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‘America’s Mothers Are Suckers’

May 15, 2023

“Mother’s Day is a celebration that inspires its purported honorees to reflect on the very nature of a consolation prize,” writes Prof. Tess Wilkinson-Ryan L’05, G’06, PhD’08 at Slate.

At Slate, Tess Wilkinson-Ryan L’05, G’06, PhD’08, Professor of Law and Psychology, has published “America’s Mothers Are Suckers. And I Say That With Love.” 

Wilkinson-Ryan studies the psychology of legal decision-making, and her research addresses the role of moral judgment in legal decision-making, with a particular focus on private contracts and negotiations. Her book, Fool Proof: How Fear of Playing the Sucker Shapes Our Selves and the Social Order — and What We Can Do About It, examines how fear of playing the fool as a universal psychological phenomenon and an underappreciated driver of human behavior.

From Slate:

In 1948, Anna Jarvis died in a sanitarium in Pennsylvania after a long and fruitless campaign to excise Mother’s Day from the American calendar. She had in fact founded Mother’s Day herself four decades earlier, even convincing President Woodrow Wilson to officially proclaim a national observance on the second Sunday of every May. Soon after that success, a dismayed Jarvis began to lobby against what she saw as the deep betrayal of commercialization. “The telegraph companies with their ready-made greetings, the florists with their high-pressure campaigns and the awful prices, and the candy manufacturers and greeting card manufacturers have made a lucrative racket out of my ideas,” she complained, furious that Americans were placating their mothers with chocolates instead of respect.

I have been a mother since 2007, but for the first 13 years of parenthood, my husband and I mostly abided by what I thought of as our mutual nonproliferation treaty with respect to parent holidays. May 2020 was different. I gathered my family (I mean, gathered was our default mode at the time, but I at least made everyone look up from their screens) and announced that Mother’s Day was back on the family calendar, and I expected some fuss to be expended. We were all home, worried and tetchy; the social contract had been breached and it really felt like moms had been left holding the bag. The pandemic laid bare an American predicament: When a society insists that caring is for suckers, someone has to play the fool. Or, as a headline in the New York Times put it: In an emergency, “Americans Turned to Their Usual Backup Plan: Mothers.”… . 

Read the full piece at Slate.