The Original Mother's Day Was A Call To Action. Kansas City Moms Still Carry Out That Legacy
Nothing against brunch, but what would Mother's Day look like if it paid tribute to the work of mothers in all its complexity, particularly over the past year?
For more stories like this one, subscribe to Real Humans on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.
Mother's Day is not a Hallmark Holiday.
The holiday being celebrated with flowers and cards traces its roots back to a proclamation written by Julia Ward Howe in 1870, urging mothers all over the world to go on strike. Their first order of business: end all war.
The proclamation is bold.
Arise all women who have hearts . . . Say firmly: "We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies . . .We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."
World leaders, according to Howe's 150-year-old document, should not be able to send people off to war without answering to a collective of moms.
Even now, that's a radical concept of motherhood, a role typically understood to be personal, private, domestic. This proclamation dares to imagine the work of moms happening outside the home. It imagines the experience of motherhood having a respected place at decision-making tables.
In last year, mothers have been aptly called the shock absorbers of American society. Our individual choices — to the extent that we had choices — added up to a large-scale retreat from many of our identities outside of motherhood.
With Kansas Citians facing loss of income, loss of community, a deadly pandemic, racism and violence, I've seen lots of people fighting nor just for survival, but justice.
Many of them happen to be moms.
"All of the organizing I do is really deeply rooted in being a mother," says Jenay Manley of KC Tenants, an organization that's worked throughout the pandemic to stop evictions.
Manley is a single mom. She worked three jobs before having twins. After growing up in a one-bedroom cabin and living for a while in a tent, she told herself that if she worked hard, she wouldn't have to face poverty again.
"Like, I'm gonna save up my money, I'm going to be good, I got this," she says.
But figuring out how to have time to care for her children and enough money to pay the rent has been a constant puzzle. At the start of the pandemic, she was working overnight shifts at QuikTrip, trying to make up for an unexpected rent hike by putting in extra hours.
When COVID-19 hit, Manley's kids came home from school, and her resolution to work however many hours it took to get by became untenable.
"I've sacrificed so much of my ability to be a mom in order to pay the rent," Manley says. She says that's robbed her of the ability "to sit in the joy part" of parenthood.
The day Manley went to her first KC Tenants meeting, she decided to tell her story at a press conference that night. She's been doing it ever since, involving her kids as much as she can.
"This fight is very clearly for me, but it's also so that my kids don't have to internalize the things that I internalized, so that they don't grow up in a world and end up fighting every day as adults in order to survive," Manley says.
I ask Manley what a perfect Mother's Day would look like to her. It's clear this kind of daydreaming isn't a routine part of her life.
She gets teary-eyed thinking about it, then says, "That's really hard because everything about motherhood that is celebrated is our sacrifice. And like, I get that, but also, motherhood shouldn't just be what we give up."
PaKou Her was an activist before she became a mom. "I have always imagined the act of motherhood as something very political," she tells me.
For Her, that started with pregnancy and childbirth.
"It was important for me as a woman of color in particular, to think about what it meant to have the support that I needed," she says.
So she carefully assembled a birth team she could trust to listen to her throughout the journey.
"Obviously I'm not a physician, I'm not an OB, I'm not a midwife, but there were things that I knew I could learn," she says. "And those were things that would be very empowering and radical for me as a mom, as somebody about to give birth to another human being."
Now, she's raising two mixed race Asian-American daughters with her husband. The girls are nearing their teen years, and Her is grateful for a career in anti-racism work. It's prepared her for the conversations she's having at home.
"We, as parents are choosing to teach our young people in a particular way, not because we're raising children, but because we're raising adults. We're raising people who will function in the world," she points out.
On the day of the shooting in Atlanta that killed eight Asian American women, Her listened to the news as her 12-year-old daughter brushed her hair in the next room.
"And she just said to me, 'Are people gonna come and kill us too?'"
The question startled Her, even though she's been speaking out against anti-Asian hate since long before the pandemic-related uptick in anti-Asian violence.
"As a mom, my God, I want to cry just thinking about what that conversation was like, because no mother wants to have a conversation with their child," she says. "Nobody wants to have that conversation."
Her's hope, in her work outside the home, is for everyone to be loved and appreciated for who they are. The work she does as a mother is part of that. It's preparing real people to be able to exist in that kind of a world.
"So it's not just that they get to be in a world where somebody feels that for them, but where they also behave in a way, that they are open and accepting and appreciating of others," Her says. "And when that openness and acceptance and appreciation doesn't exist or it's faulty, or they experience it as incomplete, then they can feel inspired to try to complete it."
Kelly Allen says she was "radicalized" when her grandmother died. Her grandmother died of ovarian cancer after receiving diluted chemotherapy treatments from Kansas City pharmacist Robert Courtney.
"Something just changed in my world when it came to how I look at motivation and money. People who, who do bad things to other people to have more money when they already have plenty?" she marvels. "It's something I just cannot tolerate."
Allen went to UMKC — as an "untraditional student" with a job, a kid and lots of bills — for a degree in urban studies with a directive in housing and community development. She'd been motivated by seeing her neighborhood, where she'd built a strong community for herself and her son, gentrify to the point where she didn't know if she could afford to stay.
"I don't know a person in Kansas City that doesn't know someone who has ... had to either compromise safety or cleanliness or distance to bus lines to have a safe place to live," she says. "And that's gross."
Like Manley, Allen participates in KC Tenants. Shutting down online evictions in a pandemic, when people had been told the safest place to be was at home, felt familiar. It felt maternal.
"I mean, that mama bear stuff people talk about, which in some ways is like annoying and gendering because dads feel it too, and some moms don't always feel it and that's okay," she acknowledges. "But that carnal, like, 'I cannot believe somebody did this to my kid.' The first time I felt that I remember Kenny got stung by bees. I was crushing them in my fingers. It was just, 'I'm so angry.' That's how I feel."
Allen is busier than ever right now, because she just became a homeowner in the gentrifying neighborhood she was afraid she'd have to leave. It's a fixer upper that she spends all day rehabbing before coming back to her half packed-up rental, where she falls asleep working on her laptop, answering emails late into the night.
The chaos of it would have once embarrassed her, she says. But organizing has taught her to focus on what matters.
"Society tells us that we have to like be perfect at this all the time," Allen says. "Right? . . . I don't make it to the bake sale or something, and I'm perceived as like a dead beat mom. It's tough out there."
Motherhood isn't one-dimensional. But the way we celebrate it can be.
Asked what she'd really like for Mother's Day, PaKou Her envisions a big picnic with a whole community of moms. Kelly Allen suggests a chance to imagine "what if."
But I keep coming back to Jenay Manley and her desire to sit in the joy of motherhood, to be celebrated for more than her sacrifice.
To the moms out there this Mother's Day: I wish you a day of joy. I wish you some time and space to dream. And I wish you a community that supports you in making those dreams a reality, 365 days a year.