Mother’s Day History

Here we are at another Mother’s Day on the calendar. When Anna Jarvis launched the idea of Mother’s Day in 1908, she had in mind a day set aside to spend time with one’s mother. The first Mother’s Day was celebrated at St. Andrew’s Methodist Church in Grafton, WV on May 10, 1908. When Mother’s Day became an official U.S. holiday in 1914, Jarvis did not envision how it would become the major gift-giving-restaurant-booking-card-sending occasion that it has become. Nor did she envision how political the whole concept of motherhood would become. After Mother’s Day became so commercialized, Jarvis devoted her later years to trying to have Mother’s Day removed as an official U.S. holiday. (

Few roles in life are as idealized and politicized as that of motherhood. It seems everyone has an opinion about what mothers should do and refrain from doing when it comes to their reproductive capabilities. Many legislators feel both free and obligated to regulate when, where, and how a woman conceives, delivers, and raises her children.  Religious authorities have been preaching about motherhood issues for centuries.

Youngest and Oldest Known Mothers

The youngest mother in recorded history is Lina Medina, a Peruvian girl who began her menstrual cycle in infancy. As a result of being raped, she gave birth in 1938 when she was only six years and five months old. The average age of a first pregnancy varies from country to country. In the States, it was age 26 in 2014, up from age 25 in 2000.

Dawn Brooke, a British mother, is believed to be the oldest woman to conceive a child without medical intervention. In 2007 she gave birth to a baby at age 59. Given that ancient people didn’t have accurate ways of tracking the passage of time, it is plausible some of the Biblical accounts of older women giving birth are feasible.

Produce an Heir or Perish

Women who married royalty were sometimes subjected to proof of their virginity to ensure the king or future king was the father of any children they bore. Woe to the woman who could not deliver a male heir within a few years of trying. It did not matter if the reason was an infertile husband. It was her duty to produce male heirs to run the family enterprise, whether that was an estate or an empire. Sometimes the penalty for failing to deliver was death.

Women who were considered too incompetent to raise a child were sometimes sterilized, even if their families vehemently objected. Indigenous mothers have too often had their babies whisked away from them because their lifestyles didn’t meet with the approval of the dominant culture around them. Other women grieve because they cannot conceive and spend thousands of dollars seeking medical help to have a baby. Women who adopt or provide foster care for other women’s children deserve a special Mother’s Day tribute. Women who outlive their children grieve that loss for the rest of their lives. They never forget, and they never get over it.

Pregnancy as Public Policy

Women in every time and place have dealt with what others in society considered appropriate for their reproductive lives. To some extent, this makes sense. Once upon a time, the survival of the species depended on women bearing enough babies to ensure some would survive to adulthood. Babies often died in infancy or early childhood until relatively recently.

Today that is no longer an issue. The current world population is 7.6 billion and is expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050. We are far more likely to bring humanity to an end by the impact of our rapidly increasing population. People criticized Dr. Paul Ehrlich in the ’60s when he published The Population Bomb. He tapped into a growing concern by some that if we didn’t embrace the concept of Zero Population Growth (ZPG), Mother Earth would struggle to feed the increasing number of children born each new generation.

Politicians, religious leaders, and environmentalists have all chimed in with opinions – and sometimes laws – around women’s reproduction decisions. Mothers’ Day is a day to acknowledge that we are all dependent on a mother for our existence.

This is also a good day to apologize for the ways in which we have too often neglected the well-being of women who give birth, who long to give birth but are unable to do so, who give birth and lose their children to death or circumstances they cannot control.

Motherhood Through the Ages

I included a chapter in the study guide section of Asunder about the many different ways humans have formed families to have and raise children through the centuries.  It has always required a village to raise healthy children. Today too many women are raising their children without that village. If we really want to honor mothers, we can best do that by supporting the people and places that help women become the best mothers they can be. We can also be more understanding and supportive of women who do not become mothers. They, too, play a vital role in the childrearing village.

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