Down With Mother's Day

Mothers' Day
Christopher Paquette/Flickr

This article was originally published in the May 14, 1990, issue of Newsweek, as a "My Turn" essay.

Mother's Day has got to go. Perhaps you oughtn't publish this the week of Mother's Day. Perhaps the week after, so people will have gotten the sentimentality out of their systems and have 340-plus days of reality in which to contemplate the truth of its message.

This treacly, anachronistic celebration was proposed by Anna M. Jarvis to commemorate her mother's death in May 1905. It became an officially recognized American occasion by congressional resolution, proclaimed by President Woodrow Wilson in 1914.


Because in 1914 there was no widespread birth control and no legal abortion; no baby food, no formula, no disposable diapers, no washing machine, no dishwashers, no frozen foods, no takeout foods, no microwaves, blenders or food processors, no pizzas, no workout tapes, no family cars and no midwinter flights to the Caribbean. The average mother washed, rinsed, wrung and ironed, shopped, chopped, cooked and baked, shoveled, cleaned, scoured and scrubbed in her winter-cold, summer-hot home to enable the head of her household and their offspring to look presentable at work and at school, respectively. How Mother felt or looked didn't matter. Where did she go, anyway, except to church once a week (and everybody knows she had one good dress for that)? And in 1914 the earning power of mothers was nil. Who wouldn't give such pathetic creatures candy or flowers once a year?

By Mother's Day's "anagram" year, 1941, with the celebration a regular and reliable event, mothers had changed. They had a new sense of their worth, but still lacked economic and political power. The puniest and most impoverished of all human creatures, the baby, demanded and received more care and attention than the average mother. By then, however, to compensate for self-denial, exploitation and dependency, American mothers, though still ostensibly submissive, had evolved a method of controlling their husbands and children. They promulgated the canon that motherhood is "sacred," and developed insidious and artful techniques to support the new theology that became known as momism. According to writer Philip Wylie, who exposed the whole shoddy business, momism depended on threats, seduction, deception and bribery to succeed. And succeed it did. For generations, "megaloid momworship," in Wylie's words, enabled America's women to dominate its most powerful men.

Alas, Wylie-moms are still with us. Female life expectancy has increased with the decades, and motherhood has been parlayed into a highly cost-efficient profession. Don't laugh. Though mothering's early rewards may not equal those of good left-handed pitching, it guarantees a longer career.

For an investment of seven, eight, maybe 10 years of mothering, plus a nine-month carrying charge, sons and daughters are not only expected to provide mothers with yearly tributes of cards, candy, flowers, scarves, pins, theater tickets and turkey dinners on Mother's Day and birthdays, anniversaries and sundry other occasions. The children find themselves in indentured servitude for the rest of dear old Mom's life. This peonage, which often lasts 60 or 70 years, may include shopping trips, checkbook balancing, visits to doctors, phone calls in the middle of the night, searches for lost keys, to say nothing of listening to constant reports about how other people's children send them to Florida.

Women's Movement

It is time to end this bondage. However much these paragons sob and sigh, however real some of their problems may be, they are no longer the powerless pathetic creatures of yore. There has, after all, been a women's movement and vast changes in what is expected of mothers and how they live. The home-based mother in a two-parent family has a range of gadgets and services that, for the first time in history, includes a father who can boil water and deal with diapers. She has time to go shopping with her own mother, go bowling, study Greek or indulge other personal fancies.

The single working mother does not need programmed adulation. She knows exactly what she's doing and why. If she's giving her children an allowance out of a borderline income, she doesn't want it wasted on five-and-dime trinkets.

The working mother with a working husband and a higher standard of living doesn't have to wait for the second Sunday in May for her reward either. She can buy herself precisely what she wants, when she wants it.

As for the woman (currently invisible to polite society) who heaps AIDS, addictions, physical and sexual abuse on her children, there's the fact that sometimes, birthing is not the same as mothering.

Wake up, America! Mother's Day's time has come and gone. It served its purpose. It recognized the importance of mothers in the male-dominated family, when there was such a thing as the male-dominated family. Along with apple pie and the Brooklyn Dodgers, motherhood formed the sacred trinity, belief in which sustained us through World War II.

But apple pie has been replaced by yogurt, the Dodgers are long gone to Los Angeles and motherhood has finally been demystified. The truth is America's mothers don't need yearly handouts or propitiatory offerings. Their relationships to their husbands, to their sons and daughters are more open, more honest and more direct. And that's the way it should be.

Besides, American free enterprise being what it is, Mother's Day has gotten too commercial. I say let's get rid of it. Let's export it, along with rock music, farm machinery and bank loans, to Eastern Europe, where budding young capitalists and their overworked mothers will enjoy it. For a while.

Estelle Gilson, a daughter, mother and grandmother, is a freelance writer.