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Why Mother's Day cards are cheesy - and why we should love them Add to ...

They are not in good taste. They often feature butterflies, ribbons and the kind of embossed gold lettering reserved for bodice rippers. Sometimes they star a teddy bear who loves his mother "beary much." They are shamelessly hyperbolic: "To the best mom … IN THE WORLD" (only Tina Fey deserves this card).

But still I like a big ol' Mother's Day card. The holiday itself is a little less embraceable, sharing crass commercialism and don't-let-me-down pressure with Valentine's Day. Like Valentine's, Mother's Day can be cruelly exclusionary; it stirs the sadness of those without mothers or who have broken from their mothers or who are childless and trying.

But if you do indulge the day, don't succumb only to the artisanal, beet-ink printed, charmant little note card featuring a single, wavy-lined bird. Instead, embrace the big, menu-sized drugstore brand of reverence: "You have my love and respect, dear precious beloved Mother." According to Clarence Delbarre, executive director of the Gift Packaging and Retail Association of Canada, Hallmark and Carlton Cards and their subsidiaries share about two thirds of the total greeting-card market (650 million cards a year), thus ensuring that the vast majority of Mother's Day cards are irony-free.

Sixteen million Mother's Day cards are expected to be sold in Canada in 2011. What's popular? "Flowers and hearts," Delbarre says simply. Online greetings - where the butterflies actually fly and the poetry is actually schmaltzier - may be eating into the traditional market, but, on Mother's Day, paper and ink rules. A card has object status and can be planted on the mantle like a flag. And a card is moving not because of what it says, but because of what it doesn't say, which is: "I am incapable of expressing this emotion, but I do feel it - so much so that I paid six dollars to have someone else express it for me." In its own post-industrial way, that's a loving gesture.

On- or offline, Mother's Day cards, with their idealized images of cute animals and infantilized mothers rocking pink, spitless babies, have little to do with motherhood. But Mother's Day is no time for an accurate depiction of motherhood, which is a lot of unpaid labour that smells less like flowers than refrigerator funk and is not about moonlit lullabies but strangled cries of: "Get in the car!"

A few new cards do gently allude to a modern maternal reality, like the Carlton one that reads: "I'm old enough now to really appreciate the sacrifices you've made and the love you give. To see how many roles and responsibilities you juggle every day…" True! How do we do it? Yet I don't want to receive this card. The word "juggling" is for the other 364 days. For this one Sunday, let's pretend that we are saintly paragons of maternal perfection and take a nap.

The first greeting cards appeared when a Boston printer who had made Civil War battle maps began to churn out Christmas salutations. Barry Shank, a professor at Ohio State University and author of a cultural study of greeting cards called A Token of My Affection, notes that the rise of the card in the 1900s coincided with the invention of a middle class. "People were learning new social behaviours. If a card helped articulate your emotions and demonstrate emotional intelligence, it seemed like a promise that you'll do well socially and economically," Shank says. "Cards forged the original social networks."

During his research, Shank examined thousands of archived greeting cards, expecting to see personal messages supplementing the clichéd writing. But instead, he discovered that, other than the signature, the most common marking was the underlining of key words in the factory-produced passage. It seems that people use cards literally to speak for them.

"Using a card isn't laziness; it's more about anxiety over whether you're saying the right thing, so why not hire the words of the experts?" Shank says. "The feeling itself is sincere."

Mother's Day was not always about sincerity and spa days. Nineteenth-century American poet and abolitionist Julia Ward Howe, appalled by Civil War carnage, conceived of a day that would catalyze mothers to work toward peace. Anna Reeves Jarvis, a West Virginia community activist, organized Mothers' Work Days calling for better sanitation in impoverished Appalachian communities.

After Jarvis died, her daughter Anna Jarvis spearheaded a Mother's Day campaign, only to be mortified when florists and card companies saw profit where she saw social justice. "What will you do to rout charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, kidnappers and other termites that would undermine with their greed one of the finest, noblest and truest movements and celebrations?"

Maybe those termites and charlatans can provide a card that looses a moment of joy, an awkward declaration by those who struggle to praise the same power in motherhood that Jarvis saw as untapped potential. And maybe that's love.

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