Happy Mother’s Day!

Mother's Day seems like a good time to make a resolution to get back into more regular posting on Birth Story. So let it begin!

With Nora on the couch

With Nora on the couch

This is a picture of my daughter Nora, who is now 24, during her first few days home, relaxing on the couch with me. I don't know why she is sitting at the other end of the couch, but this is my husband's favorite early picture of us together.

Being a mom changed my life in big ways and small. I remember how disoriented I felt that first week, adjusting to nursing and my post-pregnancy body. My daughters, Nora and Maeve, are two of my favorite people, and Mother's Day is one of my favorite days in the whole year.

Happy Mother's Day to all the other moms (and everyone else) reading this post today. Have a wonderful day!

Hands off Mother’s Day!

This year it looks as if we are moving beyond shooing moms out onto the street at the crack of dawn on Mother's Day to raise funds to fight cancer. This year we are going after their brunch and posy money as well.

A new organization called the Mother's Day Movement pronounces itself "shocked to learn that $14 billion was spent in the US in 2010 on Mother’s Day celebrations including flowers, cards and meals."

Nora's roses

Roses from my daughter Nora

The group's website says that, "given the number of women and children suffering globally, and here at home, it is time for everyone to rethink this holiday and donate a portion of Mother’s Day spending to those less fortunate."

Actually, last year was a low point for mom on her "special day," probably due to the weak economy. This year, the National Retail Federation estimates Americans will spend upwards of $16 billion on mom, even though the NRF opines in its press release that "mom doesn’t expect much for Mother’s Day."

And why is that, do you think? Perhaps because while more three-quarters of all mothers are in the work force, including more than 60 percent of those with very young children,  women still make only 83 percent of their male counterparts' wages?

I am all for supporting needy women and children, for working to bring down maternal mortality and for curing cancer.

But boy, do I hate it when proponents of these projects tie them to Mother's Day.

That nice Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, who writes so compellingly about victimized women around the world, has suggested "we move the apostrophe so as to celebrate not so much Mother’s Day — honoring a single mother — but Mothers’ Day, to help save mothers’ lives around the world as well."

To which I say, talk to me about these issues on Monday.

Sunday represents one of two days all year — the other is my birthday — when I guiltlessly look my dear family members in the eye and say, "I don't know what's for lunch. I don't want to go to the park. I don't intend to get out of bed until the sun goes down."

Perhaps you think I am being humorous, but I'm not. Why do you think women around the world are in such wretched shape? It's because their needs come in dead last, behind the livestock in some places, and nobody thinks a thing of it.

No one should consider pilfering the small comforts society extends to mothers on this day.

Sure, affluent women will score even more great stuff on Mother's Day than they usually get. (People celebrating the holiday will spend an average of $140.73, the NRF reports.) But plenty of moms whose grown children call them a handful of times a year* might actually get flowers or a gift on Sunday or even — woo-hoo! — a meal they don't have to cook themselves.

On Mother's Day, every individual should look at the woman who gave him life, or think about her, and if she is a kind and decent woman, thank her for all that she was willing and able to do — and by the way, do something to bring her a little pleasure.

Because if we can't even do that, then heaven have mercy on the women of the world.

(*I am lucky enough to have a far more attentive grown daughter.)

The mothers of Johns Hopkins Medicine

Here, just in time for Mother's Day, is a little known story about the enterprise that has set the bar for the practice of medicine in America. When all was said and done, it was women who served as midwives for the dream.

And, it was a woman who insisted on the high standards that have made Johns Hopkins Medicine the paragon it has been.

Women attended medical school in the 19th century; there were even medical schools just for women. However, women had a hard time being taken seriously at most of the top medical schools -- and that is an understatement.

The exception was Johns Hopkins, where three women were part of the first class, and where women have been part of the student body straight through to the present -- very unusual, given all the changes that occurred in medical education early in the 20th century. (More on that in future posts.)

What made the difference? At a crucial point, a savvy, determined group of women held the pursestrings.

The money earmarked for construction of the medical school was underwritten with stock in the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. In 1888, when the value of that stock plummeted, the fate of the school was uncertain.

Mary Elizabeth Garrett
Mary Elizabeth Garrett

Martha Carey Thomas, Mary Elizabeth Garrett, Elizabeth King, Mary Gwinn and Julia Rogers -- the so-called "Friday Evening Group" -- were wealthy Baltimore feminists, friends, stellar fund-raisers and (except for Rogers) daughters of members of the original board of trustees. They pledged $500,000 to Johns Hopkins Medicine, but only if women were allowed to attend the school. Opposition was fierce, but the women got what they had asked for.

Garrett, who contributed the bulk of the money herself, further demanded that medical-school candidates have a college degree with a concentration in basic science, and be able to speak and read French, German and Latin.

William Welch himself had proposed these requirements years before but they had been dismissed as unrealistic. Now every Hopkins undergraduate, male and female, would have to meet them. As William Osler joked to Welch, "It is lucky that we got in as professors; we could never enter as students."

Of the women in that first class, one quit to become a Christian Scientist and one married her anatomy professor. Only Mary Packard became a doctor. Years later, though, Welch wrote, "We regard co-education a success; those of us who were not enthusiastic at the beginning are now sympathetic and friendly."

Painting by John Singer Sargent

To the Lighthouse

My favorite book about a mother is To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf. I read it for the first time only recently. I couldn’t believe how powerful it was.

I have had friends who loved To the Lighthouse. They usually admired the character of Lily Briscoe, an artist and independent woman who seems to stand in for Woolf herself in some ways. In the book, Briscoe visits a British family, the Ramsays, at their vacation home on a Scottish island before World War I.

To the Lighthouse

Incredibly, to me now, anyway, my friends never talked about Mrs. Ramsay. I guess I can understand why they didn’t. Lily Briscoe was what we wanted to be at the time, serious women devoted to our art. Or at least that’s what we thought.

Mrs. Ramsay. Woolf doesn’t even give her a first name. Mrs. Ramsay is married to a celebrated intellectual who has come to Scotland with his favorite students. While he marches up and down the beach spouting great thoughts and obsessing about whether his work will live on after him, she is thinking about all the people in her home, her children and guests, and how she might make them happy.

Using the stuff of ordinary life, Mrs. Ramsay pulls off one magical evening in particular, even in spite of a number of glitches, that will stay with all of them for the rest of their lives, tying them with emotion and memories to that time and place.

I don’t want to trivialize a literary masterpiece, but that is what mothers do. Woolf is making that point, of course, that this woman who is almost part of the furniture to the people around her creates the moments that make their lives worth living.

I’m starting to think about Mother’s Day, and I hope you are, too, especially if your mother is still alive. Make that dinner reservation. Plan to give your mother something that will make her happy — flowers, a card, a phone call, a big kiss, or maybe a copy of To the Lighthouse.

Whatever your relationship with your mother, she is the only one you have.