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Mother’s Day Has Always Been Complicated, But The Pandemic Has Proven It’s Broken

For years now, I’ve dreaded Mother’s Day. Part of the reason is that the seemingly obligatory social media posts have always made me feel isolated. In part, this is because it had never been a holiday I celebrated much with my own mom; being from Russia, we celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8 instead, a holiday with roots in labor movements that has over the years turned into another flower-and-card show. But, since my mom passed away in April 2018 after battling with leukemia for a year, the second Sunday in May has turned downright painful.

As I prepare to have a child of my own this summer, and as we continue to navigate our way through a pandemic that has exacerbated so many of the inequities and indignities of being a mother in this country, it feels particularly hard to participate in the celebration of the holiday without a second thought. And yet, that seems to be exactly what people are doing: Despite the economic downturn and pandemic-related job losses, U.S. consumers are projected to spend a record $28.1 billion on flowers, jewelry, and cards for the holiday — an average of $220.48 per person — which is up $1.4 billion from 2020. The promotions folder of my Gmail is full of embarrassing subject lines like, “Who run the world? MOMS!” as seemingly every company jumps on the motherhood-praising bandwagon.

And yet, rather than make me want to buy things, these missives are just another reminder that our country values capital over humans. After all, so many of these companies “<3 LOVE MOMS <3” but don’t pay their employees fair wages to take care of their children, don’t give their employees adequate paid family leave, and are among those who have laid off thousands of moms in the middle of a pandemic.

It’s not only me who is dismayed by the holiday’s capitalist fervor; famously, the founder of Mother’s Day, Anna Jarvis, grew to despise its commercialization (and was arrested for disturbing the peace when boycotting it). Jarvis initially set out to honor her mother, Ann Jarvis, a peace activist who had unsuccessfully campaigned for the creation of a Mother’s Day in the U.S., with a memorial at a church in West Virginia in 1908. She was very intentional in calling her celebration “Mother’s Day” as a singular possessive: as in, honoring one mom and not all moms. However, after it officially became a national holiday in 1914, Hallmark started producing Mother’s Day cards and the holiday was quickly on its way to being commercially exploited.

Mother’s Day isn’t only broken because of crass commercialization, though. It’s more the fact that it’s also coupled in this country with a lack of support for working parents. Mother’s Day should look the way mothers want it to, but it will take great strides to get there. On a government level, this means supporting mothers, not grinding them down as has been done during the pandemic, when millions of women have dropped out of the labor force, many of them because they had to take care of their kids and there was no childcare available; 1.5 million mothers are still missing from the labor force, according to economists. Then, too, our maternal mortality rate is abysmal, and according to the CDC, Black mothers in the U.S. die at four times the rate of white mothers, one of the largest racial disparities in women’s health, and Black babies are twice as likely to die during infancy than their white counterparts. “Every day, Black women are subjected to harsh and racist treatment during pregnancy and childbirth,” Rep. Cori Bush testified in Congress this week, discussing the way she was mistreated by doctors when facing severe pregnancy complications with both of her children. “Every day, Black women die because the system denies our humanity.”

President Joe Biden’s $1.8 trillion American Families Plan — a huge federal investment in education, childcare, and paid family leave — would be a useful start to solving many disparities. After all, we are one of only a handful of countries in the world that doesn’t have a federally mandated parental leave, and rank near the bottom for spending on childcare and early-childhood education and highly for income inequality and childhood poverty rates.

“I wish I had the option of taking paid leave to care for my family,” Rachel Maurice, a member of COVID Survivors for Change who lives in Riverside County, California, tells Refinery29. Maurice resigned from her job to care for her now-16-year-old daughter, who contracted COVID and is still suffering from complications, her lungs severely damaged. She ended up losing the family’s health insurance. “I did what I had to do to keep my loved ones safe and I’m proud of that. But it shouldn’t have cost us our health insurance or financial stability. I love being a mom and have always loved a day dedicated to celebrating that. But this year, it’s hard to feel the joy of Mother’s Day without also feeling deeply angry at what mothers have been through over the past year. I’m urging my lawmakers to pass the American Families Plan and finally guarantee paid leave for all workers.”

But even the most comprehensive legislation can’t change pervasive values that affect the way mothers are often treated. For example, in heterosexual couples, women are still taking on the bulk of childcare and housework, even when they work full-time. So we have to do more than just pass bills, as life-changing as some of them could be. We have to hold companies accountable for treating mothers and pregnant people with equity and respect, starting with fair wages and adequate leave time on top of the paltry, unpaid amount offered by the government. It’s up to employers, too, to offer more flexible schedules, pay for childcare, and normalize workers not having to be in the office 9-to-5, even post-pandemic. And, it’s up to partners and the community to do more, too, to make sure mothers are equitably treated.

“I see Mother’s Day in the United States as a bit of an insult,” Caitlyn Collins, a professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis and author of Making Motherhood Work: How Women Manage Careers and Caregiving, tells Refinery29.

“The United States has the most family-hostile public policy of any wealthy Western country. We offer among the fewest supports to help caregivers and families — policies that are the norm elsewhere, like paid parental leave, high-quality and affordable childcare, affordable healthcare, living wages, fair work schedules, and a federal requirement that employers offer paid vacation and sick days. So patting moms on the back one day a year to thank them for keeping families afloat 365 days a year feels, let’s say, inadequate.” Collins’ research has found that American mothers “stand apart for their guilt and worry,” and that they feel the most acute work-family conflict. It shows: 58% of mothers, compared to 32% of fathers, have said the pandemic has harmed their mental health.

I see Mother’s Day in the United States as a bit of an insult. Patting moms on the back one day a year to thank them for keeping families afloat 365 days a year feels, let’s say, inadequate.

caitlyn collins, sociology professor and author of making motherhood work

Given all of this, it’s kind of no wonder the birth rate is at its lowest point in over a century.

Another way to reform Mother’s Day is for companies and government bodies to become more inclusive and acknowledging of all mothers’ experiences, including those of queer parents, who often have to fight for their right to be recognized as parents at all; undocumented and refugee parents; as well as people who struggle with fertility. “A fair and equitable Mother’s Day means recognizing the unique experiences of all women,” Jamie Weiss Yagoda, senior policy advisor at the International Rescue Committee, tells Refinery29. “This includes women refugees, both here in the U.S. and around the world. These mothers have faced conflict, displacement, and now COVID-19, and we must ensure they have access to the resources and services they need.”

And then, on an interpersonal level, we have to consider the specific emotional needs of mothers. “My main feeling about Mother’s Day is that all the fancy brunches and family get-togethers are a misinterpretation of what a mom would actually want or need, which is time alone to think about no one but herself,” Laura Norkin, 37, Deputy Editor at InStyle.com, who has a baby and a toddler, tells Refinery29. “While I love and appreciate the mothers who came before me, I would so appreciate a single day that felt, well, FOR me.”

At the very least, mothers need help — not only in the form of a bottomless mimosa brunch, but also via systemic change that uplifts the millions of women who keep this country running. Seeing progress toward this would certainly help me dread Mother’s Day a tiny bit less. What doesn’t help? Companies yelling at us: “Who run the world? MOMS!” We know they do — and they deserve a break.

Meanwhile, if you are looking for organizations to support, or if you are a mother and need support yourself, please check out:

Emotional support: National Parent Helpline; 855-427-2736

National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or TTY 1-800-787-3224

Legal advice: The National Women’s Law Center provides free consultations; 202-319-3053

Understanding your workplace rights: A Better Balance, a nonprofit legal advocacy group

Black maternal health and justice: Black Mamas Matter Alliance

Advocate for care workers: National Domestic Workers Alliance
Food assistance: Mutual Aid Hub

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