In my prior life as a florist, Mother’s Day was a time when I worked hard, putting in long hours for several weeks before the May holiday. Those intense weeks of work followed months of planning. Mother’s Day is one of the “harvest seasons” of those who work in the floral industry.

Perhaps because of the hours I worked around that holiday in the past, I still find the most enjoyable kind of Mother’s Day to be a quiet lunch, a nap, the chance to read a book, and to play music. I am also reminded of my own mother and grandmothers.

My father’s mother was widowed early in her marriage. In 1902, when my father was seven years old, my grandfather contracted typhoid fever and died. My father, the middle child, had eight brothers and sisters between the ages of 14 years and six weeks old. Shortly after my grandfather’s death, my dad’s little brother, Henry, also succumbed to the disease. My tiny, not quite five foot tall, grandmother never remarried and raised her children on her small, rocky farm in northwestern Minnesota. She was lucky. Her brothers and brothers-in-law farmed nearby and helped her farm and raise her brood of children.

My father and his siblings were raised by a single mother who often struggled to have enough to keep them fed and clothed. There were no programs life food stamps or Medicaid to help her. There were no farm programs to guarantee her level of income from her meager land holdings. Her children were lucky to have a free public elementary school nearby to provide them with education. High school, however, was another issue. The nearest high school was too far away and would have required my father and his siblings to live away from home. That was not possible in a family where children were expected to do their part to run the farm and support the family by working for others. I often wonder how my father’s and his siblings’ lives would have been different if his father had lived or my grandmother had not been forced to live in poverty.

In the history of humankind, women have often been treated as property. Only relatively recently have women been allowed to own property in their own name. While women may have benefitted from the wealth and position of their fathers and husbands, in many cultures they were not allowed to inherit land or other property from either. In eighteenth and nineteenth century England, estates sometimes were inherited by distant cousins rather than by the daughters of sonless nobility.

In Bible times, women had no right to property nor were there many jobs available to widows or single women except as servants or prostitutes. Single mothers were dependent on male family members who were required to take in widowed family members and their children.

Mother’s Day cards extoll the virtues of motherhood. Advertisements for flowers, dinner out, and gifts for each special mom sing the praises of motherhood. Loving our mothers is sometimes not easy, but for most of us our mothers are special people. Mothers deserve a day of recognition.

We hold mothers in high esteem, at least in theory.

It seems we have a conflicted attitude about mothers. If we really esteem motherhood, then why do we use a woman’s choice to stay at home and care for her children for part of her life as an excuse to pay her less when she returns to work? Rather than credit a woman for the skills acquired while providing for the needs of her family, often she starts over at the bottom of the pay scale when she returns to her career.

If we think raising children and providing for their health and welfare is valued, then why are women made to feel guilty for staying home with a sick child? Why do we even need laws which prohibit firing women for taking time off to care for newborns or sick children?

Why are poor mothers who stay home with their children characterized as being “welfare queens?” Why do we push for welfare reforms that require women to find a job, that do not provide adequately for child care, or that discourage women from continuing higher education?

We have made progress. My single mother grandmother would have had more resources available to her today.  She and her children probably would have qualified for “food stamps” and other programs. Perhaps my dad’s little brother would not have died from typhoid or his sister from whooping cough had they been covered by Medicaid. My grandmother would not have lived the end of her life with no income of her own, dependent on her surviving children’s love and care which they provided for her out of their own meager pockets. Even today, however, she may well have been one of the more than four million single mothers and their children who still live in poverty in this country.

All of these programs which help modern day mothers struggling to provide for their children, are constantly under attack. When states and the federal government seek to cut costs, these are usually the first programs that are put on the chopping block. Recipients are depicted as “takers” and leeches on society.

The sweet sentiments of Mother’s Day cards must extend to public policy. Women (and men) should be paid a living wage for work even at the bottom of the pay scale. Women should be paid equally for equal work, not punished for taking time to be mothers. Safe and affordable child care should be available for all women who work. Women who choose to stay home and care for children, especially infants and toddlers, should be receive adequate financial assistance to do so. Along with financial assistance should come education and mentoring to help young mothers become better mothers.

These policies should not be adopted because we love mothers and all mothers are the self-sacrificing, noble, loving people depicted on greeting cards. We should adopt these policies because all children deserve mothers who can afford to feed and care for them, regardless of their marital status, education level, or lack of inherited wealth.

Copyright © 2014 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains