card.” (Hear hear, I say.)

The woman who succeeded in having Mother’s Day officially recognised railed against it for the rest of her life. For her, crass commercialisation was anathema. She’d be horrified to learn that many mothers these days are given gifts like irons or vacuum cleaners because apparently nothing says “I love you, Mum” more than giving her a household appliance. Okay, I’ll grant you that if your mother had to boil the sheets in the old wood-fired copper then hand-feed them through the manual wringer, then a new whizz-bang automatic top loader might be just the ticket, but on the whole, I’d recommend steering clear of anything related to housework. I’m sure Anna Jarvis would agree and I’m sure she’d be heartened by charity Mother’s Day events where money is raised for breast cancer research, or to assist homeless women, victims of domestic violence, or to pay for vaccination packs so mothers in third world countries can better protect their children.

Hopefully, every mother is lucky enough to have her children around her on Mother’s Day, but where that’s not possible, a phone call does wonders. It’s about telling your mum that she’s appreciated and loved, that everything she put into your life was done with only you in mind. Mothers don’t need schmaltzy cards with their printed saccharine messages, fancy meals or expensive champagne to feel special. Do it the way Anna wanted—simple and sincere.

Happy Mother’s Day to all the mums wherever they may be.


Loretta Barnard

Loretta Barnard is a freelance writer and editor who has authored four non-fiction books, been a contributing writer to a wide range of reference books and whose essays have been published across a number of platforms. A regular contributor to The Big Smoke, she also coordinates the TBS Next Gen program.

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