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A true history of Mother's Day



This year we’ll be celebrating a different kind of Mother’s Day: there won’t be any fancy champaigne brunches with all the restaurants closed. Some of us in this COVID-19 crisis won’t even be able to visit our mothers. And many of us are out of work, too skint to buy flowers.

Mother and baby (Zach Lucero/Unsplash)

My own mother doesn’t mind. When I was growing up she claimed this calendar day had been invented by Hallmark to sell more cards and she refused to celebrate.

The true origins are more intriguing. Mother’s Day was started by Anna Jarvis in 1908 to honour her own dead mother, who’d looked after injured soldiers on both sides of the American Civil War. Jarvis successfully petitioned President Wilson to make Mother’s Day official on the U.S. calendar in 1914, on the eve of another crisis: the Great War. Other countries soon followed suit.

Jarvis believed the day should be spent in church and wanted children to write letters of gratitude to their mothers.

By the 1920s, however, Mother’s Day in the U.S. had become less spiritual and more commercial. Flower, candy and card companies cashed in on the day.

Jarvis was appalled. ‘A printed card,’ she said, ‘means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world. And candy! You take a box to Mother — and then eat most of it yourself!’


'Mother’s Day seems a sort of penance, a day to lavish gifts on the mothers in our lives in order to make up for every other day of the year when women do twice the house work as men, while managing the family and holding down a job for less money than her male counterpart.'


And so the woman who started Mother’s Day petitioned to rescind Mother’s day. But it was too late. The flower and card companies were making a mint.

Jarvis was arrested for disturbing the peace while protesting the sale of carnations and by the early 1940s, she was placed in a sanatorium, which was paid for, in part, by people in the flower and card industry. They also paid for her funeral. She died impoverished and alone in November 1948 and was buried next to her mother.

Meanwhile Mother’s Day continued to grow both in the US and around the world.

Ever since I moved to Australia in 2005, I’ve been shocked by the degree in which Mother’s Day is celebrated. This time last year I was in work, trying to concentrate on marking while my colleague at the next computer phoned restaurant after restaurant, desperately trying to book a table for his mother for breakfast, lunch, brunch, anything on Sunday. He sweated as he tapped his phone. ‘I’m running out of cafes,’ he said. ‘Everything’s booked.’

This year everything’s closed. And perhaps this gives us pause.

I’ve often wondered why Mother’s Day has become such an insanely massive holiday — last year Australians spent over $700 million on mothers in May — while women remain unequal.

Although women in Australia now make up more than half of university students, they are still behind when it comes to pay and positions of power. According to the Australian Workplace Gender Equality Agency, women now are ‘highly educated but missing from leadership roles’.

And if we look at the most extreme end of sexism, there is the tragic statistic that one woman a week — many of them mums — is murdered by her partner.

Mother’s Day seems a sort of penance, a day to lavish gifts on the mothers in our lives in order to make up for every other day of the year when women do twice the house work as men, while managing the family and holding down a job for less money than her male counterpart.

And yet, unlike Jarvis, I don’t think we should abolish Mother’s Day.

Of all the things I’ve done in my 45 years — published stories, gotten a PhD, taught over two thousand students — mothering has been the most meaningful. This Mother’s Day, I’ve asked my kids not to buy anything, which is easy because they haven’t been to a shop in weeks. Instead, we’ll walk up Mount Coot-tha in Brisbane and have a picnic at the top. Not everyone’s cup of tea, I know, but I hope this Sunday mums across Australia will — on Zoom or FaceTime or if lucky, in person — be with the ones who’ve made them who they are: a mum.

We don’t need another box of chocolates. We just need to be treated equally and with respect, every day of the year.



Sarah KlenbortSarah Klenbort is a writer and sesional academic at Queensland University, where she teaches creative writing. She also teaches memoir at the Queensland Writers Centre. Sarah's work has appeared in Eureka Street, The Guardian, Best Australian Stories, Overland and other publications here and overseas.

Main image: Mother and baby (Zach Lucero/Unsplash)

Topic tags: Sarah Klenbort, Mother's Day, COVID-19



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Existing comments

A wonderful, informative and insightful article connecting Mothers Day with women's issues.

Kevin | 08 May 2020  

Amen to that Sarah!

Patricia Taylor | 08 May 2020  

I once chanced upon this wiki: “The tradition of gift giving to mothers on Mother's Day in Australia was started by Mrs Janet Heyden, a resident of Leichhardt Sydney, in 1924. She began the tradition during a visit to a patient at the Newington State Home for Women, where she met many lonely and forgotten mothers. To cheer them up, she rounded up support from local school children and businesses to donate and bring gifts to the women. Every year thereafter, more support was raised by Janet with local businesses and even the local Mayor. The day has since become commercialised as it is to this day.” This is the solitary entry for Mother’s Day in Australia and another example of the internet’s lack of comprehensive information. Yet the arrival of Janet Heyden in my life was a confounding surprise. Plainly she is visiting women who have been separated from their families, who have lost sons in the War, are suffering withdrawal, who may possibly be developing Alzheimer’s. Mrs Heyden is raising awareness of these women in the local neighbourhood, in fact is showing what a neighbour can do. I thought of the biblical injunction: “Look after widows and orphans in their distress.” It seems the origin of Mother’s Day in Australia is based on actions of selfless compassion. It also has absolutely nothing to do with giving things to your own mother. A link took me to this cutting from the Sydney Morning Herald, Monday 2nd May 1927: “Next Sunday will be Mothers Day and Mrs J. Heyden of Leichhardt is making her fourth annual appeal for Newington Asylum. Gifts of red socks, handkerchiefs, scarves, mittens, scented soap, fancy aprons, cakes, sweets, etc. are asked for, and may be left at the Feminist Club, or at the florist’s shop, 5 Norton Street Leichhardt.” Mrs Heyden does not appear in the Australian Dictionary of Biography and with this scarcity of information we are unlikely to learn much more. This connects with the first cause and only purpose of Mother’s Day in the United States was also the relief of victims of war.

Philip Harvey | 08 May 2020  

Is there anything in this world conceived in virtue that has not been exploited by the American lust for money?

john frawley | 08 May 2020  

Thank you Sarah for that very interesting piece of history about mother's day and the commercial practice it is today.

Tom Kingston | 08 May 2020  

Great article. So sad that she ended in a sanatorium. And yes - some days Mother's Day feels like "Indentured Servants Day" _ still the only job unpaid - carer/nurturer not only of children but of elderly parents, and extended family. One day, chocolates and a pari of slippers isn't equal to being paid and valued every day! Thanks Sarah :) x

Edwina Shaw | 08 May 2020  

Less commercial is Mothering Sunday, which long predates the commercial Mother's Day, and is still celebrated in the UK, particularly in the Anglican Church. It falls on Laetare Sunday, mid-Lent, and we learned that it was the day on which serving girls were allowed home to visit their mums - no hope of getting away at Easter when the big houses were full of guests. There is also a story about a Simnel cake made by Simon and Nell - probably best to Google all this, where you can find out how the two days arose completely separately but their revival influenced each other.

Mary Hazelton | 08 May 2020  

Thank you for this timely article. It exactly echoes the thoughts of my own mother, who died 40 years ago on Mother’s Day. I have continued the tradition with my own children and we love each other dearly.

Sheila | 09 May 2020  

It is the most difficult 'job' ever and the hours (24/7) are long. The home-made cards when the kids were young featured prominently, and lovingly, on the fridge.

Pam | 09 May 2020  

Mary Hazelton rightly reminds us of Mothering Sunday. It has not only been celebrated in the UK. Growing up in Sydney in the Church of England, I remember Mothering Sunday on the 4th Sunday in Lent quite widely observed, with simnel cake blessed and distributed in church, and in some churches posies of flowers given to mothers. There was even a society dedicated to encouraging the celebration, Father Woodger I remember as its promoter in a still quite Anglican Sydney Diocese. And in some churches it is celebrated still as it certainly was in the parish of which I was rector. In England in the secular world, Mothering Sunday on Lent 4 has increasingly become known as Mothers' Day which I think it a pity but at least there is still there a little link to the Church's calendar. (The name I think originated from the fact that on the 4th Sunday in Lent, the Epistle in the Book of Common Prayer speaks of Jerusalem above, "the mother of us all".

John Bunyan | 09 May 2020  

p.s. "Simnel" means fine flour. In some parts of England simnel cake is associated not with Mothering Sunday but with Easter Day. The recipes vary but ours always included marzipan.

John Bunyan | 09 May 2020  

John In my part of the world (Yorkshire) the Bury Simnel and the Simnel cake were 'clean different' things. The former (the mid Lent Mothering Sunday version) was a relatively plain individual cake with fruit and spice,The full blown Simnel cake (which I replicated this year in isolation here in Australia, as did my sister back in the UK) was a relatively rich fruit cake lavishly trimmed with lightly 'toasted' marzipan and marzipan eggs Real purists even bake a layer of marzipan in the middle of the cake.Definitely not Lenten fare.... Either of them is arguably more festive than pastel bedsocks, however well intentioned. Though in isolation the bedsocks might be better for me.

Margaret | 09 May 2020  

My parish for several years , while I was on liturgy team, changed it to Mothering day to recognise the nurturing work done by our religious women , single women and women who were childless but nonetheless provided the mentoring , support and encouragement motherhood gives unconditionally .

Wayne McGough | 10 May 2020  

Oh, Sarah, how true. I love you for putting it out there. And love your writing.

Suzie Jacobs | 12 May 2020  

“Mother’s Day seems a sort of penance, a day to….” If this is correct, it might be because it is an analogue of an echo of Augustine’s “The New Testament is hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New.” Coming easy to a mentality which veils Good Friday as one day to be hallowed rather than fifty two is its unveiling of mother’s day as a titular symbol one day of a year also.

roy chen yee | 13 May 2020  

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