A History of Mother’s Day
By: Brooke Taylor Duckworth
I found out I was pregnant with my first baby on Mother’s Day. We were in the middle of a home remodeling project and the house was a mess, but I remember showing those two pink lines to my husband and him sweeping me up in a big hug. It felt picture-perfect. It was Mother’s Day and I was a mom.
Then, a few weeks before her due date, I went into labor and arrived at the hospital only to be told that my baby had no heartbeat.
That first Mother’s Day after Eliza’s death was nearly unbearable.
The contrast between where I was and where I had imagined being a year after that positive pregnancy was gut-wrenching. I knew Mother’s Day was hard for a lot of people: People who have lost their moms. Dads raising kids on their own. People whose relationships with their moms is really difficult or complicated. Couples who are longing for a baby and grappling with the unfairness of infertility. Moms who have given up children for adoption. People who would love to adopt but have been limited by finances, age, marital status, or sexual orientation. And, of course, all bereaved moms, regardless of how many minutes or decades they have been missing their child. But knowing that my pain was shared still didn’t lessen my portion of it. It still felt like the whole world celebrating people who already enjoyed all the good fortune that I was missing. I was so jealous it made me sick.
At some point, I came across an article about the history of Mother’s Day. I had no idea that it emerged as a national holiday in the aftermath of the Civil War. Mother’s Day originally wasn’t about presents, flowers, or breakfast in bed. It was about grief, war, politics, and women’s suffrage. It was created as an outcry against the pain and horror of the Civil War, created by mothers who desperately wanted to ensure that another generation of sons wouldn’t be slaughtered on the battlefield.
It wasn’t a holiday for celebrating motherhood as much as it was recognizing the pain of having your family torn apart.
Here is an excerpt from Julia Ward Howe’s Mother’s Day Proclamation from 1870:
Arise, then, women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts,
Whether our baptism be of water or of tears!
As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war,
Let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of council.
Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace,
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
But of God.
In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask
That a general congress of women without limit of nationality
May be appointed and held someplace deemed most convenient
And at the earliest period consistent with its objects,
To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,
The amicable settlement of international questions,
The great and general interests of peace.
I love that this call goes out not just to mothers, not just to women who have raised or are actively parenting children, but to “all women who have hearts, / whether our baptism be of water or tears!”
I guess the nineteenth century knew all to well that motherhood can be a baptism of tears, that not everyone who has a baby gets to bring that baby home, that not every child lives to grow up.
Julia Ward Howe calls for an end to senseless violence, to needless death, an end to war, and an opportunity to meet with other women to make a plan for how to do this—but first, they will “bewail and commemorate the dead.” A grieving mother has to grieve. She’s talking about Civil War soldiers of course, but the purpose of the day is to make space for sorrow.
We need space for this because we are all part of the great human family and “in the name of womanhood and humanity,” we deserve a day dedicated to honoring what has been lost and ensuring a better future. In a world where so much is out of our control, women are called to come forward, to form their own council, to tell their stories, to leave their mark, to mourn their children.
This is more than a Hallmark holiday. It’s a day for mothers with great meaning for all of us—whether our children are living or dead.
Knowing this doesn’t mean I savor Mother’s Day. There is still a sting as I measure the thrilled, naïve young pregnant woman that I was against the complicated, messy joy I feel years later. But even if it doesn’t lessen the pain, it does help somehow to know that I’m not the only mother missing her child. This path has been walked by many before us—by some of the greatest women in history. Mother’s Day may look considerably different from the way Julia Ward Howe envisioned it but it can still be a day to honor and commemorate the first girl to make me a mom.
And so this Mother’s Day, I’ll hold close to my heart those mothers who are grieving, those who have been baptized in tears, those longing for a baby to hold in their arms, and all women who have hearts, broken or patched together as they might be.
Whether you celebrate the living, or bewail and commemorate the dead (or both), may this be a year be the start of better things to come, including “the great and general interests of peace,” especially the peace of mind that comes with knowing all of our children are loved and remembered.
This really makes me think of the reasons to be grateful, and the reasons for past tears. Our brokenness does get patched back together and from that we become some of the bravest and strongest mom’s.