IT certainly came as news to me that the woman who invented Mother’s Day spent the latter part of her life trying to call the whole thing off — what a pity she never succeeded.
But come to think of it, with a bit of collective effort, it could happen yet. There are still seven full days to Mothering Sunday — that’s plenty of time to cancel the restaurant, the flowers, the ‘whatever else’ you had planned.
There’ll be accusations of hard-heartedness, of course, and a baying mob on Twitter, but let them come because mothers everywhere deserve an awful lot more than a floral tribute and breakfast in bed on the first Sunday in March.
The women who started it all certainly thought so. American activist Anna Jarvis campaigned relentlessly for a day to celebrate mothers after her own mother Ann, a Sunday-school teacher who cared for soldiers during the American Civil War, died in 1905.
She wanted to commemorate her mother’s good deeds — indeed, those of mothers everywhere — and tirelessly lobbied the American government to institute an official holiday. In 1914, Congress agreed. Then Jarvis began to think global and spent her time writing to foreign heads of state hoping to establish Mother’s Day abroad too.
Her success was considerable, but shortlived. It wasn’t long before she disowned the very holiday she had worked so hard to introduce.
As early as 1920, she railed against the commercialism of it all. In one particularly vituperative press release, she called florists and card manufacturers “charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, kidnappers and termites that would undermine with their greed one of the finest, noblest and truest movements and celebrations”.
Wow. What a pity she isn’t around today to champion mothers, though if there’s one thing we don’t need, it’s a tirade against the money-spinning side of Mother’s Day. That’s completely old hat. If you ask me, we should be buying our mothers flowers and treating them to lunch/dinner/Champagne breakfasts as often as is humanly possible.
The problem with Mother’s Day is not that it exists, but that it is just one day. How convenient that is: it means we can shoehorn our appreciation into a single fancy Sunday lunch, then forget all about mothers for the rest of the year.
Now more than ever, we need to talk about motherhood. A whole range of new opportunities have opened up for Irish mothers since the lifting of the medieval marriage ban in 1973, but with them have come an equal number of crippling challenges.
The first is the high cost and poor availability of good-quality childcare. That has emerged as one of the major issues in this general election. And although childcare concerns both parents, women seem to feel more responsible for ensuring it’s in place and stepping into the breach when it’s not.
I’d love to see a detailed survey on the guilt that working mothers feel, too. That one little weasel word crops up more often than any other in conversations among women who juggle work and home life.
Even that phrase itself is suspect. You don’t ever read about men juggling work and home life; though, to be fair to them, that doesn’t mean they’re not under pressure. It’s not really helpful to reduce the conversation about childcare and the workplace into a seesawing battle between mothers and fathers, so let’s agree to focus on mum for now.
If society could do one thing of enormous benefit to mothers, it would be to free them of the ugly corrosiveness of guilt.
And don’t think that we don’t all play a role in laying it on with a trowel. Look at the way mothers are portrayed in the media: they are either huge-hearted mother-earth types or evil stepmothers. Nuance, of course, is out of fashion. You can’t really say that motherhood is hard as hell and relentless and rewarding and infuriating and surprising and disappointing and amazing and thrilling (add your own adjectives) because that’s far too complicated.
But surely we can do better than a recent story in a Dublin freesheet that ran a headline, “Is this acceptable parenting?” over two pictures purportedly showing children that were left unattended in two separate cars?
Whatever you think about that, drumming up something of a witch hunt for so-called irresponsible parents isn’t going to help anyone.
It’s very easy to use your smartphone to point the finger of blame, but it would be much more useful to use technology to build a network that supports mothers.
And heaven knows, they need support. All the studies say the same thing. Mothers are more likely than fathers to be called home if there’s a child emergency. They are more likely to seek out flexible working hours which, in turn, means they have less security of tenure, more precarious pay, a weakened bargaining position and lower pensions.
When mothers are home, they do more housework than their husbands. A recent study by researchers at the University of Michigan found that, on average, mum does seven hours more housework than dad per week.
Of course, that is true of women without children too. Like lower pay, it’s an injustice all women endure, so let’s leave that argument for another day.
That still leaves us plenty of evidence that there is a ‘motherhood penalty’ in Ireland, though, at least we’re far from being alone in that.
Often the spurious nature of the so-called debate just fans the flames. For instance, we need to stop pitting working mothers against those who stay at home. It misses the point entirely as, in most cases, choice doesn’t even come into it.
Three in four stay-at-home mothers said the cost of childcare stopped them looking for work, while those at work said they needed the monthly wage.
So where does that leave us this Mother’s Day — assuming, of course, it’s not cancelled? Well, go on then, make a fuss of mum, just don’t stop when the sun goes down on March 6.