Rethinking Mother’s Day

For all the mothers who will be celebrating on Sunday, I see you. I appreciate you. I applaud you. You deserve recognition.     

And, I know that you’re more than a mom. You’re an amazing, incredible person. For that, you deserve for recognition. For surviving and thriving in a world where you are continually seen as less than men, paid less than men, promoted less than men, protected less than men, quantified as less than men, harassed, abused, belittled, and projected upon with the needs, desires, and insecurities of men, well, you deserve recognition for that too.

Mother’s Day is a celebration of ALL women, regardless of whether or not someone calls you mom.

You’re not sure of that? You think today is just for women who birthed babies and raised kids? Let’s take a look.

The first celebrations of mothers go way back. Way, way, back.

Ancient Egyptians celebrated Isis, the ideal mother and wife. When her husband Osiris was murdered and hacked into pieces (gruesome, yes), she gathered all the pieces that had been scattered and put them back together. Except one crucial piece was missing, so she fashioned it out of wax. And then, for one brief moment, her husband came back to life, they coupled, and she became pregnant. (I don’t really need to explain the symbolism here, do I? How the vitalizing force—the missing part—of Osiris only comes alive with the manual attention of Isis? You caught that, yes?)

It’s hard to deny that Isis was a dedicated wife, an extremely clever female, and possessive of magical powers. This unusual coupling produced a son whom she cunningly managed to get on the throne, making him the king of the gods. Isis went the extra mile for both her husband and her child. In a greater sense, she did this all for humanity. For without her efforts, humankind would not exist. It’s no wonder that she is worshiped as Queen of Heaven, the Great Mother of all. She is one of the greatest deities in the ancient Egyptian religion. While there may have been a festival at the end of each year that celebrated Isis, far more important is how she was worshiped daily.

Isis

Similarly, the ancient Greeks celebrated Rhea as the goddess of motherhood and fertility. It’s interesting that they didn’t worship Gaia the same way since Gaia was the first mother, Mother Earth, and therefore Rhea’s mother. But Gaia does have an important role to play as Grandmother, and we’ll get to that in a second.

It is said that Rhea loved her children unconditionally, as her mother Gaia did. Which, let’s be honest, is what we expect of mothers. But Rhea didn’t really have any time to spend with her children because her husband, Cronus, would swallow each child as soon as they were born. Cronos was afraid one of his kids might become more powerful than he and would usurp his position (as he had with his father), so he determined it was best to be rid of them straight away.  

But Rhea, with the help of her mother Gaia, tricked Cronos and when her last child, Zeus, was born, she gave him a large stone in swaddling to swallow instead. I think you’d have to be pretty dim-witted to mistake a stone for a baby, but that’s how these myths go. Anyway, Grandmother Gaia smuggled Zeus away and, with the help of some nymphs and giants, she kept him safe. When Zeus was fully grown, he disguised himself as a cupbearer and brought Cronos a drink that made him vomit up the other children, who each came flapping out like fish on a deck, fully grown.

So this is how Rhea came to be celebrated as the goddess of fertility and motherhood. Her children were the first Olympians, with Zeus as the king. Naturally, they wouldn’t elevate the mother of the Titans who had been defeated. Instead, they revered the gods and goddesses of Mt. Olympus, and Rhea was honored as the mother of these gods.

Rhea

In Roman times, Cybele was celebrated as the Magna Mater– the Great Goddess. Cybele was a healer and protector and was responsible for every aspect of life from birth to death. She was the “resurrector” and a festival was held in her honor each spring. (The myth around her “resurrection” power, like Isis, has to do with a man and that’s all I’ll say about that.)

It’s worth noting, that Isis, Rhea, and Cybele were more than mothers. They were clever. They were industrious. They were creative. Their efforts benefitted not themselves alone or their husbands but all of creation.


Mother’s Day, as celebrated in the United States, was concocted by Anna Jarvis in 1908. Ms. Jarvis grew up in a blatantly patriarchal culture that refused to recognize the value of women. But she experienced first-hand how powerful women could be.

Ms. Jarvis’ mother, Anna Reeves Jarvis, gave birth to thirteen children, of which only four survived to adulthood. She was the wife of a minister, a community organizer, and an activist. Anna Reeves Jarvis first conceived of Mother’s Day as clubs that educated women on how to properly care for their children. She then fashioned these clubs to become the force behind Mothers’ Friendship Day, a peace movement that sought to heal the divisions in our country after the Civil War.

Around the same time, Julia Ward Howe, an abolitionist and suffragette, wrote the “Mother’s Day Proclamation” which called on all mothers to promote world peace. Meanwhile, Juliet Calhoun Blakely organized a Mother’s Day in Michigan, seemingly to encourage mothers to support the temperance movement.

This was an era of tremendous social change and Anna Jarvis saw women all around her making significant contributions that reached beyond their families.

So on the first anniversary of her mother’s death, Ms. Jarvis, who never married and never had children of her own, organized the first Mother’s Day. The intention was to recognize the sacrifices her mother had made, as well as the sacrifices made by so many other women who worked to create a better world.

Her idea was simple: Honor women with their own national holiday (since all holidays were then, and still are,* in celebration of men). People were to spend the day with their mothers, attend church services, and wear a white carnation (or red carnation if their mother was deceased).

Anna Reeves Jarvis and her daughter, Anna Jarvis

But when the holiday quickly became commercialized, Anna Jarvis was incensed. She spoke out against candy companies and florists who hawked sales. She even funded several lawsuits against organizations that used the name “Mother’s Day.” Remember, all companies were owned by men. So the folks commercializing the holiday were men. Men who were trying to make a profit, once more, on the backs of women. No wonder Ms. Jarvis was outraged. These same men were refusing women the right to vote. By commercializing Mother’s Day, they were missing the point and attempting to keep women in very narrow roles. The day wasn’t a saccharine nod to women who nursed children, cooked meals, and kept house.  Mother’s Day was intended as a recognition of how much women do and how much they sacrifice – all for the benefit of others.

Until recently, most women could not escape having children. Women have always been viewed as property, defined according to their relationship to men. Women had to marry, except in very unusual circumstances when they had their own wealth or when they were expected to take care of their aging parents. Marriage naturally resulted in children, regardless of whether this was the woman’s wish. Only in the 20th Century did this begin to change. Yet still today we are struggling against a culturally indentured view of women: women as baby-makers and house keepers.

We’ve forgotten what ancient civilizations knew and what Anne Jarvis intended as the purpose of this day. Women are powerful. Women are magical. Women are smart and industrious, persistent and determined. Women sacrifice, women fight, women bleed, women create, and the world could not exist without them.

The real women who worked for NASA: Mary Jackson, Katherine G. Johnson, and Dorothy Vaughn

What if Katherine Johnson had never pursued math and successfully calculated the trajectory for the first moon landing?  If Eleanor Roosevelt hadn’t championed human rights? If Golda Meir hadn’t been the Prime Minister of Israel or Angela Merkel the chancellor of Germany?

What if Yvonne Brill had not invented the propulsion system that keeps communication satellites from falling out of orbit? If Ada Lovelace had not written the first computer program?

If Harriet Williams Russell Strong had never invented the modern dam and designed water irrigation systems? Or if Patricia Bath had not invented the tool and procedure for removing cataracts?

What if the Bronte sisters, Mary Shelly, Virginia Woolf, Mary Oliver, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker and so, so, SO MANY other women hadn’t written their stories and poems?

Aw heck, what if Ruth Graves Wakefield hadn’t invented the original Toll House chocolate chip cookie and Caresse Crosby hadn’t invented the bra? The point is, the list goes on and on. Women have made huge contributions to society, and continue to each day.

All of these women sacrificed things in order to make the world a better place. Women today still sacrifice for the sake of others. We sacrifice our dignity, our safety, our self-care, our time. We sacrifice financial security, we sacrifice our dreams. Women are the number one caregivers of the elderly and sick. Women constitute 75% of all teachers. Women are the dominant force of child care both in and outside the home.

Mother’s Day is a recognition of women. All women. Clever women. Hard-working women. Creative women. Loving women. Women, who just by virtue of their sex, are powerful and magical creatures. Mother’s Day is a celebration of all the ways in which women sacrifice themselves for creation.

So, to every woman out there, Happy Mother’s Day! I see you, I appreciate you, I applaud you. You are a magical, wonderful, loving, creative creature and today we celebrate YOU.

An amazing group of women at Parliament of World Religions in Toronto, 2018, after a water ceremony

Post Script: This was a long read, so I understand if you’re done. But I want to share a few personal examples for this day.

  • My mom had her first child in 1959, when she was twenty-five years old, and her second child three years later. I’m not sure my mother really wanted to have kids, which is, in part, why she waited. Then her husband left her when the second child was born. After she married her second husband, I was born, either by accident or by divine intervention. My mother sacrificed a lot for us three kids and was proud of each of us. And – I think what my mom wanted most was to be known for was her intelligence, her talent, and her accomplishments. She had a Mensa IQ and was an accomplished organist and poet. She was an author, not only of two books that sold well but also of a Sunday School series that became standard in the Missouri Lutheran Church. She could be extraordinarily compassionate and I know of many who found her love, wisdom, and words to have a profound impact on their lives. In this way, just as much as her relationship with me and my siblings, she was a wonderful mother. On Mother’s Day and every day, I hold her in my heart.
  • My friend Karen-Lee has been a volunteer reading tutor for two years with Reading Partners. This year, just like last, her third-grade student became very attached to her. Since all tutoring has been online, she went out of her way to meet him in person twice. Both times, he wanted a hug. He wanted to stay in touch and wanted her as his tutor again next year. She made an impact. A real impact beyond helping him read. Does it matter that she, herself, has three children or none? No. What matters is that she gave of her time and her energy and her talent to help a child. Every child is our future. When we help children, we help the world. This Sunday, I’m celebrating Karen-Lee.
  • My stepmom, Judy, worked for HUD (Housing and Urban Development) for most of her career, along with serving as a liturgist and choir member at church. After retiring, she worked for Lutheran Child and Family Services. Was she on the front lines? No. But her work was incredibly important. Did she help raise me? No, not really. But her presence made a difference in my life in so many wonderful ways. She has loved, embraced, and encouraged me for four decades. She is a source of delight and I am grateful for her and to her. On Sunday and every day, I celebrate Judy.

There are many ways to be a mom and many ways to mother.

My stepmom, Judy, and I over the years


Yes, we now also have International Women’s Day on March 8. But this is not a nationally recognized holiday in the United States. President’s Day is a public holiday (which honors specifically two dead men) as is Columbus Day (which thankfully is slowly becoming Indigenous Peoples Day). Memorial Day and Veterans Day are also public holidays that were originally designed in celebration of men. Hey, I’m not knocking any of these holidays, I’m just saying that even if International Women’s Day did become a national holiday, having two celebrations of the female sex is not exactly going overboard.


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