May 12, 2013

Honoring Parents

RaskoffBy Sally Raskoff

How do you spend the two days of the year that we honor the challenging and important job that parents do? Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are celebrated in the U.S. in May and June, respectively. Both days generate many family interactions, restaurant orders, greeting card sales, and phone calls.

On the surface, these days appear to be equivalent and equally valued holidays that are meant to honor those who generate and raise children. However, the history and current practices highlight some differences in what mothers and fathers mean to our society.


According to Wikipedia, Mother’s Day was celebrated first in the mid-late 1800s as an outgrowth of women’s peace groups that were formed in response to family losses and divisions during the civil war.  It took until 1914 to become a national holiday, designated as the second Sunday in May, as a day “for American citizens to show the flag in honor of those mothers whose sons had died in war.” 

Also according to Wikipedia, Father’s Day began in the early 1900s, in part to complement Mother’s Day as a day to celebrate the male role in parenting. However, it was not a national holiday until 1972 when the third Sunday in June was so designated as a day to honor fathers.

Wikipedia suggests that Congress’ worries about commercialization were to blame for the sixty-year time lag. Evidently, the founder of Mother’s Day, Anna Jarvis, was vehemently opposed to the commercialization of the holiday.

Wikipedia also mentions that there is an International Men’s Day (November 19th), founded in 1999 to honor men who are not fathers. This day took on a focus for improving men’s health, improving gender relations and inequality, and positive role models. There is also an entry for International Women’s Day (March 8th), originally called International Working Women’s Day. This day was started “as a socialist political event” but later, in some regions, generalized to celebrate women. Since 1975, the United Nations has supported International Women’s Day with proclamations and ties to human rights and peace campaigns.

(You might have noticed that I’ve been citing Wikipedia very carefully. This site is a convenient source for basic information that is widely agreed upon and it does include its sources. However, some of the sources present more questions than evidence thus I caution against believing something just because it’s posted there without qualifications. For example, the sources for how Ms. Jarvis was against the commercialization of Mother’s Day were from articles published in 2008 and their sources were newspaper and other journalistic articles. The more removed from the primary source, the less accurate a source might be.)

What do you notice so far about these holidays?

While Father’s Day is a day to celebrate personal fatherhood, Mother’s Day was started to honor the national debt to a specific type of mother, one who had lost a son in wartime. Mother’s Day did not officially start as a day defined to celebrate mothers and motherhood in general. It was sparked by a specific need to support wartime losses and buoy patriotic and national pride.

The International Men’s and Women’s Days have similar histories, with the women’s day focusing on societal issues of work, family, and human rights, while the men’s day emerging later. Different, of course, is that the International Men’s Day has a focus on societal issues.

It seems odd that Congress would not designate a day for fathers because it was afraid of commercialization. The commercialization of Mother’s Day is a boon for our capitalist economy and society as it greases our economic wheels at the same time it has the potential to maintain and strengthen familial connections.

In addition, the impression one gets from Wikipedia that Mother’s Day is not specifically for all mothers is not bourn out by some other sources. The National Archive page (cited by Wikipedia) for May 9th includes information about the gestation of Mother’s Day as a day to honor mothers and “the important roles that mothers play in the family, church, and community.”

Looking at this information with a sociological eye, what might it mean that these days are cast in such different tones? With the exception of the very recent International Men’s Day, men are individuals yet women are social goods. Men are celebrated in their experience of fatherhood. Period. Women are celebrated for being the support beams in the societal framework.

One might argue that this is counter to the gender inequalities in our society – that, finally, women are seen as important! However, are we valuing the roles of mother and father in the same way? Personal honor is given to men for their fatherhood role yet women’s role in motherhood is not celebrated in the same way. By tying the holiday to the societal framework, we dehumanize women as social cogs but also maintain the expectation that mothers must do these things.

The social norms that women – especially those who are mothers – must support the “family, church, and community” are strengthened. However, at the same time, Father’s Day allows men to  enjoy fatherhood on a personal level rather than commemorate the ties of fatherhood to society and societal obligations. Are there social norms tying fatherhood specifically to societal needs? Most link directly to the provider role which does not itself necessarily include fatherhood. Thus the role of father is left disconnected from societal processes and can celebrated on a purely personal level. Men’s roles as parent and provider are more separately defined than women’s roles are.

No matter how we define these days at the national or international level, how will you practice or celebrate these days? Do you send your mother and father greeting cards? Take them out for a meal? Bring or send your mother flowers?

Take a moment and think sociologically about how your practice, and that of millions of others who do the same thing, affect society? Besides the economic fuel you may add to our societal tank, how might your actions affect the social solidarity of society? How do they link to our gendered divisions of labor and life?


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Yes we should do it.

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Phoebe Adele Gates is the youngest daughter of Bill Gates, the principal founder of Microsoft Corporation. Phoebe is a student and a well-trained emerging Ballet dancer. Occasionally, she gives media appearances accompanying her parents and family.

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