Mother’s Day: A Contrarian View

By Marjorie Ingall

Published May 09, 2003, issue of May 09, 2003.
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You’ve heard people express these sentiments before, so I’ll just spit it out: Like many constitutionally cranky people, I find Mother’s Day an irritating fake-o holiday suffused with a synthetic saccharin glow.

Express your appreciation of me every damn day of the year, and if you send me a card with glitter on it (and you are not 5 years old and the card was not made by you), I will grunt like a lemur and pitch it into the recycling. (Then again, it’s probably not even recyclable, what with all the glitter.)

According to my nemeses at Hallmark, Mother’s Day is the third-largest card-selling holiday in our fair country, with 136 million cards mailed in 2002. Hallmark credits the holiday to one Anna Jarvis, who during the early 1900s led a crusade to turn the anniversary of her own mother’s death, the second Sunday in May, into a national day to honor all mothers. (See, in our tradition we would have put a few pebbles on her headstone and called it a day. Pushy goyim.)

Other sources trace Mother’s Day to an ancient British holiday called Mothering Sunday, which is still a liturgical holiday on the Anglican calendar. On the fourth Sunday of Lent, children — mainly daughters — who had left home to work as domestic servants were given a diamond day off to visit their mothers and families. They’d return to their “mother church” for services honoring the Virgin Mary, and along the way they’d pick flowers to give to their own mothers.

Am I painting a picture here? Tease this holiday apart from its sentimental carnation-laden trappings and it’s one more Christian holiday masquerading as a secular celebration. Every card you send with a gooey poem on it, every gold-filled necklace you buy with a tacky diamond-chip-studded heart-shaped charm hanging off it like a skin tag, every overpriced two-mimosa brunch you drag me to is helping the goyim convert us.

Sue me, I exaggerate. (At least I didn’t use the phrase “If you buy your mother a Hummel figurine, the terrorists have already won.”) Whatever its origins, Mother’s Day in America is now a secular holiday, proclaimed as such by President Wilson in 1914. My real objection is that I resent the big bucks spent on prescribed gifting days. I loathe the equation of money and love. I am irked by the codified little pantomime in which you have to give me a gift, I have to act surprised, you have to tell me I can always return it, and I have to pretend I love it even if I would rather have

been given cash to buy Josie’s insanely expensive organic strawberries.

I’d rather get flowers and presents at random times, not when convention says it’s mandatory, because as we all know, I am just so punk-rock. And gifts don’t have to be expensive. I’m thrilled when someone compliments my vintage sundress, or gives me a book they think I’ll adore, or offers to baby-sit so Jonathan and I can have a romantic dinner without having to scoop a half-chewed crayon out of anyone’s mouth. The nicest gift I get regularly is the sweet e-mail from my brother-in-law every time this column comes out.

Okay, on Mother’s Day I fully expect Jonathan to let me sleep late while he takes Josie downstairs to water the purple asters in the garden and play with her trains. But you know what? He does that several times a week. (In classic geek fashion, his computer calendar self-updates with bright blocks of color indicating his commitment to those Tuesday, Friday and Saturday mornings.) If I may go all Jew-y for a moment, the formalization of this is what’s wonderful. Judaism stresses what you do, not what you think or feel. Unlike Christianity, Judaism doesn’t talk about sinning in your heart; it’s behavior that counts. Yes, intention is important, but actually stepping up to the plate is even more important. And to me, the little acts of consideration and kindness he actually commits to his calendar every week are what make him such a mentsh.

I’m also impressed by Jonathan’s behavior with his own parents. He has a temper, my sweet husband does, but he also treats his mother and father with respect (and gives them a mind-boggling amount of technical support). This is what you’re supposed to do — every day. Not just on Hallmark holidays. My own brilliant mom pointed out to me that the first four of the Ten Commandments are about people’s relationship to God, and the last five are about people’s relationship to each other. According to Nachmanides, the Fifth Commandment, “honor thy father and mother,” falls where it does because it’s a transition between those two categories. Parents are God’s partners in creation.

My own mom is my hero, my best girlfriend, my role model, my sounding board. I think she rocks — and I still resent that I’m supposed to send her flowers on May 11. But hey, the woman who started it all apparently also came to loathe the commercialization of the holiday. Hallmark fails to mention that Jarvis filed a lawsuit to stop a 1923 Mother’s Day festival and was arrested for disrupting a mothers’ convention, because she grew to hate the pushing of flowers and gifts. She said, “I wanted it to be a day of sentiment, not profit.” She died alone and childless in a sanitarium in 1948, having spent her last years trying to stop the juggernaut. Yikes.

That’s way too downbeat a note on which to end a column. I love my mom, I love being a mom, I love flowers, I even love mimosas. But I try to tell my mom I love her more than once a year, and I try to smell the flowers my husband planted in our garden every day. As for the mimosas, well, I raise my virtual glass to all the moms who do their juggling act every single day. L’chaim.

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