Dunn: Let’s celebrate Mothers’ Day


Linda Dunn

Yes, the apostrophe is in the correct place. We can credit the originator’s daughter, Anna Jarvis, and President Woodrow Wilson for moving the apostrophe and the focus.

Anna Jarvis, who is generally credited with establishing Mother’s Day, had envisioned this as a day of reverence for our individual mothers, apparently out of deep love for her own mother, Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis. Instead, we now have a commercialized holiday that feels far more like an obligation than a celebration for some of us and drives us further away from the objectives that Anna’s mother wanted to achieve when she formed “Mothers’ Day Work Clubs.” She put the apostrophe where she wanted the focus.

The story of how we arrived at our singular Mother’s Day celebration reminds me of a sign a former co-worker posted in his cubicle: “No good deed goes unpunished.”

Laugh if you like but humor works best when it carries at least a kernel of truth and this story is sadly true.

Ann Reeves Jarvis (Anna’s mother) was the daughter of a Methodist minister who married the son of a Baptist minister. Like most families of that era, they had a large brood of children — between 11 and 13 over 17 years.

Only four survived to adulthood.

Measles, typhoid fever, and diphtheria were common in the Appalachian communities in which they lived, and Ann (the mother) was inspired to become what we would call a “social activist” today.

Beginning about 1858 while pregnant with her sixth child, she began Mothers’ Day Work Clubs in multiple towns in an effort to improve health and sanitary conditions. They raised funds and used these to buy medicine and hire women to assist mothers who were ill. They had milk inspection programs at a time when the government did not provide these services, and they literally went door to door to educate others about improving sanitation conditions and their own health.

They were what many of us today would call “busybodies” who were failing to “stay in their lane.”

During the Civil War, Ann Jarvis urged the clubs to be neutral and provide aid to both Confederate and Union soldiers. After the war, she and fellow club members organized a “Mothers Friendship Day” to bring both sides back together again at their county courthouse for a day of reconciliation.

And it worked. Mostly.

Ann taught Sunday School and was a superintendent of the Primary Sunday School Department for 25 years. She was also a popular speaker who gave lectures about religion, health and literature. During a Sunday School lesson in 1876, Ann prayed for someone to start a day to memorialize and honor mothers and this, unfortunately, is where Anna (the daughter) thought she was picking up her mother’s mantle but instead shifted the apostrophe (and the focus) before the “s.”

Her efforts were narrowly focused upon a reverent honoring of one’s own mother rather than recognizing all of our moms and taking steps to better empower them to care for their children.

Most of us know what came after that. Ann’s daughter, Anna Jarvis, successfully persuaded first a governor and then President Woodrow Wilson to declare the second Sunday in May (the anniversary of her mother’s death) to be an official holiday.

And it quickly spiraled off in ways that she abhorred.

By 1922, Anna was urging boycotts of florists who raised the price of white carnations every May. She later crashed a Philadelphia convention of the American War Mothers and was arrested for “disorderly conduct.” She even railed against first lady Eleanor Roosevelt for “crafty plotting” because Roosevelt used Mother’s Day to fundraise for charities that were attempting to combat high maternal and infant mortality rates.

Ironically, Eleanor Roosevelt was fundraising for the very causes to which Anne Reeves Jarvis had devoted her life’s work.

Anna (the daughter) died in the 1940s, alone and penniless from the many legal battles she’d waged against the holiday she’d launched but could not control.

How different would our country be today if instead of (or in addition to) “Mother’s Day”, we celebrated “Mothers’ Day” by focusing upon the needs of all mothers — and worked toward providing access to the resources they require to best provide for their children, biological or otherwise, so they can achieve all that we dream about and want for our next generation of citizens?

What would our country be like if we all had access to excellent maternal health care and all the resources our country has to offer from the moment of birth/adoption/fostering through adulthood?

They say a country is best measured not by the successes of the best their country has to offer, but by how we provide for the least of us. By this standard, our country is failing our next generation.

But we can fix this.

Let’s take some time, both before and after our individual “Mother’s Day” celebrations, to reflect upon what a “Mothers’ Day” should look like and how we might take up Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis’ mantle and carry it forward to improve the lives of all American mothers and thus the lives of our present and future citizens.

Let’s answer Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis’ prayer.

A lifelong resident of Hancock County, Linda Dunn is an author and retired Department of Defense employee.