On Motherhood and Otherhood

It’s time to expand who we think of when we think of who is considered a mother

Marla Rose


The author with a rescued veal calf at Farm Sanctuary in 1998

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.