Bread and Circuses and Mother’s Day

According to Juvenal, politicians in ancient Rome discovered they could get the downtrodden masses to abdicate their rights and accept shocking degrees of oppression merely by giving them enough bread to eat and circuses to distract them.

Meanwhile, in our modern age, we have this thing called Mother’s Day. Never mind how overworked and burned out many mothers are, balancing fulltime employment with the lioness’s share of childcare and housework. Never mind that the possible overturning of the Roe vs. Wade would outlaw abortion and force a whole generation of women and girls in the United States to become mothers against their will.

We’re supposed to dismiss all of the above from our pretty heads because, for ONE DAY A YEAR, we celebrate motherhood with a proliferation of sentimental greeting cards, hothouse flowers, and overpriced restaurant meals served by waitresses who are themselves overworked, burned out mothers.

I think we need to call out hypocrisy here.

A culture that truly honored motherhood would do a lot more than offer one day of saccharine appeasement. It would provide paid parental leave for both parents and urge fathers to put in equal time in parenting and housework. It would provide excellent subsidized childcare, following the Scandinavian model, along with a shorter working week, creating an even playing field for women and men to pursue their careers while still having downtime with their families. A culture that truly celebrated motherhood would insure that motherhood was a freely-elected CHOICE and provide sex education, birth control, and abortion with no discussion or handwringing.

Motherhood in a culture that is toxic to mothers and to women in general can be a fraught experience. Generations of unspoken pain, repression, and deep-lying trauma get passed down from mothers to daughters. Some women I know have made the decision not to have children in order to end this long chain of hurt. Just imagine if every woman refused to reproduce until we could dismantle the chains of patriarchal oppression.

Mother’s Day can be a contentious holiday for both mothers and daughters, especially those who have suffered abuse, neglect, or trauma.

An older friend of mine is haunted by the beatings her mother gave her back in the day when the kind of physical punishment we would now view as child abuse was considered acceptable. Her mother even used to joke about these incidents at family gatherings, as if it were some amusing anecdote, and she seemed to remain steadfastly oblivious to her daughter’s deep pain and trauma. One can only wonder what was going on inside the mother. Did her repressed anger or her own unhealed trauma move her to smack the hell out of her little girl? Had she herself been beaten, shamed for her tears, and ordered to laugh it off?

As the saying goes, hurt people hurt people. I would go further by saying that hurt mothers hurt their daughters.

This is the crux of how patriarchy divides and conquers women. How it trains mothers to cut their daughters down to size, just as they were cut down.

The greatest gift we can give mothers on Mother’s Day, or on ANY day, is our own healing and strength, co-creating a world where every woman, whether she is a mother or not, is respected and whole. Where hurt mothers can be healed and heard, without passing the pain down to the next generation. Where the whole insidious cycle of abuse can end once and for all and we can live inside our power.

Mary Sharratt is committed to telling women’s stories. Please check out her acclaimed novel Illuminations, drawn from the dramatic life of Hildegard von Bingen, and her new novel Revelationsabout the mystical pilgrim Margery Kempe and her friendship with Julian of Norwich. Visit her website.

Categories: Feminism, Motherhood


12 replies

  1. The previous generation did not have access to therapy, information and financial opportunities the way this generation does. Old school family tradition revered the male, even from the mother. It’s just the way it was and still is in too many parts of the world. Christianity and any other organised religion has much to answer for. It’s whole organised systems, capitalism, politics included that hurt women.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you for reading. That’s a very pertinent observation.

      Therapy, self-help, and general awareness of the psychology of family systems went mainstream in the 1970s, so it has been around for at least 50 years. At least in the US.


  2. Thank you for writing this piece, Mary. I despise Mothers’ Day with the popular celebratory gifts you mention that are so often given out of duty and obligation. We do not “love” mothers, nor do we “love” children in our patriarchal, hierarchical, and violent culture. I don’t think enough of us understand that as you’ve noted. Onward! Lots of work to do…..

    Liked by 4 people

  3. I think Mothers Day is a waste of time.

    Mary, as usual, you are brilliant, and you certainly are right about the Romans’ using food and entertainment to distract the ordinary people. What has changed in 2500 years??? NOTHING. Now it’s just basically the government trying to distract us with TV reality stars (one of whom was president and thinks he still is) and stupid holidays that just make us work harder.

    Thank you thank you thank you for this insightful post. I agree that we ought to try to reach for and achieve healing and work as hard as we can to stop the abuse of women. Get rid of Mothers Day. Get rid of Fathers Day, too. Bright blessings. My dear friend, I hope all’s good by you in Portugal.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. A wonderful post, especially your statement that “The greatest gift we can give mothers on Mother’s Day, or on ANY day, is our own healing and strength, co-creating a world where every woman, whether she is a mother or not, is respected and whole.” This reminds me of the origins of Mothers’ Day in Julia Ward Howe’s 1870 “Mothers’ Day Proclamation” in response to the shock and trauma of the US Civil War in which she proposed that women come together to create a peaceful world. In her proclamation she wrote “…Let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel. Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means Whereby the great human family can live in peace…” Apparently, then some 40 years later Anna Jarvis, whose mother was an activist who had worked with Howe, started a campaign to honor mothers based on Howe’s original idea. She was horrified when it quickly became the commercial holiday it is now. Maybe someday we can really honor Howe’s proclamation with not just a “Mothers’ Day” but an Everyones’ Day of Peace.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks so much for reading. I had no idea that Julia Ward Howe made a Mother’s Day Proclamation and that this feminist seed was the origin of Mother’s Day. Why isn’t this taught in schools? Thanks for bringing this to our attention. It’s important knowledge!


  5. What a post – wow. I think this mother’s day “saccharine appeasement” is disgusting. A set up if there ever was one. As an abused daughter it took me most of my life to ask myself what the hell was wrong with my mother instead of blaming myself.. You may have answered part of this question although in my case I saw my mother being worshipped by virtually all family members so I am not sure…. in any event PAIN is normalized when one begins to wear the mother “hood”…because repression is normalized. I think it’s incredibly difficult to be a person when you are a mother, especially if you are a young mother… Thank you thank you…

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I really liked this post and agree with everything you write, Mary. I would only add that in a patriarchal culture, it is practically inevitable that the mother passes on that culture, which, of course, means patriarchy. I, as a feminist mother, tried in every way possible not to do that, but even in trying to keep my daughter safe, I was teaching her that she wasn’t safe in patriarchy and kept her less free than a boy child of mine might have been. Of course, I kept her safe, because that’s the first requirement of a healthy life.

    Liked by 1 person

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