- - Thursday, May 11, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

It took a long time before mothers in America got respect, especially in terms of an official Mother’s Day. One of the university American history courses I taught on occasion was entitled “Women and Children Second,” an interpretation in contrast to the widespread and often erroneous view that these two groups were given special concern ahead of their adult male counterparts.

To be sure, life for mothers was unheralded in early America. And even after 1920 when more people lived in cities than in rural areas, life on the farm for mothers was still a constant struggle, not only in dealing with primitive medical care but in tending to their offspring and playing a critical part in the everyday work in the fields.

Childbirth had a high mortality rate not only for babies but mothers. Although the American Medical Association was founded in the mid-19th century, demands for physicians to be thoroughly vetted took a long time to materialize. Medical education was often just a one-year regimen, states permitted easy access to doctoring, and not until World War I and Prohibition when physicians with M.D. degrees got the exclusive right to issue prescriptions for liquor were the quacks increasingly ousted. Midwifery was often a combination of common sense mixed with nonsense.

Motherhood eventually benefited in the sense that more pregnant women succeeded in delivering their babies. Hospital care slowly expanded, and, perhaps more than any other factor, American entry into World War I was almost synonymous with the spread of Mother’s Day (first proclaimed by President Woodrow Wilson in 1914). As the Washington Herald in the nation’s capital noted on May 14, 1917:

“Mothers’ Day was observed yesterday in practically all the churches of Washington and pastors spoke of the added reverence and respect due to mothers in these war times, when the hearts of many will be torn by the thought of their boys going to the trenches in Europe.

“What the year will bring forth in the way of added burdens on the mothers of this country, it would be difficult to forecast; that they will be called upon to make almost superhuman sacrifices in parting with their sons who are called to the colors is certain.”

Such fervent anguish for mothers during the war years gave the holiday sustenance throughout the 1920s, but mostly in terms of commercialization such as in sending flowers and candy. And during the Great Depression the special commemoration on the second Sunday of May fell on hard times with the rest of the nation. Again, World War II put Mother’s Day in the spotlight in terms of the sons who served their country abroad. And because World War II never came to an end in terms of the Cold War and subsequent manifestations of terrorism worldwide and at home, the holiday, as in its origins a century ago, is often honored in the montage of maternal sacrifice.

The only real tragedy in this historic accounting is that some presidents after Wilson failed to take note of Mom’s special day. Gerald Ford, the first non-elected chief executive, revived the proclamation practice that has been followed by every one of his successors. And perhaps for good reason. Ford’s father was abusive, and his mother took him away to her parents’ house, eventually remarried, even gave her son his stepfather’s last name and made certain young Ford became part of a close-knit family. Ford’s 1976 proclamation was testimony to his maternal nurturing:

“But for all that women do, there is no undertaking more challenging, no responsibility more awesome, than of being a mother. Motherhood is more than a life role, it is a job that is continually demanding and rewarding. A mother’s guidance is most significant in the growth of her children into responsible, self-reliant, understanding and productive human beings.”

Motherhood, Ford concluded, is synonymous with “love, creation, compassion, honor and integrity.”

• Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.

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