Mother's Day, like motherhood itself, is fraught with peril. There are so many ways to get it wrong, so many opportunities to disappoint and be disappointed.
Those who bristle at all the gaudy consumerism often invoke such platitudes as "Every day should be Mother's Day." It's hard to argue with them, though of course by that logic, every day should also be Father's Day and Veterans Day, not to mention World Cancer Day, Rare Disease Day and International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation.
Yes, those are all formal commemorative days in somebody's book. And there are plenty more where they came from. On May 4, for instance, we had Star Wars Day, which celebrates the George Lucas franchise and uses as its slogan "May the fourth be with you." The entire month of May, for those who didn't get the memo, is International Masturbation Month, started in 1995 by a sex toy retailer.
If your calendar is too jammed for those observances, don't worry. Late summer brings International Bacon Day. This sacred occasion has attracted sponsors such as Hormel Foods and Ford Motor Co., which last year unveiled a Ford Fiesta painted to look like it was wrapped in bacon.
All this is to say that, as manufactured holidays go, Mother's Day isn't so bad. (It's also to say that if your mom doesn't walk outside on Sunday and discover a brand-new bacon-wrapped Ford in the driveway, you are the worst son or daughter ever.)
Still, the National Retail Federation tells us that Americans will spend $19.9 billion on Mother's Day this year, an average of $163 per person. And if numbers like that make you secretly hate Mother's Day, you're in good company. It so happens that no one hated Mother's Day more than the inventor of … Mother's Day.
Shortly after her mother died in 1908, a Philadelphian named Anna Jarvis began lobbying for an officially recognized day to honor mothers. She got her wish six years later, when Woodrow Wilson issued a presidential proclamation that the second Sunday of May would be Mother's Day in the United States.
Almost immediately, though, Jarvis' vision of "a day of sentiment, not profit" was co-opted by the greeting card, candy and floral industries. Jarvis was so appalled that she spent subsequent years — and nearly all of her inheritance — obsessively campaigning against anyone who celebrated Mother's Day with gifts.
"A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world," Jarvis fumed. "And candy! You take a box to mother — and then eat most of it yourself."
It's hard to know what tribute would have been acceptable to Jarvis. Her original concept involved handwritten letters, a nice idea that was probably no more realistic then than it is now. We do know, however, that her enterprise literally drove her mad. Having never married or had children, she lived with her sister, who eventually committed her to a sanitarium. She died there, almost destitute. It's rumored that a group of florists paid for her funeral.
As sad as that story is, it's also a rather perfect metaphor for the endless tug of war between children and their mothers. In Jarvis' quest to honor her mother, she spent years bolstering a cause that ultimately disappointed her so deeply that she spent even longer fighting against it.
And while most of us manage to control our mother-induced neuroses enough to stay out of sanitariums, it's safe to say Jarvis' conflicted feelings about Mother's Day mirror the conflicted feelings inherent in even the best relationships with mothers.
Our gratitude and desire to please are forever clashing with our need to separate, to define ourselves in opposition, even to reject. Our genuine feelings are forever competing with the culture's sentimental interpretations of those feelings. Our love, invariably, is too complicated for a holiday that demands such simple expressions of affection.
Still, maybe we should be grateful for those sappy greeting cards. They do what so many of us can never seem to do, which is to say something nice and just leave it at that. Because, yes, every day should be Mother's Day. But thank goodness it's not.Copyright © 2015, RedEye