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Occupy Mother's Day

Today's Mother's Day is a grotesque perversion of the original holiday. It's time to reclaim it

Arise, then, women of this day! Arise, all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be that of water or tears!
Say firmly: "We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have taught them of charity, mercy and patience. We women of one country will be too tender of those of another to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."
From the bosom of the devastated earth, a voice goes up with our own. It says, "Disarm, Disarm!"


The above is the first section of a manifesto created by Julia Ward Howe to “celebrate” the first Mothers Day in 1879.

How far from the grotesque mutation our consumer-driven culture has created. Instead of a day to think about how war kills mothers’ children, to work to alleviate the suffering of others, to fight for the equality of all, Mother’s Day is the hollowest of holidays, skating on the thin veneer of the sentimental, the very celebration of which involves (at least judging from the number of Proflowers emails and endless PERFECT FOR HER! ads I have seen in the last week) purchasing unnecessary goods. Everyone has/had a mother and many are mothers, which, for corporations, makes it a perfect holiday, in the same vein as those pharmaceutical drugs that need to be taken daily, and for life.

What would Julia Ward Howe, suffragette, abolitionist, social activist, think of our nation today, with the warning carbon saturation point having been exceeded in the atmosphere, presaging more life-threatening climate change? What would Ward Howe think about the passenger pigeon, which, in her day were so numerous they blotted out the sun in the middle of the day, and now the only place to see one is taxidermied in a museum. We’re killing honeybees, which pollinate more than one hundred of our food crops, with pollutants and pesticides, but instead of remedying it, we’re working on mini-drones to artificially pollinate plants. The U.S., one of the richest nations, has some of the poorest infant mortality rates. And when was the last time the U.S. wasn’t at war against some faroff country with its nameless brown-skinned people?

What are we supposed to do in a society where young people are crippled by student loans, where the U.S. lets international energy companies strip its natural resources, leaving behind devastating pollution—and then not even asking that a share of the profit be returned to us, the taxpayers, as they do in Norway, and creates a car-based society in which we are forced to buy back this oil in order to drive our polluting cars?

There is nothing wrong with celebrating mothers—I am one. But after scores of people lost their lives in a poorly run factory in Bangladesh for the cause of cheap, disposable clothes of the kind you might buy at The GAP because they are PERFECT FOR HER! (don’t forget husbands are also co-opted into the obligations of Mother’s Day), how can we bear the irony of honoring mothers for giving life?

One of the most frightening things I ever saw was at a Salvation Army, where the staff literally could not keep up with the scads of donations (it was right after Christmas) being dropped off by the SUV-load. All the old Bangladesh- and China-made crap needed to be moved out to make room for all the new Bangladesh- and China-made crap. In desperation, the staff had taken up huge shovels and shoveled the donations like snow, dumping the consumer detritus—some still new in boxes—into huge bins.

I remember a woman from Alamos, Mexico, where my husband spent much of his childhood, visiting his parents in Concord, Massachusetts. The woman took in my mother-in-law’s closet, a standard suburban woman’s closet and exclaimed in Spanish, “There’s more clothes here than I could wear in a week!”

We need clothes. We need food. Yes, we even need flowers. But we don’t need to pillage the earth or make others suffer to get them. There are many ways to express appreciation that do not include mindless and/or guilt-induced consumerism. For my own mother, I’m sending her an essay about mothers (well, about a single person’s mother, the universal in the specific) that moved me, and I hope will move her, too.  But my conditioning is so great, I remember at the last moment feeling, I need to buy something to include in this, to make the gift valid. The moment passed. But a bit of the guilt remains.

The reason I was at the Salvation Army was because that’s where I sometimes acquire clothes. I also make occasional what would seem like extravagant purchases of items that are well crafted (often handmade), where the artisan is paid his/her fair share. Like Julia Ward Howe, I do not want my pleasures, or even my necessities, built on the exploitation of others. 

So what do I want for Mothers Day? How about if all people who were birthed of a mother take just sixty seconds to think about how we live now, and what would be a  better, life-giving way to live tomorrow. In the midst of obligatory, individual celebrations, why not to take the time to speak with others, or at least in spirit, join in with Ward Howe’s ambitious vision:

Let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel…Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesars but of God.

Happy Mothers Day

Marie Myung-Ok Lee

Marie Myung-Ok Lee is a novelist who teaches at Columbia University and writes for Slate, Salon, The New York Times, and The Guardian. Follow her on Facebook.

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