Why the Woman Behind Mother’s Day Eventually Kinda Hated It

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“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. And candy! You take a box to Mother—and then eat most of it yourself. A pretty sentiment.”

So sayeth Anna Jarvis, the woman who created Mother’s Day.

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Anna Jarvis was born into a family of eleven children on May 1, 1864, in West Virginia. When she was 12, she heard her mother, Mrs. Ann Jarvis, utter the following prayer at the end of a Sunday school lesson on mothers of the Bible: “I hope that someone, sometime will found a memorial mother’s day commemorating her for the matchless service she renders to humanity in every field of life. She is entitled to it.”

When her mother died in 1905, Anna vowed to make her mother’s prayer a reality and began a campaign to establish a Mother’s Day in the U.S. She and her supporters wrote hundreds of letters to people in power lobbying for the holiday, but it wasn’t until she landed the support of John Wanamaker, creator of Philadelphia’s first department store (and the ubiquitous “money-back” guarantee), that politicians began to take notice. Finally, in 1914 President Woodrow Wilson officially proclaimed Mother’s Day a national holiday to be celebrated on the second Sunday of May. Anna’s mother’s wish had come true.

Jarvis’ intention for the holiday was very simple: You were supposed to write a letter of gratitude to you mother and present her with white carnations (because that was her mother’s favorite flower). That was it. But the floral, candy and greeting card industries had other ideas, and by the mid-1920s the day had become an expensive commercialized operation that appalled Jarvis. She spent the rest of her life trying to combat the commodification of the day and eventually lobbied, to no avail, to get the holiday rescinded. These efforts bankrupted her. With no husband or children of her own, she eventually moved in with her sister, Lillie, until she succumbed to dementia and was transferred to the Marshall Square Sanitarium, where she died in 1948 at the age of 84.

I confess I’ve always hated Mother’s Day. Not because I don’t feel grateful to my mother, but because it is a day that both encourages and capitalizes on guilt. The holiday, which in its present-day incarnation would probably drive Anna Jarvis so apeshit that she’d ram a truck into Hallmark’s Kansas City headquarters, is a day on which we are presented with an unpayable debt. Mom gave you life; what are you going to give her in return? An iPad? That’s what your life is worth? You’re an ungrateful pig. But that’s OK—we all are.

On the other hand, why should we feel thankful to either parent for fulfilling a desire to pass on their DNA, and then taking steps to ensure that that genetic vessel could survive in the world? Isn’t that just Nature? We might as well have a day that celebrates pooping.

This Mother’s Day, however, I’ve begun to come around a little. Here’s why: Gratitude goes hand in hand with appreciation. It’s hard to feel organically grateful for something you don’t appreciate. If someone gives you a horrible sweater, you don’t feel grateful for the gift, because you know you’re never going to wear it and it’s just going to take up space in your already overcrowded closet until you drum up enough courage to give it to Goodwill. You might express gratitude (“I adore it! Wow, that shade of teal really brings out my anemia!”), but that’s just fulfilling a social contract.

No, for real heart-expanding, tear-in-the-eye gratitude, you have to genuinely love what you have received. So from that point of view, Mother’s Day isn’t just about feeling indebted to the giver (Mom), it’s about appreciating the gift (your life). It’s an opportunity to stop and think: “Damn. I’m alive. I’m a self-aware being on a green planet in an unimaginably vast universe. How weird is that! And, how wonderful.”

There are probably some people who walk around in a state of constant appreciation, without the aid of ecstasy. Every puff of breeze and warm kiss of sunlight fills them with burbling joy and wonder. I’m not one of those people. In fact, I spend most of my waking hours not appreciating the striking absurdity of my conscious existence because my mind is occupied thinking about money, food, Khaleesi and all the petty injustices inflicted upon me by inconsiderate strangers. The sad truth is, I have to be reminded to appreciate my life. And Mother’s Day is a perfect opportunity for that. Without that individual, I would not hear the clicking of my fingertips on these keys, or see that cardinal beyond my window on the branch with one green bud, which will be greener still tomorrow. She is not the only factor that brought me to now—there are too many to count—but she is a damn important one, a living one, one that can actually receive and appreciate my thanks.

Right now, as I write this, I’m also grateful to my father, and all of my grandparents. But they’re dead. And it’s so much nicer to give flowers to a living person. The dead are impossibly rude.

About the writer

@peterkhirsch

Peter Hirsch is an editor and writer at The Mid. He was the head writer for the children’s television show Arthur and has won seven daytime Emmys and a Peabody Award.

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