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opinion | Jennifer Graham

Martial Mother’s Day

A holiday too schmaltzy? Be thankful it’s not a legal obligation

Dave Whamond for the Boston Globe

The season of obligatory emotional displays is upon us, evident at the local Walgreens, where dutiful sons and daughters pick through paper fields of cloying sentiment not felt, and at the street corner, where bundles of carnations offer salvation for those prone to forget.

In America, we honor living mothers like we honor the dead: with flowers. The living get the additional perk of a meal out. Like Father’s Day with its neckties and grills, Mother’s Day is a strangely sterile and pre-fabricated celebration, the antithesis of the hot, howling chaos in which the family began.

But Americans resent being told what to do by anyone but their personal trainers, and thus Mother’s Day exasperates with its very existence. It is compulsory affection demanded by the long-dead Woodrow Wilson, who wasn’t that great a president anyway, and by our desk calendars, whose publishers penciled it in without asking.


Plus, there’s a Groundhog Day-like quality to it. Mother’s Day? Again? Didn’t we just do this last year? Like family reunions and weddings, the value of an event seems to decline in proportion to its frequency, and any affection that is societally enforced seems, to individualistic Americans, at least somewhat suspicious. The late Stephen Covey was admired for his character-based business principles, but his insistence that love be a verb, not a feeling, is harder to swallow.

But for anyone who feels put upon by the demands of Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, there is Singapore or China to make us feel better. In Singapore, there’s a law, called the “Maintenance of Parents Act,” that allows parents older than 60 to sue their children for support if they’re unable to support themselves. Imagine that. On Patriot’s Day, 2,350 runners 60 and older finished the Boston Marathon. Not just ran, mind you, but finished. In Singapore, they could be home in the La-Z-Boy, feet up, yowling about their stingy kids.

Meanwhile, China legislated morality last year with a law compelling children to visit their parents and send frequent greetings, among other things. As in Singapore, this law articulating the “the protection of the rights and interests of the elderly” begins at age 60. Parents who feel neglected by their children — in my experience, that would be anyone with a kid older than 12 — need not do the heavy lifting of tending to relationships but petition the courts for redress.


Here in the United States, 30 states have some form of “filial responsibility” laws, Massachusetts among them. They’re largely designed for egregious cases of neglect and are rarely invoked, Steven Cohen, an elder-care specialist and partner in the Boston law firm of Pabian & Russell, told me.

But their use may become more prevalent as the marathon-running boomers test the limits of American longevity. For insurance that we are not held responsible for the costs of our parents’ care, we’d best buy some long-term-care policies, for ourselves, and for them as well. Cohen, himself a boomer, recently purchased one and advises his clients to get them in their 50s or early 60s, when they’re still relatively young and in good health.

Given all this, I’d rather have a long-term care policy than a bouquet of carnations, but, as they say at my daughter’s former preschool, “You get what you get, and you don’t get upset.” That’s sage advice not only for life, but for Mother’s Day.

Having been a mom for 21 years now, I’m now allowed to drink on Mother’s Day, and a sippy cup of vodka will blot out any artificiality surrounding the occasion. It will also warm me to the sentiment voiced by Singaporean politician Walter Woon, who led the push for his country’s parental-maintenance act: “It doesn’t hurt a society now and then to be reminded of what its core values are.”


Hear, hear. But it matters who does the reminding, and, given a choice, I’ll take Hallmark or American Greetings. More schmaltz, less government. The American way.

Jennifer Graham writes regularly for the Globe. Follow her on Twitter @grahamtoday.