“Youth fades; love droops; the leaves of friendship fall,” 19th-century American poet Oliver Wendell Holmes once wrote. “A mother’s secret hope outlives them all.”
It’s a love that’s romanticized above all other loves in art and literature for a reason: There is no story we have that doesn’t begin with our mother’s story, inextricably woven into the fabric of her life.
On Mother’s Day — a holiday first celebrated May 10, 1908 by founder Anna Marie Jarvis as a memorial for her own mother — we honor those women who gave us life, who taught us our first lessons of love and loyalty, who instilled in us our first awareness of what it was to be a person, to be cared and cared for, to exist in community. Above all, we recognize their sacrifices, large and small, and the values bequeathed to us that we have carried with us for a lifetime.
Motherhood is the world’s oldest profession — the profession which peoples and equips all other professions. Without mothers, we would have no doctors, lawyers, politicians, teachers, writers or humanitarians. We would, in a word, have no society as we know it. As British author G.K. Chesterton once put it, “How can it be a large career to tell other people’s children about (reading and writing), and a small career to tell one’s own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone?”
Mothers throughout time have faced intense public scrutiny for their parenting decisions and external and internal pressures to have it all, to be it all, to do it all. These days, it manifests itself most often in expectations that they create Pinterest-worthy bento boxes for school lunches, provide their children with Facebook-ready vacations and adventures, and maintain Instagrammably immaculate homes.
But — lest we forget — such accoutrements are not where a mother derives her value. Motherhood comes in many shapes and sizes. Some mothers have one child; some mothers have eight. Some mothers work from home; some mothers work away from home. (But let’s be clear: all mothers work.)
Some mothers are more hands-on — others cheerlead from a more comfortable distance. But none is more or less valuable than another because of these accidental qualities.
This weekend we let them know we cherish them every day for being themselves and nothing but themselves; for their strengths as well as their failings; for what they could give us, which was often all they had to give.
It is a holiday to honor our aging mothers and grandmothers, as well as to be honored by our own children — and that is no small thing.
It is also a holiday to remember those among us for whom Mother’s Day may be more difficult or painful this year: those whose mothers are no longer living; those with complicated relationships with their own mothers riddled with abuse or neglect; those who have lost their mothers emotionally to dementia, mental illness or addiction; those who have lost a child at any stage of development and those struggling with infertility; and stepmothers, foster and adoptive mothers, and those who never had children who may be made to feel marginalized or “less-than” by society.
But for those of us with mothers who are still with us, who took their calling seriously, who raised us to be decent human beings and good citizens of the world — often at immense personal cost — now is the time to pick up the phone and say, “Thank you.”