This Sunday, of course, is Mother’s Day. While the ancient Greeks and Romans celebrated motherhood regularly, in the United States the official holiday goes back just 105 years to when Anna Jarvis championed it as a way to honor “the sacrifices mothers made for their children.” (Jarvis later tried to get Mother’s Day removed from the calendar because she thought the day had become too commercial. Was she right? In 2018, Americans spent more than $23 billion on Mother’s Day, but that’s not enough. Right mom?)
President Woodrow Wilson – a self-proclaimed “mama’s boy” – petitioned Congress to make Mother’s Day an official holiday, and, in 1914, the second Sunday of May became a national day of celebration.
Like Wilson’s, Jarvis’ advocacy certainly was in honor of her own mother’s work. Her mother, Ann Reeves, started “Mothers’ Day Work Clubs” during the Civil War to teach women how to care for their children. After the war Reeves organized “Mothers’ Friendship Day” where, according to the History Channel, mothers gathered with former Union and Confederate soldiers to promote reconciliation among the two sides.
Reeves, of course, was not the first mother to use her maternal power to lead or keep together a family, or nation.
The nation’s first First Mother, Mary Washington, worked hard to ensure her son could advance in life and in society. As The Washington Post explained in 2017, George Washington was the middle son of a father who already had two sons from his first marriage. His dad, Augustine, died when George was only 11. Mary was just 35. Instead of remarrying, which would have put George’s inheritance under the control of her stepson (Augustine’s eldest son from his first marriage), she remained single, managing her farm and ensuring that George – her firstborn – was left with something.
He did well with her legacy. Mary Washington witnessed the American Revolution and lived to see her son elected president. But only barely. When, soon after taking office, he departed his childhood home of Fredericksburg, Va. after visiting his mother in 1789, it was the last time he would see her. A childhood friend of George’s said of Mary, “Whoever has seen the awe-inspiring air and manner so characteristic in the father of the country, will remember the matron as she appeared when the presiding genius of her well-ordered household, commanding and being obeyed.”
The second First Mother was not as fortunate. While she saw her husband through the White House, Abigail Adams did not live to see her son elected to the highest office in the land. Still, it is likely she was a strong influence. Before he learned of his mother’s death in 1818, John Quincy wrote, “I have enjoyed but for short seasons, and at long, distant intervals, the happiness of her society, yet she has been to me more than a mother. She has been a spirit from above watching over me for good, and contributing by my mere consciousness of her existence to the comfort of my life. That consciousness is gone, and without her the world feels to me like a solitude.”
Adams’ mother exercised her influence over him from an early age. In 1780, she urged him to travel to France with his father, who was then serving as commissioner to France, when he preferred to stay stateside, arguing travel would bring the wisdom that comes with new experiences. (He went.)
Nancy Lincoln also made an impact on her presidential son. Though Lincoln lost his mom at the tender age of nine, he wrote, “All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.” Lincoln’s mother reportedly emphasized the value of reading and the value of humility. The daughter of Lincoln’s private secretary later wrote that his humility was Lincoln’s “crowning gift of political diagnosis … which gave him the power to forecast with uncanny accuracy what his opponents were likely to do.”
According to Bonnie Angelo, author of FIRST MOTHERS: The Women Who Shaped the Presidents, mothers of presidents who served during the 20th century had an “independent streak” like Mary Washington’s. Angelo notes many of them married relatively late in life. Hannah Milhous, President Richard Nixon’s mother, even “married down,” defying “her well-to-do Quaker family to marry Frank Nixon, the blustering, quarrelsome man who would later become an embarrassment to his son in the White House.” (Incidentally, it was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s mother, Sara, who was the first mother to vote for her child in a presidential election. Her predecessors were not afforded the constitutional right to vote.)
Other 20th century first mothers channeled Nancy Lincoln. Angelo notes Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, who had suffered bigotry because of her Irish lineage, emphasized “compassion for the outsider.” Still, her son wasn’t always appreciative of her attempts to connect with people. . In 1962, just a year before his assassination, the president admonished his mother for contacting Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev to ask him to sign a photo. The president sent his mother a stern letter, asking her to let him know before making similar contacts because “requests of this nature are subject to interpretations …”
Lillian Carter, President Jimmy Carter’s mother, was a civil rights champion who signed up for the Peace Corps at age 68 and went to India to work with the sick and the poor. Even so, she had more of a cutthroat political attitude than her son When Carter was running for the White House in 1976, Lillian’s advice reportedly was “to quit that stuff about never telling a lie and being a Christian and how he loves his wife more than the day he met her.”
Lillian Carter was not the only matriarch to dispense political and communications advice to her commander-in-chief son. According to Politico, President George H.W. Bush’s mother, Dorothy, didn’t like the fact that, as vice president, her son appeared to be reading while his boss, President Ronald Reagan, was speaking. Even when the first President Bush said he was simply following the text of Reagan’s remarks, “she was less than persuaded.”
Mother-in-laws also sometimes figure prominently in the White House. Michelle Obama’s mother lived with the first family throughout their tenure in the White House. Harry Truman’s mother-in-law did the same. Melania Trump’s parents live within an easy drive of the White House, in suburban Maryland. Later, Michelle Obama said her mother was the most popular person who lived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue during the Obama administration.
One of the most popular first mothers in our American history is Barbara Bush, who, with Abigail Adams, is the only American to have had a spouse and child elected president. Bush’s second son, Jeb, also ran for president against Donald Trump in 2016. In an interview with her son during the 2016 presidential campaign, the elder Bush was asked for her opinion about the man who now occupies the Oval Office. Jeb asked his mother to be careful. She wasn’t. Her expert opinion? “Sick of him.”
In a new book about Bush, who died last year, journalist Susan Page discusses Bush’s influence on her son and husband. As NPR explains, Page “asked many in the Bush family whether they thought either George H.W. or George W. would have become president without her.” Page asked others as well, including former President Bill Clinton, who became close with the Bushes after leaving the White House. While Barbara Bush herself maintained her husband and son would have been elected without her, all of Page’s interviewees, “vehemently disagreed.”
They’re probably right. After all, would any of us be where we are without mom?