If you are like me, you tend to be more than a little
suspicious of holidays that seem only to fill the coffers of card companies and
pesticide-laden flower shops. Mother’s Day is showy, but what does it actually mean?
Certainly, mothers are an under-appreciated group of people — so I don’t
oppose a little recognition for the unpaid labor that mothers do. But I’m sold on Mother’s Day because of its radical history. Turns out,
Mother’s Day in the United
States started off as a call to women to
unite in opposition to war. It was
intolerable to the founder of Mother’s Day in the United States, Julia Ward Howe,
that mothers would tolerate their children causing harm to other people’s
children. The core belief that mothers
do not raise their children to perpetuate violence has been tamed in recent decades by
commercialization. Still, it is easy to
find many kinds of violence tolerated in our society that cry out for a modern resurgence
of this value.
Prisons are just one glaring example of state-sponsored
violence that should stand out on a day like Mother’s Day. Across the country, children whose mothers
are locked away inside prisons feel the absence of their mothers every day — but
perhaps more so on a day when the mother/child relationship is celebrated
publicly. From inside prisons, mothers are longing for their children; at
least 80% of women in prison are mothers to minor children, five percent of
women in prison are pregnant upon intake and 15% have children under six weeks
in age upon intake.
Most people feel uneasy about the idea of a pregnant women or mothers of young children
being incarcerated. This uneasiness comes from a gut awareness
that prison is not a healthy or safe environment for such an emotionally and
physically special time in a person’s life. We can easily recognize the
damaging effects of separation during early
childhood for both mother and child.
Somehow, when a person is pregnant or parenting, her humanity and her need
for support and compassion are easier to see — even when she has done
something that is defined as criminal.
Regardless of your belief about how we define crime in our
culture or what a reasonable system of accountability for addressing harm might be,
it is clear from the example of incarcerated mothers that our current response to crime creates unintended negative
The fact that the majority of women in prison are the mothers
of minor children, combined with the fact that women are the fastest-growing
prison population in the country, means that more and more children are being
raised away from their mothers. This
factor alone puts children in a high-risk category for becoming incarcerated
later in life themselves — thus perpetuating an endless cycle of displaced
There are both short- and
long-term consequences to our treatment of those who become entangled in the
criminal justice system — many of whom are the same mothers we aim to honor with
the holiday this weekend. In the
short-term we can begin to redress the harm done to mothers and families by
extending understanding, compassion and support for people through their
sentences and return to their communities.
In the long-term, we can begin to ask the more difficult question: why have we become so reliant on and satisfied with a system that does not
effectively address harm but instead creates a new and ever-increasing group of
When considering how to honor the mothers in our own lives
this Sunday, remember that at its core Mother’s Day was created to oppose
state-sponsored violence. Mother’s Day
should be a day to remind ourselves, and those around us, that all human beings — mothers and their children — deserve a life free from violence.
For more information about supporting mothers in prison,
check out The Birth Attendants: Prison Doula Project’s website.