Sunday 22nd March is Mother’s Day or Mothering Sunday. Psychologists from the Networking Families group, Charlotte Dann, Abigail Locke, Lisa Lazard and Rose Capdevila, write about the continuing importance of this celebration in a time of uncertainty.
This year, the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to overshadow our Mothering Sunday celebrations. Here in the UK, with growing uncertainty, and ever-changing advice, we’re receiving daily updates from the government relating to the worsening pandemic, with social distancing being stressed more and more as the appropriate measure for the vulnerable and elderly population. School closures, clamp downs on non-essential travel and increased isolation measures will massively impact if and how family members can come together. The UK’s chief scientific adviser has already recommended UK families call off Mothering Sunday gatherings, to prevent the spread between family members, particularly between younger people and their grandparents. It looks like Grandmothers and Nana’s may be celebrating Mother’s Day away from their children and grandchildren this year. While physical gatherings are off the cards, there are still spaces where community, belonging and connection are taking place – social media platforms are enabling and supporting such connections during this time more than ever.
Mothering Sunday is an important annual celebration in most countries, both on and off line. In 2017, Facebook reported that Mother’s Day (as it is more commonly known internationally) accounted for more posts in a single day than any other topic on Facebook that year. This year, with a spiralling number of ‘how to Mother’s Day with COVID-19’ articles appearing in the press, it is important to think about how Mother’s Day celebrations online may offset loneliness or relieve the pressures of being isolated, particularly for more elderly members of the family.
Our own research was initially motivated by an interest in the levels and types of visibility of mothering that social networking sites (SNS) have made possible as these play into our understandings of mothering identities, mothering experiences and, importantly, familial relationships. Mother’s Day is particularly relevant in this sense as it foregrounds the latter – those familial relationships that can comfort, challenge, damage or sustain us. In collecting data from Twitter & Instagram in 2018 and 2019, we observed the use of related hashtags that created a sense of community on Mother’s Day and the days surrounding it – examples included #happymothersday, #motheringsunday, and #mothersday. Although it is mostly children posting about their mothers, mothers also post, and, of course, some of us are both daughters and mothers. This approach allowed for an exploration around relational issues and concerns. What we found in our studies was that online Mother’s Day posts were both exactly what we expected and nothing like we expected. They are about much more than celebrating mothers and the supportive and prominent role that they play within typical family structures. Our initial analysis showed that these posts most often focused on gratitude. However, the comments focussed on beauty, in a physical, spiritual and emotional sense, or on family similarity and thus connection. The thing that stood out, however, is that the posts were complex – there is a lot going on within them – how mothers represent themselves, how children represent mothers, and the themes on which the posts centre.
For example, people posted about the embodied experience of being mothered – holding hands and being held – that drew comments from others about the comfort they gained from their mothers. These posts also presented a clear play between both grief (in losing mothers) and love (in remembering / appreciating them). Sympathy and empathy also played out in these online spaces, highlighting the community aspects of social media. People shared their stories of grief for lost mothers, but also for others who find the day difficult for a multitude of reasons – perhaps more relevant than ever this year, when it may not be possible to share those experiences together in person. We have found that these posts can also provide an opportunity to connect with others around more difficult ‘private’ family issues such as conflict, mental health, bereavement and loss. The sharing of personal concerns and experiences brings the community together in the collective understanding of such matters. What is particularly interesting is how the platforms themselves allow for these interactions. The use of hashtags provides a link to communities of people experiencing and sharing the same kinds of things. Social media can play an important role in maintaining relationships, allowing people to share experiences, be together and feel connected.
What’s important about Mothering Sunday posts, however, is not just the text, the photos and images that are posted also represent the doing of valuable communication work within online communities. This visual element of social media interaction can display, for example, aspects of ‘good’ mothering practices, of femininity, and of family. The images also allow people to reflect on memories captured in old photos. These recollections are important in making sense of one’s own story of family and keeping alive those memories that are key to those narratives. Given the potential lack of opportunity for physical contact in this year’s celebrations, or the potential of being locked in, we might see an increase in reflection on previous years and celebrations.
Our research shows that online celebrations of Mothering Sunday do more than say ‘thank you’. Posts made by both mothers and their children provide comfort and support through the enacting of love, pride and togetherness which have long been seen as important for close family relationships. This is especially important in this time of COVID-19 where many of us may be feeling new pressures of being physically isolated from each other or locked in together.
You can read more about the Networking Families group here http://fass.open.ac.uk/research/groups/networking-families