On Motherhood and Otherhood
It’s time to expand who we think of when we think of who is considered a mother
Guess what? Sunday is Mother’s Day. As if you didn’t notice with the not-so subtle prompts in your email, the bouquet gauntlet at the checkout counter, the texts with family, nothing stops Mother’s Day, not even pandemic times, and the second Sunday of May is just a few days away.
It’s a little known but interesting fact that Mother’s Day has its roots in social justice and activism, not flowers and Hallmark cards. In fact, the campaign to create a national holiday to honor mothers was hijacked by then-President Woodrow Wilson and the woman who was the driving force behind the original effort, Anna Jarvis, was bitterly disappointed by the hackneyed, commercial holiday it became.
Anna Jarvis was a pioneering editor but more than anything, she was a devoted daughter who believed that mothers like her own deserved to be honored. Ann Maria Jarvis, Anna’s mother, was also a trailblazer, one lit from within with a passion for helping to save lives. As an Appalachian mother who lost more than half of her children before they reached adulthood to diseases like measles and diphtheria, Ann campaigned tirelessly throughout her community as a public health advocate to provide critical support to local families to decrease childhood mortality by educating, fundraising to distribute life-saving medications and reducing unsanitary conditions. When Anna Jarvis started the holiday to honor her mother with a heartfelt ceremony and dedication in 1908, she did not anticipate the financial juggernaut it would become for the greeting card, chocolate and floral industries; she worked unsuccessfully to have the holiday she created abolished as it strayed far from her vision and became wildly commodified.
After first learning about the origins of Mother’s Day a number of years ago, I now can’t help thinking about a West Virginia public health activist and the dedicated daughter who cherished her every time the holiday rolls around. Ever since, when I see reminders about Mother’s Day, I have always heard a quiet but definite rumble of altruism and community-minded humanitarianism underneath it every time.
If we are going to expand our understanding of Mother’s Day from a historic context, maybe now is also a good time to expand our recognition of who is a mother.
I am a vegan, so I recognize that there are cow mothers, there are pig mothers, there are chicken mothers, there are mothers from every species, and while there is much we don’t know about how other animals think, we can assume that the biological imperative regardless of species is that they want their progeny to live and to thrive. While children’s books easy recognize motherhood among other animals, somehow when we grow up, this acknowledgement is seen as a quaint notion, an innocent but ultimately anthropomorphic sentimentalizing. Why would motherhood be exclusive to humans, though? Is the human tendency toward solipsism that profound we cannot accept the validity of motherhood in other species?
Let’s think about cows for a moment.
This holiday, many people will buy boxes of chocolate for their mothers, almost always milk chocolate. Who provided the milk? There is a mother who has disappeared from the transaction of sale from maker or grocer to customer, and, like the history of Mother’s Day itself, she has been written out of the story but traces of her remain if you are willing to dig a little.
It should go without saying but, like all mammals, dairy cows must be pregnant in order to produce milk. In other words, their udders do not spontaneously produce milk without pregnancy hormones any more than human breasts would. Her pregnancy is almost always executed through artificial insemination today as it’s far more convenient and controllable: Dairy cows are forcibly impregnated using a restraining apparatus as farm workers insert an inseminator syringe with bull semen, also forcibly extracted, through the cow’s rectum, vagina and cervical rings to reach the cervix for depositing.
The cruelest punishment, though, for the grave misfortune of having been born a female dairy cow may not even be the repeated pregnancy, birth and lactation cycles she is forced into each year, but having her calves taken from her each time, usually within hours and sometimes still wet from birth, the same brutality that was forced upon her as a calf. The newborn is usually allowed colostrum, which is the mother’s first milk and is not typically used for human consumption (though there are exceptions); this is an economic consideration, not an ethical one, because colostrum helps the calf develop immunity and not be a financial loss to the farmer. Separating the mother cow from her calf permanently is not unnoticed. As the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN states with regard to weaning, “Without good fences and yards to keep the mother and calf separate, it is difficult to do successfully.” Their drive to be together is powerful.
Is the cow who gave birth not a mother?
For that matter are pigs, often confined to gestation crates during pregnancy and farrowing crates during nursing, not mothers? Mutilated, forcibly impregnated and litter after litter of piglets taken from her upon forcible weaning on the other side of the farrowing crate until she is considered spent and slaughtered: Was she not a mother?
What about mother hens, so deservedly depicted in children’s books as stalwart protectors of their chicks? Are they not actually mothers? From their communication — it has been noted that the chicken communicates at least 24 distinct vocalizations, including different calls for aerial and terrestrial threats — to their nuanced use of cognitive skills within the social domain, there is much more to a chicken’s complex inner-world than most people realize. Whether they have been born to the egg or meat industry (both are slaughtered for meat eventually), chickens are among the most severely abused of the animals that are living and dying profit units for agribusiness. Nearly all born are in incubators at hatcheries, living — if you can call it that — in huge, cramped, fetid warehouses, and they die in shackles on slaughterhouse lines.
Why do these mothers not count? Why do their orphaned children not count?
I did not write this to depress anyone and certainly not to shame. I wrote this to help shed light on billions of lives that are too often pushed into the shadows and on the rapacious, opaque industries that literally capitalize on their suffering. Just as I feel that my understanding of Mother’s Day was deepened and expanded when I learned the historic underpinnings, I hope that broadening our perspective on who experiences motherhood, and why they also deserve recognition and care, can happen when we widen our circle of compassion and consideration.
Who is a mother? Who is someone’s child? Last, who gets to decide and why?