Parent TrapWhy Mother’s and Father’s Day Still Aren’t Playing Their Cards Right

two Black women hugging

Photo by Eye for Ebony on Unsplash

This article was published in Old Issue #46 | Spring 2010

To uncover the difference between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day in American culture, look no further than the instruments used to indoctrinate our youth: crack open some children’s books. In the (almost) perfect Mother’s Day, “T-rex tries to make breakfast for his mother.” In All In a Day’s Work: A Story About the Meaning of Mother’s Day, “Rance and Kelly don’t appreciate everything their mother does for them, until their scramble to find her a special gift for Mother’s Day opens their eyes to her importance.” And in the Berenstain Bears and the Mama’s Day Surprise, “Papa Bear and the Cubs do their best to surprise Mama with breakfast in bed and a gift, and Mama does her best not to ruin the surprise.” 

Meanwhile, for Father’s Day, it’s all fishing and golf. In All Dads on Deck, “It’s Father’s Day and the Pee Wees are off on a boating adventure. All the dads are there. Everyone is ready to hook a fish and earn fishing badges.” In Father’s Day, “Steve and Sara’s plan to take Dad on a fishing trip on Father’s Day is not ruined when it rains all day,” and in Froggy’s Day with Dad, “Froggy and his dad celebrate Father’s Day with a game of miniature golf, among other things.”

As holidays, Mother’s and Father’s Day seem like equivalents. But the cultural messages sent in children’s books, greeting cards, and magazines illustrate just how different mom and dad are. In encouraging children to honor them each in a very special, very different, way, the message is this: Mother, the primary caretaker, family domestic, and sometime martyr, gets one hopefully perfect day per year where all her (unpaid, unrecognized) work is honored, and she’s granted relief from chores. Father, who presumably spends his days out of the house providing for his family, garnering praise in the public sphere for his good work and in the private one for bringing home the bacon, has his role as family playmate recognized. And so Mother’s and Father’s Day continue to do the cultural work of reinforcing popular notions of gendered parenting, through its inverse.

If the idea of mom getting a day “off” from parenting and dad getting 24 hours to do nothing but hang with his kids seems totally last century, well, that’s because it is. Mother’s and Father’s Day were instituted in 1907 and 1909, respectively, when two orphaned women both decided they needed a special day to honor the incredible sacrifice of one of their parental units. Anna Jarvis staked dibs on the second Sunday in May—conveniently close to Memorial Day—for children to honor the sacrifice of their mothers. Sonora Dodd then claimed the third Sunday in June for remembrances of all fathers, but particularly her own.

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Government, church, and especially business all quickly adopted Mother’s Day. Every year, newspaper reporters repeat the story of how Jarvis couldn’t control the commercial enthusiasm for the holiday she created, and ended up spending years writing irritable letters to the president about how Mother’s Day retailers should be stopped. In fact, historians of the era note that Mother’s Day caught on so quickly in large part because it appealed to profoundly conservative values around women’s roles in the family at a time when those were being challenged by a new kind of lady on the scene—the emancipated “New Woman” who wore makeup, drank, embraced a freer sexuality, and by 1920 had won the right to vote. Writes Leigh Eric Schmidt, author of Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays, “In the 1910s and 1920s (and often enough thereafter) Mother’s Day served as a kind of solace for many American Christians, Protestants and Catholics alike, who feared that the “new womanhood” was threatening the very institutions of motherhood, domesticity and the family.

Mother’s Day was necessary, wrote Susan Tracy Rice in 1915 in a book titled Mother’s Day: Its History, Origin, Celebration, Spirit, and Significance as Related in Prose and Verse, because of “a realization of the growing lack of tender consideration for absent mothers among worldly-minded, busy, grown-up children; of the thoughtless neglect of home ties and of loving consideration, engendered by the whirl and pressure of modern life; of the lack of respect and deference to parents among children of the present generation; and of the need of a reminder of the loving, unselfish mother, living or dead.” According to Rice, Mother represents home, family ties and duties, and, most important, the love of the person who has sacrificed all for her children, and whom her children must protect at all costs. What better person to honor during a period of flux?

Then came World War I, which added Super-Gro to the blossoming Mother’s Day movement. In her 1996 article about Mother’s Day in wartime, “She Didn’t Raise Her Boy to Be a Slacker: Motherhood, Conscription, and the Culture of the First World War,” Susan Zeiger points out that during the early phase of the war, mothers were doing a pretty good job mobilizing for peace—good enough that one of the top 10 hits of 1915 (measured not in gold records but in sheet-music sales) goes: “I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier/ I brought him up to be my pride and joy/ Who dares to place a musket on his shoulder/ To shoot some other mother’s darling boy?”

Since antiwar mother’s movements were not helpful to the war effort, the government deployed military propaganda to show that real mothers knew that true love of their country, and their sons, meant sacrificing their children. In 1918, General Pershing issued the following instructions: “I wish that every officer and soldier of the AEF would write a letter home on Mother’s Day. This is a little thing for each one to do. But these letters will carry back our courage and our affection to the patriotic women whose love and prayers inspire us and cheer us on to victory.” (He didn’t mention what to write to those mothers who continued agitating for an end to the war.)

Mother’s and Father’s Day continue to do the cultural work of reinforcing popular notions of gendered parenting.

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While Mother’s Day provided the perfect vehicle to rhetorically flip women from the role of active agitators for peace and remind them of their value in the passive role of honored martyr, Father’s Day wasn’t quite so politically useful—and took much longer to gain traction. As Schmidt points out, the Presbyterian Assembly discussed sermonizing on Mother’s and Father’s Day at their annual meeting in 1911, and while Mother’s Day passed with no problem, the idea of a Father’s Day sermon got laughed out of the house. It wasn’t the last time the idea of the holiday would be mocked. For one thing, Father’s Day didn’t work particularly well as a commercial celebration, in part because in the middle-class homes targeted by advertisers, Dad was ostensibly the one paying all the bills, regardless of who actually did the gift purchasing. (Early newspaper comics portrayed fathers receiving lavish Father’s Day gifts one day and the bills for them the next.)

And economic stereotypes aside, Father’s Day seemed a little too conspicuous as a neat trick in reverse psychology: Praise all the qualities of fatherhood from the pulpit that you wish the actual fathers in the pews would demonstrate, thereby shaming those ne’er-do-wells into behaving better. And in fact, the prime movers behind Father’s Day were transparent in their promotion of the holiday as an opportunity to instruct men to engage more in family life. Sonora Dodd’s initial petition to sponsor Father’s Day in Spokane, Washington, in 1909 highlighted the opportunities for encouraging more fatherly behavior: “The training of children. The safeguarding of the marriage tie. The protection of womanhood and childhood. The meaning of this, whether in light of religion or of patriotism, is so apparent as to need no argument in behalf of such a day.”

No wonder, then, that Father’s Day had a spottier beginning. In fact, after Dodd’s initial push in Spokane, Father’s Day died out when she left town. It only started again in Spokane more than a decade later, when she returned. (And while Mother’s Day was recognized by Woodrow Wilson in 1914, Father’s Day didn’t get its presidential proclamation until 1966, with Richard Nixon giving it permanent status in 1972.) Even while Mother’s and Father’s Day were growing as public holidays, an alternative, nongendered celebration of parenthood persisted for almost a decade before failing. In the early 1920s, Robert Spero, a New York radio personality known as “Uncle Robert,” sponsored the first Parents’ Day gathering. The messages sent forth at the annual gathering, including one sent by President Herbert Hoover, spoke more to the ideals of coparenting and cooperation than to the strict gendered stereotypes of Mother’s and Father’s Day. Hoover wrote: “The finest partnership in the world is the partnership of father, mother, and children in the business of making one another happy.”

Spero’s extreme force of will—not to mention his wads of cash—kept the annual event alive with rallies in New York City from 1931 to 1939. But after he stepped down as its champion and master of ceremonies, the event quickly fizzled out. Ralph LaRossa and Jaimie Ann Carboy, the authors of a history of Parents’ Day titled “A Kiss for Mother, A Hug for Dad,” point out that the combined celebration of both parents “may have contained more ambiguity than the clergy was willing to allow.” But the centrality of business, from the flower industry to haberdashers, in advertising and supporting Mother’s and Father’s Day may also explain the failure of Parents’ Day. After all, a combined holiday halves the profits for retailers, and possibly wipes out their Mother’s and Father’s Day revenue completely: If both parents are honored on the same day, who organizes the celebration and purchases gifts?

Without the clergy or business to promote Parents’ Day, it fell to parents themselves to keep it going. That apparently never happened, despite the promise of Spero’s close friend George Hecht, editor of Parents magazine, that he would support its continuation. While we can only speculate about Hecht’s motives for abandoning the Parents’ Day campaign, a look at Parents over time indicates that its primary audience is mothers—more than a few contemporary fathers give it terrible reviews for only targeting women. It’s possible that the magazine followed its own audience proclivities: That is, the sort of women subscribing to Parents wanted a holiday all to themselves.

So Parents’ Day came and went, and Mother’s and Father’s Day became more firmly entrenched as separate and only nominally equal days. Hallmark cards from the first half of the 20th century are instructive: Mother’s Day cards paid homage to the domestic goddess of ovens, sewing machines, and snack time. Father’s Day greetings featured images of Breadwinner Dad in his easy chair, face hidden behind the newspaper, enjoying time to himself away from the quotidian hubbub. (One card from 1935, thick with Depression resonance, read, “Hey Mr. President! How about a little relief for dear old dad?”) In most communities that celebrated Mother’s Day, according to newspaper reports, its first few decades closely followed the script proposed by Anna Jarvis: A church service, the wearing of carnations (red for a mother who’s alive, white for those who have passed), and rewards for the oldest mother, the newest mother, the mother of the most offspring, and even the “best mother” overall.

The 1938 winner of the Contest for the American Mother was Mrs. Grace Noll Crowell of Dallas, Texas, who, as the New York Times reported, “has three children and has written 1,900 poems, a large number of them about the Home.” The author added, “Said Mrs. Crowell: ‘Womanhood is fundamentally sound.’” Womanhood may have been sound, but Mother’s Day rituals were soon in flux, and one of the most interesting shifts was the change in gift-giving protocol. In addition to flowers and honors in church, the gift of leisure soon became de rigueur for Mom—a gift that remains one of the most popular for recipients to this day. In 1952, the L.A. Times put it bluntly: “There should be at least one day in the year when mothers can leave their recipes in the file, and not so much as touch the handle of a saucepan,” the author wrote.

A few years later, in 1960, the burgeoning feminist movement took it one step further. That year, news articles highlighted a Chicago-area feminist group called the Society for the Appreciation and Preservation of Spouses (SAPS) who petitioned to move Mother’s Day to February, and to extend it for one glorious week when husbands would do all the chores normally done by their wives, including changing diapers and cooking. “Mother’s Day is just one day a year, while men enjoy Father’s Day 52 weeks a year,” SAPS founder Margaret Jane Fink stated, adding, “Besides, we have to cook on Mother’s Day anyway.” In other words, women only need to be given the day off if it’s acknowledged that they’re the ones doing the work the rest of the time. If men were sharing parenting and domestic work equally, women wouldn’t need a glorious celebration in honor of their sacrifice—whether in the form of the church sermon of the early 1900s or the spa package of the early 2000s.

Obama: "Happy Father's Day"

Meanwhile, what began as a prescribed day of leisure for dad slowly morphed into a directive for him to engage actively in the “work” of fatherhood. The trend toward honoring active fathering started, not surprisingly, in the 1970s, when fathers began to be represented as nurturing, loving parents in pop culture. But old habits die hard, and even sincere efforts to cement Father’s Day in pop culture were often undercut by stereotypes. In 2000, Ralph LaRossa, along with three other scholars, published a paper in the Journal of Marriage and Family called “The Changing Culture of Fatherhood in Comic-Strip Families: A Six-Decade Analysis.” The article looked at fatherhood as portrayed in newspaper funny pages, and its findings were predictable: Father’s Day was mentioned substantially less often than its maternal counterpart, a difference that’s become more pronounced in recent decades. Fathers were also three times more likely to be gently mocked than mothers in comic strips—portrayed, for instance, as making a holy mess of Mother’s Day breakfast.

LaRossa’s study mirrors what advertisers, retailers, and marketers already know: No matter how earnestly we encourage joint parenting, from a commercial standpoint mothers are still considered the primary parents, with fathers as fun but flailing pinch hitters. In 2008, 160 million cards were bought for Mother’s Day, compared to 110 million for Dad. While fathers get nearly $10 billion in gifts, mothers come close to the $16 billion mark. And, perhaps more to the point, when Father’s Day is discussed, it’s generally with a reminder of what male parents aren’t doing. Barack Obama, for one, delivered a Father’s Day message in 2007, when he was still a senator, encouraging men, particularly Black men, to take their roles and responsibilities as fathers seriously. On his first Father’s Day as president, he wrote: “[W]e need fathers to step up, to realize that their job does not end at conception; that what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child but the courage to raise one.” Similarly, many Black churches give serious attention to Father’s Day by sponsoring marches to highlight the importance of responsible fatherhood.

Ultimately, the American family doesn’t have one picture—so is it any wonder that Mother’s and Father’s Day cards and books can’t adequately portray it? In the families consciously working at coparenting, the weight of these holidays and their histories undermine the work toward egalitarianism: The predominant narrative urging responsibility on fathers seems unkind, and women who try to share domestic tasks equally don’t necessarily benefit from the cultural message that they’re the only ones doing any work around the house. While research on Mother’s and Father’s Day remains limited, one contemporary psychologist has looked at the question of how ideology around gender and domestic labor impacts people’s response to the holiday. Nicole Gilbert Cote interviewed more than 50 mostly Caucasian Massachusetts families from a broad educational and occupational background for an article coauthored with Francine M. Deutsch, “Flowers for Mother, a Tie for Dad: How Gender Is Created on Mother’s and Father’s Day.” It turns out that no matter where they stood on the ideological spectrum, families of feminists or self-avowed traditionalists, they were more likely to give more attention to Mother’s Day and more likely to give Mom a “day off.”

Whether or not you’re buying roses and cards, the messages of Mother’s Day are powerful, in part because the story of Mother’s Day is intergenerational. Egalitarian mothers of today still take their own mothers out to brunch and stick their children’s handmade cards on the refrigerator. While political movements have appropriated the holiday for their purposes—feminism, preventing gun violence—it’s frankly hard to imagine how individual families who might want to celebrate family life without reifying traditional gender roles might make the holiday their own. Lest we forget, participating in the dominant narrative of Mother’s Day means getting a day off; any parent would find it hard to turn that down. So while it’s tempting to look at how Mother’s Day started and the role it’s played in constructing a traditional mother’s role, one important lesson from Mother’s Day is that the significance of the holiday is deeper than any one person can direct. (If Anna Jarvis had her way, everyone would write a letter to mom—no gifts allowed.)

photo of a Black woman and her child smiling

Photo by Eye for Ebony on Unsplash

One need look no further than Parents’ Day, that failed experiment of the 1930s—and, as it turns out, the 1990s—to see how hard constructing a holiday can be. In 1994, President Clinton attempted to bring back the holiday, signing into law a resolution setting aside the fourth Sunday in July as National Parents’ Day. His proclamation didn’t mention mothers or fathers, allowing space for parents of all stripes to participate. In his last Parents’ Day proclamation, in 2000, Clinton talked about the Family Medical Leave Act, and the fact that families need better tools—more time off, better childcare—to be able to care for their loved ones. The message was a good one, but once again, Parents’ Day was a flop, likely for the same reasons it foundered in Robert Spero’s day: None of the major players can see any real benefit in it. The retail industry doesn’t want a holiday that may take the place of two perfectly profitable current ones; Mother’s and Father’s Day still work well for religious bodies hoping to promote a vision of traditional domestic motherhood and responsible fatherhood. Without advertisers in the marketplace or in the pulpit, the holiday benefits only parents themselves—and that’s not enough.

And of course, with only political support, the tenor of each presidential administration shapes how the holiday is portrayed: When George W. Bush took office, he continued to sign the National Parents’ Day proclamation, but reframed the holiday as one reinforcing traditional, two-parent, husband-wife families. His presidential proclamation from 2001 reads: “Study after study has demonstrated that children who grow up without both parents in their home are more likely to end up in poverty, drop out of school, become addicted to drugs, have a child out of wedlock, or go to prison. Single-parented children who avoid these unfortunate outcomes will nevertheless miss out on the balance, unity, and stability that a two-parent family can bring.”

So Mother’s and Father’s Day, in their current form, feel anachronistic, but parents still cling to them. Perhaps this speaks to the truth about parenting today. For many workers, the line between the worlds of parenting and work has become less defined—taking time up well beyond the 9 to 5, and occupying our homes in the form of laptops and BlackBerrys. And of course, for mothers and fathers who do stay home, a special day honoring their work is well deserved. So maybe the celebration of Mother’s and Father’s Day could serve egalitarian families by combining the best of all worlds: chocolates, massages, a day off, and a commitment to celebrate both days equally.

Mother’s, Father’s, and Parents’ Day don’t have to be holidays that promote an outdated world with gender-defined roles. They should serve as reminders that parenting is a fundamental role for both parents. And if that’s the case, who can begrudge 160 million Mother’s Day cards? It’s a good sign that so many of us want to send a special message to our parents, and a nice quantitative reminder of the strength of those relationships. If men and women, mothers and fathers, are both working two shifts, perhaps it means something that one of those jobs throws us an annual party. How many cards get sent for Boss’s Day, after all?


by E.L. Fricke
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