In the flurry of Mother’s Day celebrations, it’s easy to lose sight of the deeper meaning behind honoring motherhood. Beyond the flowers, cards, and breakfast in bed lies a complex web of expectations, responsibilities, and societal norms that shape the experience of being a mother.

This article offers a fresh perspective on motherhood, challenging traditional notions and exploring the mutual responsibilities within families. We’ll dissect the concept of “self-care,” scrutinize the annual ritual of pampering mothers on their special day, and propose a more equitable approach to honoring the primary caretaker.

The origins of Mother’s Day

While ‘traditional motherhood’ is often presented as a timeless and unchanging concept, in fact, it has been a more complex and dynamic role than we might assume. Women throughout history have played many different roles in their families, and communities, often combining child-rearing and care tasks with work, activism, and other responsibilities.

The roots of Mother’s Day can be traced back to 1858, when Anna Jarvis’s mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis, began organizing Mothers’ Day Work Clubs to educate families on proper health precautions and improve public health.

While Ann Reeves Jarvis lived in several locations during her life, one of the most notable was in Grafton, West Virginia. It was a small city near the Tygart Valley River. Her father was a Minister, and she later married Granville E. Jarvis in the mid 1850’s, a successful businessman who later became a prominent figure in West Virginia politics.

The couple were active members of the community, participating in various civic, religious and social organizations. Grafton was the spot that later inspired her daughter, Anna, to create Mother’s Day.

Civic activities

During the American Civil War, Ann Jarvis urged members of these clubs to remain neutral and care for soldiers from both sides, promoting compassion and reconciliation.

It’s hard to overemphasize the centrality of location: the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) reached Grafton in January of 1852. The railroad connection played a crucial role in the movement of troops and supplies during the Civil War, making it a strategic target for both Union and Confederate forces. Grafton was located 2o miles north of the Mason-Dixon Line.

In 1868, Ann Reeves Jarvis organized a Mothers’ Friendship Day to foster healing between Union and Confederate veterans and their families. In one dramatic event, former soldiers from both sides fell into each other’s arms crying.

What domestic labor and motherhood looked like: Laundry

Let’s examine Ann Reeve Jarvis’s life by examining housework.

In the mid-19th century, before the advent of modern washing machines, laundry was a labor-intensive and time-consuming task for middle-class women. The frequency of doing laundry depended on various factors, such as the number of people in the household, the amount of clothing and linens available, and the social norms of cleanliness at the time.

For most middle-class households during this period, laundry was typically done once a week or once every two weeks.

Doing laundry in the mid-19th century was a multi-step process that involved hauling water, heating it over a fire, scrubbing the clothes on a washboard, rinsing them in clean water, and hanging them up to dry. This process often took an entire day or more, depending on the size of the load and the availability of resources.

Laundry was the most dreaded job for women during the mid-19th century. Bed linens were the most challenging and most hated of all of the laundry tasks. It involved lugging water, handling harsh lye, repeated rinses, and hanging these heavy linens and cottons. All but the poorest of women sent out some laundry. Even those who took in other people’s laundry, outsourced their bed linens for those less fortunate to do.

Sunday supper provided leftovers, so that no cooking was done on Monday. Laundry took the entire day. This was most often a community effort to get the task done.

So how did she do it?

I asked myself how a woman who spent almost ten years of her life pregnant (she had 13 children) had the sheer energy to become so civically involved? And her years spent being pregnant and the hassle of laundry was just the start.

While she wore no make-up, her hair had to be done up in elaborate updos or intricate braids. A middle-class woman like Ann Reeves Jarvis might own anywhere from 3-6 everyday dresses and a few more for special occasions. Given the intricate clothing and undergarments that were common for women in the mid-19 century, it likely took her 30-60 minutes just to put her clothes on in the morning and even dressing herself wasn’t easy to do alone.

Servants and enslaved people

The answer lay in domestic servants and enslaved people, and this was true for middle-class households as well as wealthier ones. Between 1870 and 1900, the United States experienced a significant wave of immigration, with nearly 12 million people arriving in the country. The majority of these immigrants came from Germany, Ireland, and England, which had been the primary sources of immigration before the Civil War. However, a notable number of Chinese immigrants also arrived in the United States during this period, particularly between the start of the California gold rush in 1849 and 1882, when federal law put an end to Chinese immigration.1

And by the end of the Civil War, most southern black Americans, though free, lived in desperate rural poverty.2

Agencies popped up to make hiring these servants even easier. In Boston in 1870, one family out of every three had a live-in servant; in New York and San Francisco, one in every four had a full-time live-in servant; in Philadelphia and Chicago, one family in every five.3

The science of household management

With a wealth of cheap labor, exacerbated by the economic downturn resulting in one of the longest and deepest depressions of the 19th century between late 1839-1943, a mass-based “mother’s movement” emerged, aiming to redefine women’s domestic roles based on principles of efficiency, expertise, and professionalism.

Beginning in the 1840s with figures like Catharine Beecher advocating for “rational business principles in housekeeping,” the late 19th century saw the formalization of home economics and domestic science as academic disciplines in schools and universities.

Led by groups like the Congress of Mothers (later known as National Parent Teachers Association), and key figures like Ellen Swallow Richards, the movement sought to educate young women in biology, chemistry, bacteriology, and child psychology to enhance their household management skills.

Fortified with a staff of servants, the ‘woman of the house’ took on a managerial role in supervising menu planning, shopping, and housecleaning. These were now to be approached scientifically, with an understanding of dietetics, economics, and germ theory. This movement aimed to elevate the status of homemaking and emphasize its importance in maintaining a clean and healthy society.

Anna Jarvis: The Mother’s Day crusader

Anna Jarvis, upon her mother’s death in 1905, embarked on a tireless campaign, advocating for a Mother’s Day to be observed on the second Sunday of May. She privately placed a white carnation on her mother’s grave, which then became a symbol of this holiday.

It was, perhaps, fitting that such a tribute occurred at a time in American history when wet nurses and nannies played as large a role as they ever would play in the history of parenting practices in the USA. While nannies were never as popular in the USA as in Great Britain, the influx of cheap labor made this period possible. Nannies (or ‘nurses’) themselves began to be viewed senior positions within the household and the nanny herself would often have lower-level staff (‘nursery maids’) that were more hands-on with the children. 4

Mothers in general, and perhaps Anna’s mother in particular, were romanticized because these children would visit them for only an hour or two a day. The actual caretaking was done by this growing professional class of childcare workers.

Ann’s prayer

Anna remembered, as a young girl, hearing her mother often repeat a simple prayer:

I hope and pray that someone, some time, will found a memorial Mothers’ Day commemorating her for the matchless service she renders to humanity in every field of life. She is entitled to it.

Ann Reeves Javis

While Ann Jarvis emphasized the valuable role mothers played in both supporting their families and serving humanity through social activism, Anna’s conception focused more on the personal, emotional bond between a mother and her children.

This generational difference is reflected in the different spelling of “Mother” in Ann’s organizations, and Anna’s holiday. Anna Jarvis insisted on using the singular possessive “Mother’s” to signify the personal nature of the day, whereas her mother’s initiatives used the plural possessive “Mothers'” to indicate a collective effort and recognition of mothers’ societal contributions.

While inspired by her mother’s life of social action, Anna’s vision for Mother’s Day ultimately diverged from her mother’s. Her disillusionment with this effort began as the holiday became transformed by commercialization and political exploitation.

The commercialization of Mother’s Day

As Mother’s Day gained national recognition, with West Virginia and President Woodrow Wilson making it an official holiday in 1910 and 1914 respectively, Anna Jarvis witnessed a shift in its observance. The holiday became increasingly commercialized and politically exploited. The florist, card and candy industries began cashing in and straying from her vision of a deeply personal and reverential tribute.

Jarvis fiercely opposed these changes, endorsing boycotts, threatening litigation, and even crashing conventions to defend her vision.

Despite her efforts, Jarvis felt she had lost control over her creation. She grew increasingly reclusive and bitter, regretting ever starting Mother’s Day. Tragically, Jarvis spent her final years in a mental asylum, dying alone and penniless at the age of 84, having never profited from or had children of her own to celebrate the holiday she founded.

The evolution of women’s work and the rise of the “Servantless Kitchen”

As electricity spread across the cities and into the rural areas of America, more and more “labor-saving” machines appeared on the scene. It wasn’t, however, until the aftermath of World War II, and a bustling economy, when the notion of the ‘servantless kitchen’ arose.

Naturally, the wealthy and upper middle class have consistently maintained some form of assistance. They still employed domestic workers, but re-labeled them as nannies, lady helps, mother’s helps, and au pairs, to steer clear of the stigma associated with being labeled as ‘servants.’ Despite efforts to professionalize these roles, many argue that these jobs, particularly those in private homes and not through agencies, remain fraught with challenges.

The decline of the domestic servant class in the United States was driven by the rise of job opportunities in factories and offices. As household designs evolved to accommodate smaller homes, technological advances, and changing circumstances, the concept of the “servantless kitchen” emerged. This kitchen layout positioned the sink, stove, cupboards, and drawers within easy reach of the homemaker. Whereas the American housewife once had live-in help, she now relied on science and machines.

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the idea of the servantless kitchen gained traction, influencing home design and the development of labor-saving appliances. This trend continued post-World War II, as smaller, efficient kitchens became a hallmark of suburban American homes.

Labor-Saving devices and household expectations

The paradox of household labor and the impact of “labor-saving” devices on time and expectations in households is perplexing. Despite technological advancements designed to make housework easier and reduce labor, the overall time spent on chores has remained relatively constant. What has changed significantly, however, is the quality and expectations surrounding household duties.

Historically, devices like washing machines, dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, and microwave ovens were hailed as revolutionary tools that would save time and reduce the burden of chores. While they made individual tasks more efficient, they didn’t lead to a significant reduction in overall housework. Instead of gaining more leisure time, people faced evolving societal expectations about cleanliness, organization, and domestic life.

Rather than beating rugs once or twice a year, women began vacuuming daily, or constantly with the introduction of the Roomba vacuum. Families shrank in size, but the time spent on child-focused activities increased.

The concept of “intensive parenting” emerged, placing greater demands on parents to provide enriching activities, educational opportunities, and constant attention to their children’s needs. This shift in expectations, coupled with the persistence of traditional gender roles, has led to a disproportionate burden on mothers to meet these heightened standards of care.

In essence, machines replaced servants, but household standards soared. While labor-saving’ devices transformed how tasks are performed, they didn’t reduce the overall time spent on them. Instead, they introduced a new era of heightened expectations and pressures surrounding domesticity, perpetuating a cycle of time scarcity and inequality within households.

Addressing these systemic issues requires a collective effort to challenge societal norms, redistribute domestic responsibilities more equitably, and redefine the value of time and labor in the home.

The standard became so extreme that housewives of the 1950’s actually spend more time doing housework than their mothers or grandmothers did.

Those days are over.

Blurring boundaries and shifting expectations

As a larger percentage of women are engaging in full-time employment with children at younger and younger ages, something has got to give, and gradually, saner minds are prevailing.

This shift is coming none too soon. The blurring of boundaries between work and home life in the digital age has further compounded these pressures. According to research, while women who work from home are, in fact, spending more time with their children and in domestic labor, this trend has the opposite effect on men.

Fathers appear to spend even more time working when they work from home than if they were working from an office. This leaves men physically present, but emotionally absent. Many of my male clients have told me that they feel relentless pressure to be constantly tethered to their work electronics both day and night.

Beyond gender in domestic struggles

The debates around the value and worth of housework are not strictly gendered. Even in relationships where traditional gender norms don’t apply, such as in same-sex partnerships, power struggles over domestic responsibilities emerge.

For instance, my clinical work with gay male couples demonstrate that when these fathers divide household tasks, conflicts can still arise over the distribution of labor and the perceived importance of certain chores. When one man is assigned the role of “stay at home parent” and the other as “primary breadwinner” these roles, rather than gender itself, becomes crystal clear.

This dynamic demonstrates that the struggle over household responsibilities is more about societal expectations and power dynamics than purely about gender. Ultimately, it highlights the need for equitable sharing of domestic duties and a redefinition of the value of housework across all types of partnerships.

Redefining the value of housework and challenging traditional expectations

Housework is morally neutral

Traditional gender dynamics and divisions of labor within households have perpetuated unequal expectations. Despite women’s increased participation in the workforce, they still bear a disproportionate share of household chores and caregiving. The pressure to maintain spotless homes and meet family needs alongside work obligations creates a relentless cycle of time poverty and burnout.

A stressed and burned out mother faces relentless pressure to engage in “self care” to hurry back to caregiving. However the expensive facials, personal coaches and doubling up on therapy sessions only adds to, rather than subtracts from, this pressure.

We need a more wholistic view that allows us to sit down with those we care about and redefine what a “good life” actually means. Yes, equity in dividing household labor is important, but equity doesn’t mean “equal” and neither does it mean that each and every task deserves our attention.

Instead of striving for perfection in every aspect of domestic life, we must prioritize what truly matters for the well-being and happiness of our families. This requires open communication, mutual understanding, and a willingness to let go of unrealistic expectations imposed by society or ourselves.

Learning to let go

It was a painful lesson for me to abandon the notion that “everything worth doing is worth doing well.” In fact, that’s untrue. Many tasks are worth doing quickly, with half the effort, with the sole aim of completing them and moving on.

K.C. Davis discusses her view of cleaning bathrooms in a similar vein. Paraphrasing her, she recommends grabbing two bleach wands, one for the toilet and one for the sink and tub. Finish quickly, and be done.

As a therapist, Davis recognizes that cleaning a toilet can be an overwhelming task, too distressing for those who have experienced sexual trauma.

Her book provides an important exploration of how, in our quest for “excellence,” we’ve placed an unreasonable burden on those who cannot emotionally meet such standards, whether due to temperament, life circumstances, or mental health challenges. Running an electric toothbrush for 15 or 30 seconds is “perfect” when enduring the full two minutes feels emotionally impossible.

Being “kind to your future self” has reframed my nighttime routine, allowing for smoother mornings.

The politics of rest

John Bowlby (1907-1990), was a British psychiatrist and psychoanalyst known for his pioneering work on attachment theory. He wrote about the bond between mother and child, and while he was speaking to the British class of parents that left childrearing to nannies, and sent them off to boarding school at age seven, it was the American parent who took his words closest to heart.

This Mother’s Day, as I quote his work, I would like to you to consider that true “mothering” has no gender. True mothering is the capacity to provide what John Bowlby calls a “secure base.” What is a secure base? Here’s an example:

“At the time of his second birthday… a healthy child whose mother is resting on a garden seat will make a series of excursions away from her, each time returning to her before making the next excursion. On some occasions, when he returns, he simply smiles and makes his number; on others he leans against her knee; on yet others he wants to climb on her lap. But never does he stay for long unless he is frightened or tired or thinks she is about to leave.”

John Bowlby5

While a “mother” provides that to her child, this type of connection isn’t reserved for her alone. KC Davis talks about this between spouses:

For starters, you have two people tasked not with having to prove the value of their work to each other but instead with having to look out for each other, and who ask themselves: How can we ensure we both get rest?

KC Davis

“Rest” in this context is the right to ‘be.’ When your very existence is enough. You need have no utility beyond this. Your very presence is the “thing.”

This presence is remarkably rare in today’s world. Some people start angry fights in order to try to generate even a negative version of it:

“When you look at me with hateful eyes, you are actually looking at me. And therefore I exist in your eyes.”

How much more enriching it is to look at someone with love and have them look back at you the same way.

You don’t have to be a woman to do this. You don’t have to be a parent. The requirement is only that you can slow yourself down enough to appreciate your own humanity, your own inherent worth, and the treasure of the person you choose to live with and love.

The goal should not be to make the work equal but to ensure that the rest is fair…One isn’t more “entitled” to rest than the other.

KC Davis

Davis encourages couples to move beyond rigid expectations of equal leisure time and instead focus on achieving a balance that honors each partner’s unique needs and contributions.

Davis also highlights the importance of renegotiating roles and responsibilities over time, as individual circumstances change and evolve.

Moving into a broader view of what it means to be a part of a “family” and what care tasks are really all about is truly a revolutionary act that few people will be applauded for. But some will.

William Weld, who served as the 68th Governor of Massachusetts from 1991 to 1997 was known for his tennis games and nightly dinner with his family. He’d go out again, after dinner, but he’d show up nightly because it was important to him. He took a lot of heat for being a wealthy socialite who didn’t take his job seriously. It wasn’t that. He just took his family obligations equally seriously.

Reexamining “busy” and “enough”

When we start to equate being busy with being successful, we’ve lost sight of what truly matters. Pushing ourselves to the point of exhaustion is not a mark of excellence, but a sign that we need to reevaluate our priorities.

I had to examine, in my dreams as well as in my immune-function tests, the devastating effects of overextension. Overextending myself is not stretching myself. I had to accept how difficult it is to monitor the difference. Necessary for me as cutting down on sugar. Crucial. Physically. Psychically. Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.

Audre Lorde’s 1968 anthology “A Burst of Light.”

Rest is a right, not a reward

K.C. Davis offers distinct perspectives on “relaxation.” Davis defines relaxation as the intentional act of unwinding and rejuvenating, often through activities that bring about a sense of calm and tranquility. This may include leisurely pursuits such as reading, spending time outdoors, engaging in hobbies, or simply resting and recuperating. Importantly, relaxation is seen as a vital component of overall self-care, contributing to physical, mental, and emotional well-being.

She highlights the essential elements of rest:

Rest is fun.

  • You choose it
  • It’s recreational
  • It can be relaxing (tv, painting, napping) or active (hiking or shopping)

Rest is recharging.

  • What you find recharging is unique.
  • Exercise may or may not be recharging.
  • Chatting with friends may be socially restful.

Rest includes time autonomy

  • With children, it is often scheduled, so you can come and go on a whim.
  • Having to file “HR paperwork” to leave isn’t a partnership with fair rest.
  • Everyone deserves a window of their week end when they have autonomy.

Rest isn’t being on call

  • If the baby can wake from a nap or kids can ask you for food or you have to break up a fight, that is not rest.

Rest includes responsibilities

  • Your partner protects your rest time.
  • You are responsible for actually resting. If you use your time to do housework, that isn’t your partner’s fault.

If you can just schedule an evening and assume that your partner will watch your children, without checking with them, you aren’t being respectful. Free time does not automatically belong to one parent at the expense of the other.

KC Davis and her husband Michael “clock out” at 7:30 pm each evening. Their house isn’t fully organized. There is still a lot left to do. Housework is constant and it will be there tomorrow. Their time together is more important to them than engaging in the task to bring their home up to someone else’s standards of perfection. When they sit down to rest, they consider the condition of their home not “good enough” but “perfect.”

Defining what’s important

So much of what I work with in my clinical practice with couples is their capacity to give voice to the ineffable factors that make loving possible. For one person, bathing a 4-year-old is a deeply personal and meaningful act of emotional connection. For others, it is a chore that is to be completed as quickly and effectively as possible. Sometimes these people are completely separate people. Sometimes they are the same person on different nights.

We have to ask ourselves what the meaning is of asking our spouse to turn off the phone at dinner. For some, it is an anxious effort to demonstrate to themselves that they are cared for. For another, it is their own desire to be undisturbed and to eat a meal in peace. For still a third it is the moment to capture the joy of having a beloved’s full focus.

For some people who are involved in domestic caretaking, the capacity to separate out the ‘task’ of parenting versus the ‘attachment’ to the child is blurred. When they do not enjoy giving the child their nightly bath, or breastfeeding, they believe they are lacking in love for the child.

“We are only as needy as our unmet needs.”

John Bowlby

In the end, redefining household labor is not just about fairness but about recognizing the inherent worth of those we love. K.C. Davis’s work reminds us that equity doesn’t mean “equal” and that the goal isn’t to make the work identical but to ensure that rest is fair. Each partner deserves the time to recharge and feel valued. As John Bowlby so aptly put it, “We are only as needy as our unmet needs.” By challenging societal norms and embracing a more holistic view of family care, we can create a world where housework is morally neutral, where rest is a right, not a reward, and where love transcends traditional roles to foster truly supportive partnerships.


This Mother’s Day, let us honor the complexities and sacrifices of motherhood by redefining our understanding of domestic labor and the value we place on rest and care. By challenging traditional expectations and embracing a more equitable approach to household responsibilities, we can create a society that truly values the contributions of all caregivers, regardless of gender or role.

As we celebrate the mothers in our lives, let us also commit to fostering a culture of compassion, understanding, and mutual support within our families and communities. By recognizing the inherent worth of each individual and the importance of rest and self-care, we can build stronger, more resilient relationships that nurture the well-being of all.

In the spirit of Ann Reeves Jarvis and her daughter Anna, let us come together to honor the invaluable role of mothers and caregivers, not just on this special day, but every day. Through open communication, empathy, and a willingness to challenge the status quo, we can create a world where the joys and burdens of family life are shared equally, and where love and respect form the foundation of every home.


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  2. Life after Slavery.,from%20former%20white%20slave%20owners.
  3. Mintz, Steven. Domestic Revolutions: A Social History Of American Family Life (p. 124). Free Press. Kindle Edition.
  4. A Brief History of Nannies
  5. Bowlby, J. A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development
  6. Davis, KC. How to Keep House While Drowning: A Gentle Approach to Cleaning and Organizing (pp. 98-99). S&S/Simon Element. Kindle Edition.
  7. Lorde, A. (1988). A Burst of Light. Firebrand Books.
  8. Bowlby, J. (1988). A secure base: Parent-child attachment and healthy human development. Basic Books.