This May will mark my first Mother’s Day as a parent. Of course, my 4-month-old won’t be marking the occasion by drawing me a picture or making me breakfast in bed. But even if she weren’t too young for those offerings, I still wouldn’t be celebrating. This is an action I believe the activist founder of the modern Mother’s Day celebration in the U.S., Anna Jarvis, would be proud of.
Anna Jarvis, who remained single and child-free her entire life, started a national campaign for the celebration of Mother’s Day in the early 20th century as a counter to other American holidays, which she saw as biased toward male achievements. President Woodrow Wilson, who was notoriously resistant to women’s suffrage, signed a measure officially establishing Mother’s Day in 1914, a full six years before women won the right to vote in the U.S.
Today’s highly commercialized Mother’s Day has come a long way from its activist roots. And as my child’s sole parent, I personally think it might be time to revisit the holiday's relevance — and demographic data tells me I’m not alone.
In fact, according to the Pew Research Center, in the United States of the early 21st century, less than half of children under 18 live with two heterosexual parents in their first marriage. Having celebrations focused on one parent don’t do justice to the reality of today’s family structures. Children today grow up in single parent/two-mom/two-dad/one mom/one step-mom/one dad/one stepdad/one mom/one grandma (you get the picture) families.
Holding separate celebrations for mothers and fathers not only leaves certain children out, it also reinforces inequitable parenting structures. Don’t know what I mean? Take a stroll through the Hallmark card aisles and notice the differences between Mother’s and Father’s Day cards: The cards for men tend to be about relaxation (fishing, barbecuing, etc.), whereas plenty of Mother's Day cards make allusions to Mom cooking, cleaning and basically doing all the work at home. And that's because in hetero partnerships, it's a well-documented fact that women do just that: the bulk of work at home, even when they also work outside the house. It's women who take on the huge mental burden of housework and parenting duties. We should be working to make the burdens (and joys!) of parenting more equal, not celebrating those imbalances.
Having separate holidays for moms and dads also marginalizes parents who don’t identify as "moms” or "dads,” but someone else altogether. For this reason, Johnny Blazes, a performing arts and social/emotional skills teacher, created Nonbinary Parents Day, which was celebrated on April 15 for the first time this year. Blazes told SheKnows they “picked the third Sunday of April because… we celebrate mothers and fathers in the spring in the U.S.," and they think, "nonbinary parents deserve to be included in the season: a season of birth and renewal of life.”
Along these lines, it would be even easier to have one Parent's Day or Caregiver's Day that covers everyone involved in raising children. And this brings me to the final reason Mother’s Day is worth revisiting: Mother’s Day (and Father’s Day) celebrations ignore the contributions of caregivers who are not parents. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, nannies, babysitters, day care workers and teachers all make our jobs as parents possible. It really does take a village. (Shoutout to my sitter, who is watching my kid as I type this.)
But, you ask, shouldn’t we continue to recognize women’s work, which, as the saying goes, is never done?
The answer is undoubtedly yes. But there are plenty more sustainable ways to recognize the hard work that parents do for their children and for society more broadly. For example, why not implement paid parental leave at the federal level? Did you know the U.S. is the only industrialized nation in the world that doesn’t offer new parents paid time off to care for new children? And while we’re at it, lets throw in affordable childcare options. Currently, in every state but one, a year of childcare is more expensive than a year at a state university.
And what about addressing the rise in the incarceration of women? According to the Vera Institute, the number of women in jail has skyrocketed over the last four decades. Black mothers are disproportionately affected: 44 percent of incarcerated women are Black, and 80 percent are mothers. Last year, the organization Southerners On New Ground sought to address this issue by organizing the national Black Mama’s Day Bail Out Action to get women out of jail for Mother’s Day. The action resulted in the bail out of over 100 Black mothers throughout the country and sparked a larger conversation about the cash bail system, a practice that discriminates against those in poverty and people of color.
But getting back to Anna Jarvis. After she succeeded in getting Mother’s Day recognized as a holiday, she then spent the next few decades trying to ensure it wasn’t co-opted for financial gain, which we now know was a losing battle. One awesome action she organized was the boycotting of florists who raised the price of flowers every May. I think Anna Jarvis would agree that as much as I love pancakes, significant parent-supportive policy changes are something most mothers would appreciate more than breakfast in bed this year.
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