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Elizabeth Gregory

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Mother's Day Born Yesterday: A Quick Century of Big Change for Modern Moms

Posted: 05/08/08 11:52 AM ET

What's in a mom? On any other day she might smell as sweet, but we give her particular credit (and roses) on the second Sunday of May. It's been this way for 100 years.

Our modern Mother's Day was born a century ago (on May 10, 1908 -- in Grafton, West Virginia), and it became a national holiday in 1914 by Congressional decree. This sentimental occasion -- a chance to celebrate the essential contributions moms make to their families and to the nation while supporting our local florists and restauranteurs -- carries with it a soothing association with tradition. But a hundred years are a mere twinkling compared to the millennia moms have been on the job. Interesting that the all-moms holiday popped up just when the business of mothering was morphing more radically than ever before.

Picture the turn-of-the-last-century gender ferment: suffragists marching, women's colleges proliferating, typewriters pounding out new career options, modes of contraception multiplying, birth rates falling (where the average mother had 7 kids in 1800, she had 3.6 in 1900). For the first time, motherhood couldn't be taken for granted as the default option for girls. Suddenly motherhood had to be sold to women - not just within individual families, but across the nation as a whole. With a lot at stake from the national perspective, a special day of appreciation might make the option more attractive. Politics and sentiment have always gone hand in hand.

Fast forward 100 years, and the ferment, like the holiday, continues. Women now make up half of the national workplace talent pool, and though the pace is slower than many would prefer, women are rising to positions of power in business and in the political realm. The birth rate is nearly half what it was in 1900 -- for lots of reasons (partly to do with the leap in infant survival rates). The wide availability of reliable birth control and our expanded longevity have transformed the landscape in which families form today -- revising the life scripts of moms, dads and all family members so that we have lives radically different from those of all our ancestors.

Some things haven't changed -- among them the warm connection between moms and their kids. Though it costs a bundle to raise a child, most women today still say they want to be moms, and sooner or later, most of them are. But where in the past motherhood was thrust upon most moms willy-nilly and often meant limited opportunity for both mom and kids (cue the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe), these days millions of American women come to motherhood by choice in a context that allows them to invest abundantly in both their own and their kids' educations (less emphasis on "whipping them all soundly" before bed). Many combine career building with child rearing, doubling their contributions to the common wealth.

But not everybody likes the new order, and birth control and the positives it offers for families and the nation have become less available to many young Americans today than even a decade prior -- either through restriction of access or through lack of education. Unplanned births to teenagers were up for the first time in 14 years in 2006. As we celebrate the Mother's Day centenary (and the 48th birthday of the birth control pill, also on May 11th!), those of us whose families have benefited from access to birth control (dads as well as moms) can commit to guaranteeing it to the next generation, by passing legislation that makes birth control affordable and available to all who seek it (as in the Prevention through Affordable Access bill), and that offers kids real information about all their options (through repeal of abstinence-only education laws).

Just as essentially, the centennial Mother's Day offers us an occasion to look back at the transformations the world of motherhood has undergone since the holiday's start, and to reposition for the next century to best serve our dovetailing national and personal interests. Here's the moment to reassess the way we as a nation support those who do the basic job of raising the citizenry -- time to recognize that all our nation's kids are essential to our common future and to move beyond the view that "it's your family, it's your problem." We're already farther down that road than ever before, and though there's still a ways to go, the path is clear.

Love your mom? For the 21st century, show her you care with the gifts that keep on giving: Pay equity (starting with the Paycheck Fairness Act)! Good and affordable childcare! Flexible work schedules! Paid sick days (the Healthy Families Act)! Paid family leave (the Family Leave Insurance Act)! And of course roses and the occasional breakfast in bed. In the long run, the whole national family celebrates.

Elizabeth Gregory is the author of Ready: Why Women Are Embracing the New Later Motherhood (Basic Books) and teaches at the University of Houston. She blogs at www.readymoms.com

 
 
 

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