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This Year, Let's Return Mother's Day to Its Activist Roots

By Deborah Jiang Stein

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Julia Ward Howe originally conceived of Mother’s Day in her 1870 “Appeal to womanhood” (later renamed her “Mother’s Day Proclamation”), a rallying cry to protest the bloodshed of the American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War. Howe was a prominent women's rights and social activist, a poet, a lecturer, Unitarian, and the author of the poem “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” She worked to end slavery, helped to initiate the women’s movement in many states, and organized for international peace.

The traditional “Mother’s Day” holiday of flowers and Hallmark cards, celebrated this year on Sunday, May 11th, is also “Mamas Day”—a day to honor all mamas with acts of justice and love. This year, the Unitarian Universalist Association is joining with Strong Families and other organizations to help return Mother's Day to its activist roots. Let’s especially celebrate those who bear the brunt of hurtful policies or who are weighed down by stigma in our culture, and, for me, this is a call to remember mothers and women in prisons.

The United States incarcerates more than any other country in the world, and for women, the rate of incarceration has increased 800% over a twenty year period. The rate for men is half this. Most women in prison are sentenced for drug-related nonviolent crimes, most have experienced abuse, and most have a diagnosable and treatable mental illness. Nearly three million children, most under the age of ten, have a parent in prison in the US. These dramatic figures are too stunning to ignore. It’s time to look at alternatives for incarceration. And for the mothers in prison, let’s pay attention to the fractured families and the children left behind. 

Unfortunately, not all people feel that way. In the last week, Governor Bill Haslam of Tennessee passed legislation that criminalizes women who are pregnant and using drugs. A woman can now be charged with criminal assault if she experiences complications with her pregnancy while using illegal drugs. Why not redirect those resources and engage a committee to explore community alternatives for treatment, counseling, and mental and physical healthcare for pregnant women who are addicted? Treatment and mental health alternatives have proven results. 

A petition on Change.org is calling for Gov. Haslam to reverse his decision. If you agree that prison is no solution for an addicted mother during pregnancy, please take a moment to sign and add your support and walk the walk of calling for community alternatives to prisons.

You can help in other ways, too. Consider talking about incarceration as a national public health concern rather than a crime problem. Please help raise awareness about the need for finding community-based wellness programs to support incarcerated women. Childcare, education, substance-abuse treatment, counseling, these will help reduce the rate of incarceration and in the end, keep incarcerated mothers united with their children. Dialogue about these issues with your friends, family, and in your community to raise awareness.

Julia Ward Howe’s mother died when she was five, a loss that resonates with me. I’ve lost several mothers through the course of, first, my birth in prison, and then through foster care and adoption. And then I lost the mother I grew to adore, my adoptive mother. On Mamas Day, I think of them all. I think of mine, of the thousands of mothers in prisons, and other mothers who are looked upon with stigma.  

As Julia Ward Howe begins in her antiwar poem “Appeal to womanhood”:

Arise then. . .women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts!


Prison Baby by Deborah Jiang SteinMy mother kept a proper appearance. A sturdy, petite woman, always with a ready laugh, she sat with her hands on her lap, ankles crossed, her brown eyes alert and eager with curiosity behind her glasses. She lost herself in reading and gardening, and played the piano and recorder. She made sure she put herself together well, with clip-on earrings and her soft brown hair pulled back. Her Italian-wool tailored suits accentuated her slim waistline, with a silk scarf draped around her neck to highlight her light-olive skin. I wanted a 1960s TV mom like Peggy Lipton in The Mod Squad—tall, blonde, and hip. My mother’s elegance and reserved demeanor embarrassed me. Even though I yearned for a mother who looked more like me, since I couldn’t have that, I wanted one who looked more like other mothers in the neighborhood.

Her soft-spoken voice still lifted with the sharpest wit I’ve ever known. We shared an in-the-moment intensity but not much else. She always looked complete, a well-wrapped package in under five feet. Although she claimed to be five feet some inches tall, once I grew past the five-foot mark I found out she had stretched the truth.

My mother wore the pain I caused on her soft round face, her brows sometimes bumped together in worry. Most of the time her mouth curved into a slight smile. She’d remind me at least once a day: Try and look interested or happy. Even if I wasn’t, she wanted me to look it. Not a chance.

No matter how much I pushed my mother away, she just wouldn’t stop trying to reach me. She took a class in “new math” to help me with my advanced homework in elementary school. I excelled in math and spelling, even though I tried not to. Once in a while at dinner my parents quizzed my brother and me on what we learned in school that day. My grade-school report cards often said, “Deborah is timid and withdrawn, and does not work up to her potential,” and then, in an attempt at a positive comment, “But her printing is improved.” In the column for parents’ comments, my mother wrote: “Good. Then there’s still hope.”

Did she think improved penmanship would help pull me out of my shell?

My brother strived to win in everything, but he wasn’t the best speller, and at home during dinner when our parents quizzed us, I would blurt out the correct answer as fast as I could just to better him. Most often, though, something pushed me to want to fail. My parents would tell me I was “intelligent and above average,” yet I hated their approval. . .though I sometimes wanted it.

I’ve taken piano lessons since age six or seven. Sometimes Mother calls me over to the piano and pats the stool next to her, then opens her music book to my favorite duet, Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” with its mysterious and haunting melody. Music stirs some magic inside me, loosens the rubber-band ball in my gut. Mother and I play duets together without talking, and if my fingers dance ahead of hers, she stops and releases the metronome so I can better keep tempo. Then we begin again.

I force myself to focus on the music because if I don’t, I lose my place and wander off, hypnotized by the metronome’s click click click click. The pressure of my father behind us across the room where he sits and scribbles on a manuscript or reads doesn’t help my concentration either.

I love this piano ritual with my mother, and I love her in those moments, love sitting at her side, love how her skillful fingers dance on the keys, her sophisticated perfume wafting around me.

But after one or two pieces, I’ve had enough. Enough tenderness with her because I can’t take it in anything other than small doses. A person needs to open the door, though, for any love to seep in.

Mother wants to play a second tune, even a third, but I can’t go on, can’t stand the collision in my gut. I can never shake the pictures in my head, the flashes of images in my imagination about women in denim or khaki, behind bars, images induced by television and newspapers of inmates surrounded by stern-faced prison guards with the hollow echo of steel doors slamming in the background.

I tell myself, “A girl born in prison isn’t supposed to play Bach or Beethoven duets with her mother.” In the middle of a duet, I slide my stool back and take off to my room. Solitude, always my redeemer.

It will take two decades before I tell my parents I had learned about my prison birth.


Deborah Jiang-Stein, photo by Terry GydesenDeborah Jiang-Stein is a national speaker and founder of The unPrison Project, a nonprofit working to empower incarcerated women and girls with life skills and mentoring to prepare for a successful life after prison. She's the author of the memoir Prison Baby, described as “One woman's struggles—beginning with her birth in prison—to find self-acceptance, proving that redemption and healing are possible, even from the darkest corners.” She is the mother of two daughters, ages 14 and 18. Follow Deborah on Twitter.