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A Global Perspective on Mother’s Day

In honor of Mother's Day, Beacon Broadside will feature a handful of posts on the holiday. Today, Sarah LeVine shares her experiences of mother's days around the world. LeVine grew up in England; she was educated at Oxford, the University of Chicago, and Harvard, where she received her Ph.D. and is now an associate in the department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies. Her most recent book, with David Gellner, is Rebuilding Buddhism, and a collection of stories, The Saint of Kathmandu and Other Tales of the Sacred in Distant Lands, is forthcoming from Beacon Press

The Saint of Kathmandu When I came to the US from England in the 1960s, I suffered a good deal from culture shock. In the first place, in contrast with my British undergraduate classmates who rarely mentioned their parents, my Freud-indoctrinated American graduate school classmates, despite being older and, one might have assumed, already well out of the nest, were obsessed with theirs, especially with their mothers. Trading tales of psychological abuse was a favorite pastime. But for all this tension and ambivalence, they still celebrated Mother's Day. In England at that time we had Mothering Sunday on the fourth Sunday of Lent, an Anglican Church festival that was generally ignored. The four per cent of the population who went to church on that particular late winter Sunday thanked God for the care and attention they'd received from their mothers, who were only marginally involved in this thanksgiving. In contrast, Mother's Day in America was a federally-sanctified celebration, a deification of the internalized torturer/seductress, which even in the sixties was poised to out-strip the commercial excesses of Christmas.

I was astounded by the commotion. But then I married an American and had American children who, soon after they could toddle, were deifying me on the second Sunday in May. Almost before I knew it I was receiving cards (handmade in daycare center) and being pressed to stay in bed long after the hour when I was usually out jogging so that, with their father's help, my children could bring my breakfast on a tray.

Rather to my surprise I began to look forward to the Mother's Day commotion.

Then in 1982, after many years of doing research on family life in African villages where nobody celebrated Mother's Day, I moved to Cuernavaca, Mexico where everybody did. Regardless of the day of the week on which el dia de las madres fell, May 10 was a national holiday. Invariably the sun shone, from early morning in the poor barrio where I worked, loudspeakers blared out Stevie Wonder singing "I Called To Say I Loved You", and women hung around the public phones outside the covered market to receive calls from adult children on "the other side" – the West Side of Chicago, in Detroit and East LA. Once those calls had come through they would sail home to sit like queens at their own tables to be served comida which, on this one day in the year, was prepared for them by others, and to receive offerings – pocket calculators as well as negligees and tuber roses were popular gift; and Hallmark cards were ubiquitous of course. When I suggested that Mother's Day was a latter-day North American incursion, my friends in the barrio vociferously denied this. Mexicans had been celebrating Mother's Day since Aztec times!    

By the spring of 1990 I was working in the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal. It happened that on this trip I'd arrived in the country to find a revolution in progress as, after decades of authoritarian monarchical rule, the people had risen up to demand the restoration of democracy. Almost daily, the massive street demonstrations which were taking place outside the king's palace provoked the police to fire into the crowd, killing activists and onlookers alike at random. By night, a curfew shut the city down. Not until the end of April, after the king had surrendered absolute power and accepted the constraints of a constitutional monarchy, could my assistant, Punam Rana, and I go out to "our" village. At first we both found its sublime peacefulness after the danger, disorder and exuberance of Kathmandu unreal.

In Nepal, as in most other countries where I've worked, I was researching how mothers raised their children. I soon discovered that, in our village, though the men — many of whom commuted to jobs in the capital — were well aware of what had been going on there, the women with whom Punam and I spent long days, were not; and when we tried to explain, they heard us out politely but with little interest. They were eagerly anticipating Mata Tirtha Puja (which English-speakers translated as Mother's Day) when young mothers like themselves who lived with their husbands in villages that were often far from where they'd been born, could go home to greet and venerate their mothers. (Adult sons also venerate their mothers on Mata Tirtha Puja; but since many bring their wives to live in the same house where their mother is living, the celebration is of much less significance to them.)      

In 1990 the big day – the date varies according to the lunar calendar — fell in the first week of May. As dawn was breaking, young women dressed in the spectacular red silk saris that they'd worn at their weddings and thereafter reserved for very special occasions, started making their way out to the road to catch buses and taxis to their home villages. They took nursing infants along but older children they left with their husbands. From before sun up to well after sunset they worked in the house, the fields and the forest 364 days a year. Today was their holiday! Meanwhile, their sisters-in-law who had married "out" were converging on our village. By mid morning I was watching the joy with which mothers and daughters greeted each other and settled down for a few hours of gossip and snacking. By mid afternoon, after preparing and consuming a celebratory meal together, they were bidding one another farewell. As there were no phones in our village and, even if a few women could read and write letters, there was no mail service either, most didn't expect to meet or communicate directly until Mother's Day next year.

Recommended reading: Sarah LeVine previously posted at Beacon Broadside to share her Memories of Burma.