The Radical Roots of Mother’s Day

Heather Greene —  May 10, 2015 — 2 Comments

Today is Mother’s Day in the United States. The widely celebrated secular holiday is one that honors mothers, mothers-to-be and any mother figures in our lives. For some, this may include grandmothers, aunts, teachers, guardians, Priestesses and anyone that has taken on that maternal role. Last May, Starhawk wrote:

On this Mother’s Day, let us also remember the many, many types of mothering: stepmothers, wicked and otherwise, adoptive mothers, birthmothers, mothers who have lost their children, mothers of projects, plans, movements and creative ideas, aunties and mentors and advisors, mothers of fluid and changing gender, and of course, that mother who sustains and nurtures us all, our Mother Earth! What will it take to create a world that truly honors mothering, nurturing, caring in all its forms?

In past years, The Wild Hunt has reported on the holiday’s fascinating birth story, which began in the late 1800s. Early in that history, the Mother’s Day celebration succumbed to excessive American commercialism, which drove one of its founders, Anna Jarvis, into isolation and depression. And, that commercial appeal has not waivered over the last century. Stores across the United States and online have been happily advertising sales on everything from jewelry and shoes to plane flights and alcohol. All in the name of mom!

Slide1 - bDespite this fact, the holiday does have roots that are far deeper and more soul stirring than the simple niceties of white carnations and overpriced orchids. Mother’s Day was originally born out of the early Feminist and Women’s Rights movements. It was fueled by American women’s need to stand against destructive political powers, while simultaneously uplifting the role and value of women in society. As written in The Wild Hunt 2013:

After seeing the horrors of the Civil War, Julia Ward Howe, a suffragist, abolitionist, writer and poet, began an aggressive campaign for a national Mother’s Day. On the second Sunday in June of 1870, Howe made a passionate plea for peace and proclaimed the day Mother’s Peace Day.

Howe was specifically pushing for a national peace day, asking women to take a stand against the patriarchy or what she termed “irrelevant agencies.” Mother’s Day was first born from the horrors of war and, then, propelled for ten years by women activists. In the original Mother’s Day protest letter, Howe wrote, “Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have taught them of charity, mercy and patience.” To modern ears, the phrase almost has undercurrents of Twisted Sister’s rock anthem “We’re not gonna take it.”

[Photo Credit: Grandma-S  / DeviantArt]

[Photo Credit: Grandma-S / DeviantArt]

This spirit and this voice can be heard today in the cries of many women living in both the Unites States and around the world. It is a primal defiance, living at the root of motherhood, in order to protect the future.

Mother’s Day’s radical beginnings have largely been lost in time and buried under pounds of tulle and floral bouquets. Despite the aggressive commercialism, some Americans do find ways to connect with a deeper meaning. For many families, it is simply a day to come together and honor the contributions and sacrifices of the mothers in their lives; to say, “Thanks.”

For others, it is also a day to take stock of how motherhood has changed their own lives. Just as the celebration itself was born of radical intent, motherhood is often accompanied by radical personal transformations.

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Blogger Niki Whiting, a student of the Anderson Faery tradition and Tantra, explained how giving birth and motherhood drastically altered her life. She said:

My first pregnancy grounded me in surprising ways. My theology was no longer abstract and mental gymnastics – it was rooted in my body and physical being. I grew a human being and the mystical understanding of the line “in you we live, move, and have our being” unfolded for me.

Birthing, even my uncomplicated, straightforward births, was a walk between the worlds, an edge-walking that opened my senses to the mystery of life and death that is ever present.

Whiting has as three children, a nearly 7 year old son, and two daughters, 4  and 1. She said that, since having the children, her priorities have been “refined.” She added:

My spiritual practices take new shape, but still exist. I stopped working with one deity, because she was not amenable to children; I have found that other deities that love children and some don’t care one way or the other. I also have to walk my talk in a new way. What I really believe about the world – about trees, spirits, ghosts, spiders, you name it – is reflected in how I teach my kids about those same things. They watch what I do, they hear what I say. 

Author Christine Hoff Kraemer is a practitioner of religious Witchcraft and mother to one nineteen-month-old. Like Whiting, pregnancy and motherhood have significantly shifted her priorities and daily focus. Kraemer said:

For me, mothering is all about the mysteries of flesh. I mean that literally — my days are all about dealing with a tiny person’s bodily fluids while making sure he eats, drinks, and gets enough exercise. But it’s profound, too, to be so close to a new consciousness that’s encountering the world for the first time — and no one shapes his environment as profoundly as I do. It’s a huge responsibility.

I find I’m not able to do much spirit or psychic work in this phase of my life, because I have to be so focused on the present moment and on what’s materially in front of me. And also, I can’t overstate how much becoming a mother has changed my priorities, even changed my interests. Parenting is the most satisfying work I’ve ever done, so everything else in my life has had to make room for that focus.

Rayna Templebee, a Witch and mother of two boys ages 17 and 19, commented on the powerful connections made when becoming a mother. She said:

I was a Witch before becoming a mom, but motherhood deepened my connection to spirit in so many ways. First, just the birth experience itself–knowing how many cultures around the world and through time have honored the creative force of the female body to bring forth life gave me extra determination to have my babies born naturally at home…I built altars to all the mothers in my ancestral lines and called on them to help me birth healthy, happy babies …

As the boys have grown up, it has been amazing fun to share the wonderment of nature together, and eventually to do ritual together as part of our Pagan community. Parenting is a deeply spiritual growth process …

Like Templebee, Jessica Mortimer, a Wiccan member of the Willow Dragonstone Community, was a Witch prior to having her two daughters ages 5 and 8. Mortimer said:

I always knew I wanted to raise my family with an open mind and heart to all paths. Once I had my first daughter it was clear to me what my purpose in life was – to be a mom and make a difference in the world by teaching them to have that open heart and mind.

In the last two years my practice has changed from just a personal practice to a family coven path … our life style has changed in a way that we live and breathe our path each day from having dinner together to our involvement in the Pagan community, to bedtime stories of the very different religious paths.

While the process of becoming a mother and the experiences of motherhood are deeply spiritual in many ways, only one of the women said that her Mother’s Day celebration includes any religious-specific observance. Mortimer explained that her family performs a small ritual to honor the Mother Goddess, during which everyone has to give thanks. Her young daughters typically express thanks for trees, animals, food and family.

In addition, Templebee did note that she observes a unique Mother’s Day tradition, albeit non-religious, “to drink a margarita with as many other mothers as [she] can, and toast [their] collective accomplishments.”

Motherhood is a journey shared across time and even species, which can radically alter one’s life many times over. And, at the same time, motherhood or mothers can influence and even radically change society through both subtle and overt methods. Howe wrote, “Arise, all women who have hearts … Say firmly: “We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies.” She adds, “Let [mothers] meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them then solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace…”

In recent years, there has been ample discussions about rewilding our lives, rediscovering the radical elements in our religions or the Craft and unleashing the unbound nature of humanity. This push is not limited to the collective Pagan, Polytheist and Heathen movements, and can be found in others sectors of today’s society. Mother’s Day and its radical history provide yet another opportunity to embrace this philosophy as it applies to an otherwise commonplace, secular, annual event. Along with the cards, flowers and even Motherhood Margaritas, this celebration offers the space needed to consider the radical nature of Motherhood, both at the personal and social level. Because within the essence of its history and near to its very core, Mother’s Day is as much about revolution as it is about roses.

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Heather Greene

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Heather is a freelance writer and journalist, living in the Deep South. Professionally, she has worked for Grey Advertising Global, Coca Cola Company and GCI. She has collaborated with Lady Liberty League and has formerly served as Public Information Officer for Dogwood Local Council and Covenant of the Goddess. She has a masters degree in Film Theory, Criticism and History from Emory University with a background in the performing and visual arts.