3 Ways Mother’s Day Got Ruined

The holiday strayed so far from its mission that it drove its founder insane. A century later, Mother’s Day hasn’t kept up with what really matters to moms.

3 Ways Mother’s Day Got Ruined
[Photo: X.K./Unsplash]

Everything that’s good about me is because of my mother. And anything that’s bad about me isn’t due to her lack of trying to make me a better person.


Unfortunately, because I live far away from her, I don’t get to spend Mother’s Day with her in person, so I arrange with my brother the flowers, gifts and a nice Mother’s Day brunch. When I ask my mom what she wants for the holiday though,  her answer is always the same: “I just want to hear your voice on Mother’s Day; the gifts don’t matter.”

Michael Grothaus and his mother [Photo: courtesy of Michael Grothaus]
And according to my unscientific survey of friends with mothers and who are mothers themselves, they all say that same thing: the physical gifts, really, don’t matter. As a matter of fact, many of them have told me that they’d be happy abolishing Mother’s Day if it meant they’d be able to spend a little more time with their children every other day of the year. “Why do we need a special day for people to spend time with their mothers?” one of them told me. “The holiday seems to only exist now to guilt people into treating their mothers better on one day out of the year.”

Related: Why Sons of Busy Working Moms Grow Up To Be Better Coworkers

Guilt isn’t the only thing that’s ruined Mother’s Day. Here are the ways that the holiday has strayed from the founder’s intention and failed to keep up with the changing times.

It’s Become Too Commercialized

In the weeks leading up to Mother’s Day, we’re bombarded by ads telling us to show our appreciation for our moms by buying them things, as if consumerism is the measure for love.  In this regard, retailers and marketers guilt trip you in early May almost as much as they do in February for Valentine’s Day.


But it’s no surprise they do this. Mother’s Day has become a billion-dollar holiday for the retail industry. The National Retail Federation estimates that Mother’s Day 2018 spending will max out at $23.1 billion–that’s just $500 million less than 2017’s high. A whopping 86% of Americans are expected to spend money on Mother’s Day, with the average person spending $180 on mom. In a joint survey, the National Retail Federation and Prosper Insights & Analytics broke down just where all those Mother’s Day dollars were going:

  • $4.6 billion on jewelry
  • $4.4 billion on special outings including brunch or other meals
  • $2.6 billion on flowers
  • $2.5 billion on gift cards
  • $2.1 billion on clothing
  • $2.1 billion on consumer electronics
  • $1.8 billion on personal services like spas or massages
  • $956 million on housewares or gardening tools
  • $813 million on greeting cards
  • $494 million on books or music

This commercialization of Mother’s Day also happens to be the exact opposite of what the holiday’s founder, Anna Jarvis, intended. In the early 20th century, Jarvis worked tirelessly to get a national holiday celebrating mothers. Her aim was to have a day where people honor their mothers, and society shows gratitude to mothers in general, for all the hard work they do. Jarvis’s idea was born from the love of her own mother who, before she died, had tried to found a Mother’s Friendship Day during the civil war with the aim of uniting mothers who had sons fighting on both sides of the conflict.

Anna Jarvis [Photo: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [LC-USZ62-63369]]
After almost a decade of work, Jarvis succeeded, with President Woodrow Wilson signing a proclamation on May 9, 1914, declaring the second Sunday of May “a public expression of our love and reverence for the mothers of our country.” But then commercial interests took over. What started off as people sending carnations to their mothers as a show of gratitude exploded into a retail bonanza as florists, greeting card manufacturers, and the confectionery industry, along with department stores, soon began advertising their wares as the must-have Mother’s Day gifts.

As for the burgeoning Mother’s Day greeting card industry, Jarvis lamented: “A maudlin, insincere printed card or ready-made telegram means nothing except that you’re too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone else in the world. Any mother would rather have a line of the worst scribble from her son or daughter than any fancy greeting card.”

It seems like the mothers of today would agree. As for Jarvis, she spent the remaining years of her life trying to rescind Mother’s Day. The continued commercialization of the holiday is often blamed for Jarvis’s increasing insanity, which ultimately led her to die in a sanitarium.


It’s Been Slow To Change With The Times

But the commercialization of the holiday isn’t the only complaint people have. Mother’s Day is now over 100 years old, meaning it’s steeped in tradition. And as we all know, tradition is the antithesis to change. Back in 1914, you would probably have been hard-pressed to find an out lesbian couple raising a child together, but well into the second decade of the 21st century, that kind of family unit is much more common.

Related: Working Moms Reveal Their Struggles Over Having A Second Kid

Yet still, despite the rapid commercialization of the holiday, those same forces have been slow to recognize that some children have two mothers. Although Mother’s Day greeting cards are almost a $1 billion industry, very few offer greeting cards for lesbian parents. Back in 2014, Hallmark was one of the first major greeting card manufacturers to offer Mother’s Day cards for lesbian couples with the release of two cards. Yet few greeting cards manufacturers have followed in their footsteps.

[Photos: courtesy of Hallmark]
And it’s not just the increase in lesbian couples with children that Mother’s Day has been slow to adapt to. Many people are raised by “mothers” who are not their biological mothers, but other women, such as a grandmother, sister, or cousin, who have stepped into their life to raise them due to family circumstances, or children being raised by two men, single fathers, or other caretakers. Yet Mother’s Day greeting cards and advertising seems to still revolve around an outdated and narrow definition  of a “mother.”

It Does Nothing To Highlight The Real Needs Of Mothers

Despite its commercialization, it’s hard to condemn a holiday that says we should take a day to honor the women who raised us. It’s nice to be nice to your mom and buy her gifts after everything she’s sacrificed for you. The problem is this gift giving doesn’t do anything to highlight the real needs of mothers. While a box of chocolates is nice, you know what’s even nicer? Paid family leave, affordable childcare, more family-friendly work environments, equal pay,  better prenatal, and overall healthcare.


Related: Discrimination Against Working Mothers Is Alive And Well

The March of Dimes conducted a survey by The Harris Poll to find out what moms really want for Mother’s Day: 92% agreed Mother’s Day should be about supporting mothers, not buying them gifts. Nearly all (90%) of moms said that immediate improvement to parental leave policies is needed, with 88% wishing that prenatal care was of higher importance to policymakers. A full 87% believe that maternal and child health care needs immediate improvement in the U.S., while 86% said current policies make life harder for new moms and babies. A further 68% and 66% say access to affordable health care and paid maternity leave are the most important needs for new moms, respectively.

[Illustration: courtesy of March of Dimes]
And yes, these things aren’t things a son or daughter could buy their mom for Mother’s Day; only state or federal governments could act to provide these services. But if all the children of mothers got together and demanded support from the government to improve their mothers’ lives, there’s little the government could do other than acquiesce. And what wouldn’t be a better Mother’s Day gift than that?

About the author

Michael Grothaus is a novelist, journalist, and former screenwriter. His debut novel EPIPHANY JONES is out now from Orenda Books. You can read more about him at