My Own True Mother’s Day

The flowers come out and the prices go up. Balloons, cards, jewelry—gifts for every price point are hawked from every storefront. Even the slick, gender-neutral Apple stores are festooned with maternal slogans come May: “Get the world’s best mom the gift to match.”

But what if you don’t have the world’s best mom? What if you have a mom who couldn’t mother? Or no mom at all? Mother’s Day, and its attendant guilt-inducing advertising, used to twist me into rages. Beneath the fury was grief: I had left my mother’s house when I was 14 and never seen her again. But I couldn’t touch those feelings for a long time, so I focused on the corporate hijacking of these intimate, and often complicated, relationships.

Anna Jarvis, the founder of Mother’s Day about 100 years ago, was pretty mad, too. She invented the holiday in honor of her mother, who had created “Mother’s Day Work Clubs” to improve sanitary conditions and provide medical care and untainted milk for mothers and babies in several towns in West Virginia. In 1908, Anna inaugurated the second Sunday in May, with the intention of making it a national holiday. She drafted a statement of purpose for Mother’s Day, and the first three lines still give me pause. Mother’s Day, Jarvis said, was:

To revive the dormant filial love and gratitude we owe to those who gave us birth.  To be a home tie for the absent.  To obliterate family estrangement.

President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed Mother’s Day a national holiday in 1914, and Anna Jarvis spent most of the rest of her life and money fighting the commercialization of the day she had built. She organized boycotts, crashed a confectioner’s convention, attacked Eleanor Roosevelt for using Mother’s Day to raise charity money, threatened lawsuits and was arrested for disturbing the peace. She died penniless in a Philadelphia sanitarium.

I never got arrested for my aversion to the day; my hostility just became, as usual, a long boring battle with my own brain. But this year I did something different. I published a short book about my mother, Mother, Stranger. I wrote her into existence.

Three years ago my mother died, and suddenly I could see her again. Meaning I could write about her. Meaning I could find her through the tangled knot of memory—long blocked by pain and guilt. I could begin to understand her madness, the illness that had driven me to leave her house. As I wrote, I found others like me.

There are so many motherless daughters, or daughters with monsters or ghosts or simply broken bits as stand-ins for moms. For us, Mother’s Day is a reminder of the malfunction and the loss. And still. I think of Anna Jarvis and the way she wanted Mother’s Day to be about individual expression rather than store-bought gifts, about the way she wanted “to obliterate family estrangement,” which was endemic even then. And I’ve found that the answer to advertising’s “Best Mom In the World!” parade of imagery is a comeback with my own true story. This too, is a kind of home tie for the absent.

Photo of sculpture by Gustav Vigeland in Oslo by Flickr user Forest Runner under license from Creative Commons 2.0







Cris Beam is an author and professor living in New York City. Her latest book, Mother, Stranger, was published by The Atavist, and you can read it here: