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M’s Day

by Julia Sneden

The concept of a special day to honor mothers was first proposed by Julia Ward Howe (early feminist and author of The Battle Hymn of the Republic), and later by Anna Jarvis — who was never a mother, but revered her own — in 1907. A special day for mothers received official recognition in 1908.

There has been controversy about the day ever since. Jarvis herself objected to the way Mother’s Day was handled, once the greeting card companies got into the act.

Back in the ‘30’s, Philip Wylie, in a reaction to the often mawkish veneration of motherhood espoused by the Edwardians and late Victorians, vented his spleen in a book titled Generation of Vipers. His vitriolic attack doomed the word “Mom” to a brief loss of popularity.

Wylie ruffled a lot of feathers with his take on the subject of "Momism,” and reading him in today’s world gives pause and many count-to-ten moments despite his claims of loving women (just not those who didn’t meet his stated criteria). It’s awfully tempting to snarl “Who does this guy think he is?”

However, while his words were a strong over-reaction (talk about vipers!), they influenced many young couples and brought about some healthy discussions of parent/child relationships.

My parents, like many of what was then thought of as “the modern generation,” eschewed even the title “Mother” or "Father,” allowing (or perhaps even encouraging) us to call them by their first names. I think the theory behind that was that your children were in partnership with you, and that neither parent nor child should be treated to titles.

Thus my mother was “Mary” to my brother and me, which changed absolutely nothing in the relationship. “Maryeeee!” I wailed when I fell down and skinned my knee. “Mary,” we begged, “tell us another chapter of Solomon Salmon,” a running bedtime story spun straight from her creative mind. Being “Mary” did nothing to destroy her motherliness.

I doubt that our parents’ decision in this business of first names made either of my grandmothers very happy. But both of them lived with us, so they were well versed in tongue-biting non-interference. It’s what allowed the household to run smoothly.

It didn’t take long for me to drop the first-name practice. Once I was old enough to play with other children, I picked up their terms, and switched to “Mommy” and “Daddy” without making a conscious decision (and with no objections from them). My older brother, to this day less likely to be swayed by his peers, stuck to “Mary” and “Orrin” (our father) throughout their lives.

There is, of course, no single description of what makes a mother, no matter what you call her. God knows my own mother defied many of the traditional criteria, but to me (and to my brother) she was quite sufficient and then some. She gave us a rich childhood, sharing with us her devotion to music (sung, played, or heard); her sense of humor; her love of the outdoors; her quest to know and to share what she knew; her delight in good food; her love of words; her ability to fix what hurt. She was at one and the same time our leader and our playmate, always up for an adventure. And, at need, she was the calm voice of reason for the whole family.

I expect my own version of mothering has been influenced not just by her, but also by the two grandmothers who lived with us. They could not have been more different in their mothering styles. One was quite charismatic, but also determined to inculcate values and standards, both by lecture and example. The other nervously kept silence until absolutely forced to object to my occasionally outrageous behavior, her voice frantic with the stress of having to speak up. They were alike only in that they were both worriers; they both enjoyed us; and each one loved us with a fierceness all her own.

It occurs to me that enjoyment and worry and fierce love (in nearly equal measure) are what really make a mother. Nature has given most female mammals the ability to give birth. But far more relevant to the term “mother” is a woman’s total immersion in loving and worrying and delighting in a child. (There is, of course, no guarantee against going overboard and screwing up the relationship from sheer excess, but that’s another matter).

It has been said that motherhood is the only profession that, done correctly, self-destructs. That statement was probably first made by a man, who thinks of motherhood as something that involves finite stuff like diapering and making school lunches and bandaging wounded knees.

I have news for anyone who buys that idea. Motherhood never self-destructs. You can do the active years to perfection, and even let go with grace, but you never stop worrying or being delighted or loving fiercely. You just lose the ability to do much about it when your children are hurting. And that, my friends, is a stinker. It is, if you will, the dark side of being a mother.

When band aids and a kiss no longer suffice to help your child deal with life, we all reach for whatever once soothed — a hug, a song, a pot of halvah quickly stirred up, a swift joke or a shared family memory. That’s where the ferocity of love comes in. It’s the best we can do, and sometimes it’s soothing, or at least the beginnings of a healing force.

So, dear reader, here we are at Mother’s Day, 2008. Some of us are onto the next generation of delight/ferocity/worry (a grandmother being well-practiced in all of those).

My own take on Mother’s Day is that it’s pretty much a celebration pushed by the florists and makers of greeting cards, but these days I’m happy to receive a call from any of my sons, whatever the reason (well … perhaps not quite so happy when the news is dicey).

I find myself thinking back to the birth of my first child, that tiny, red-faced bundle of squall, and counting myself blessed three times over, lucky for sure, and … quite well worn, thank you.

Happy Mother’s Day.


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