Commentary: Guilty of motherhood

What we don’t think about when we think about Mother’s Day.

The holy trinity of mom, apple pie and baseball is part of our nation’s fabric, but only one has a special day– Mother’s Day, celebrated this Sunday.

Though a woman named Anna Jarvis fought to establish Mother’s Day a little more than 100 years ago to honor her own mother, she quickly regretted how commercial it became, according to

The special day’s commercialism may have been inevitable considering that the church celebration Jarvis hosted for her first Mother’s Day in 1908 was paid for by John Wanamaker, a Philadelphia department-store owner.

That same day, thousands of people also attended a Mother’s Day event at one of Wanamaker’s stores.

Apparently, he was not one to miss a good marketing gimmick.

Mother’s Day soon became a national holiday in 1914, but by 1920, Jarvis was begging people to stop buying flowers, candies and cards in its name.

By the time she died in 1948, Jarvis had spent her wealth filing lawsuits against those who used the holiday for personal or other gain. She’d even lobbied– unsuccessfully– for the government to strike it permanently from the calendar.

Ironically, Jarvis was not a mother, but she may have felt guilty for contributing to our spending practices– which we sometimes feel guilty about, as well.

Courtesy West Virginia Dept. of Arts, Culture and History
Anna Jarvis (1864-1948), the mother of Mother’s Day

But did you know motherhood itself comes with its own special brand of guilt?

According to a 2018 study called “Motherhood Experiences and Expectations” published in The Family Journal, mothers feel guilty no matter what they do.

The study’s authors– both counselors– explain that modern mothers suffer because of a paradigm called IM, or “intensive mothering,” which assumes an expert knowledge of child-rearing and striving for perfection.

IM causes anger, increased stress and feelings of guilt and shame when women feel they can’t be an “ideal mother,” the researchers say.

They also say women feel guilty from buying into a “mommy myth” that they are incomplete without children, are the best child caregivers and that “good” mothers devote their entire being to their children.

Mothers feel even more guilty because they base their parenting on their own mothers, plus all the additional information available to them now, and are uncertain as to whether their particular cocktail of childrearing methods is “right” or not.

It makes no difference whether a mother stays at home or works outside the home, the researchers say– she is impacted by these factors regardless.

“Working mothers tend to experience more guilt concerning their absence in children’s lives,” the researchers say. “However, stay-at-home moms tend to feel more anger toward their children.”

That anger comes not from guilt, they say, but from shame in not controlling their emotions like an “ideal mother” would.

The researchers recommend that counselors work with women on accepting themselves and questioning their beliefs about ideal motherhood.

“Self-acceptance is important for mothers because it reduces guilt and shame,” they say. “It may also lessen anger directed toward children, as shame-proneness is related to experiencing anger toward the object of shame.”

Even though a single day for mothers may not help alleviate all that guilt and shame, Katharine Antolini– a professor who wrote a book about Jarvis– points out that Mother’s Day is the only national holiday explicitly celebrating women as opposed to honoring men.

And despite her best efforts to decommercialize and even get rid of it, Jarvis herself might make you feel guilty for not shelling out on Mother’s Day.

“When a son or daughter cannot endure the name ‘mother’ for a single day of the year,” Antolini quotes Jarvis, “it would seem there is something wrong.”