If comic strips are an indication, breakfast in bed is out for moms on Mother’s Day

As in 2012, I thought I would analyze Mother’s Day this year through the lens of the Sunday comics.  And what a difference two years makes!

For one thing, two years ago I looked at all 20 comics printed in the Sunday edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. This year I looked at a semi-random 30 comics of the total of more than 70 on the Yahoo! Comics web page; those 30 included most of the 20 I remembered from the Post-Gazette.

Judging from the results of the two surveys, Mother’s Day is not as important as it used to be. Two years ago, 50% of all comics had a Mother’s Day theme.  This year, it was down to one-third. Even family-centered comic strips such as “Momma,” “Fox Trot” and “Family Tree” avoided the holiday.

In analyzing the topics of Mother’s Day comics two years ago, I found that half of them—or 25% of all cartoons that day—focused on bringing mother breakfast in bed. I concluded that breakfast in bed had become the standard practice for this manufactured holiday. Perhaps it was just a fad, because this year, not a single strip I saw depicted other family members preparing and serving mother bed in breakfast.

The interesting thing about breakfast in bed is that the act of preparation and serving doesn’t involved extra consumer purchases (since breakfast typically consists of foods always in the frig).  This lack of consumerism made Mother’s Day unlike other holidays, which tend to reduce to buying and giving gifts.

While the breakfast in bed is missing from this year’s comics, so is consumerism for the most part. True, “Arlo & Janis” creates an emotional competition between the husband giving jewelry and a phone call from a far away son. The “Peanuts” rerun details the act of selecting a card, part of the buying process.

But most of the strips focus on serving, words of appreciation and things one can make or do to show mother the love:

  • Doing chores for mom (“B.C.”)
  • Giving flowers (“Luann”)
  • Gathering flowers and making a card (“Nancy”)
  • Mom reversing roles and doing everything for the child (“Cathy”)
  • Mom getting drunk at a multi-family barbecue (“Stone Soup”)
  • The magic mirror on the wall calling mother the fairest of them all (“Wizard of Id”)
  • How we love mom’s nagging (“Drabble”)
  • Mother and daughter spending the day together, bicycling on the street (“Jump Start”)

Note that the food service takes place at home—in the kitchen or backyard. No restaurants.

So even as comic strip moms are denied the pleasure of breakfast in bed, their families are nonetheless giving more of themselves in a direct way and depending less on engaging in commercial transactions as the means to celebrate the holiday and express their emotions.

This turn to the virtues of interaction and investment of self that we see in comics may or may not reflect a change in society. Depending on which report you read, Mother’s Day spending will be either up or down this year in the aggregate. Per capita spending will go down by $5. Yet even at the low end, Americans will spend more on Mother’s Day than any other holiday but Christmas. But they spend on very few things: one study reports that people mostly give their moms traditional gifts of a card (81.3 percent), flowers (66.6 percent) or a nice meal out (56.5 percent). The first two predominate in the cartoon world.

Mother’s Day has thus not been privatized into a holiday that exists only within families. It still finds expression in the economic realm. People still interact with the rest of the world in the planning and implementation of holiday plans, and they interact the way they know best—by making a purchase that represents an emotion.

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