Happy Mother’s Day. Did you know that the origin of this day was a far cry from today’s Hallmark-marketed flowers, sweetness and phone calls? Something my own (very French) mom always scoffed at condescendingly. Thanks to my cohort colleague Marcy Syms, I learned of fellow substack writer Heather Cox Richardson who notes that Mothers’ Day “with the apostrophe not in the singular spot, but in the plural,” actually began in the 1870s as a call to action. Women witnessing the carnage of the Civil War and the Franco-Prussian war decided it was time to take things into their own hands.
Perhaps a moment like today, where Christine Lagarde, the President of the European Central Bank, recently made a similar call, saying that “It is often in the darkest hour that women are called to leadership. And now is the time for us to heed that call.” As I watch the US Supreme Court seemingly ready to undo a half century of abortion laws and the resistance to passing the Equal Rights Amendment (now signed by the requisite 38 states), the Taliban making women cover up all over again in Afghanistan, and the war crimes in Ukraine and their generational trauma, women’s rights feel under pressure from the relentless, reactionary rise of the strongmen and autocrats.
Not that women are guaranteed saints or saviours of our troubled times - as anyone watching Marine Le Pen, Ginni Thomas or Marjorie Taylor Greene will know. I’ve noticed in my corporate work that the women that first emerge from male dominated environments are pretty scary hybrids - much more like a bad version of the men that promote them than the women who are hoping they’ll change the system.
So Happy Mothers’ Day!
I’ve just spent three days in an eye-opening deep dive on mental health here at Harvard, curated by Dr Vikram Patel from the Medical School. Despite having lost a brother to suicide, and watched my own kids struggle with bouts of depression, I had no idea just how globally widespread - and intractable - an issue mental health is. If you are interested or affected by these issues (and the OECD says one out of two people will face it in their lifetimes), I highly recommend Dr Thomas Insel’s book Healing: Our Path From Mental Illness to Mental Health. He ran the US National Institute of Mental Health for over a decade and gave us a haunting insight to a world many of us only discover in crisis. If you want the short summary, here’s my FORBES blog.
The bottom line is that we’ve spent a scientific century focusing on illnesses of the body with great success. Mortality rates for children have plummeted everywhere. Now it is their minds that are causing them problems - or worse. Mental health hits most people young - before 25. Suicide is the leading cause of death among young people in over 100 countries. Who knew? International organisations have spent a decade letting out a cry of alarm. Now we have to adapt medical systems and vastly scale up solutions to help humans face the sometimes terrifying plight of being alive in a difficult world at a difficult time. We have the tools and the know-how insist both Patel and Insel. Money is being spent. Therapies work. Implementation, access and awareness need attention. If you have young kids, read this book! I wish I had had it earlier.
If you think all this is terribly negative for a holiday Sunday, I urge you to read Bittersweet by Susain Cain, the author of Quiet (the mega best-seller that rehabilitated introverts “in a world that can’t stop talking“). She now argues that people are over-focused on happiness. Just see the sold-out courses on the subject at Harvard and Yale. Or the US Declaration of Independence aimed at “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” So different across countries, and so profoundly anchored in their cultures. The French “liberté, egalité, fraternité” delivers an entirely different mission statement. You can feel the difference in the folk. Cain argues that every life is a mix of light and shadow and that you need to learn to embrace both sides. My husband has been trying to tell me this for some time.
Part of the mental health crisis is the pressure to appear OK, the difficulty (multiplied for men) to admit - and share - their wounded natures. And find someone to listen. Listening is a rare gift in our busy world and essential, says everyone I heard from this week, to healing. As Gary Greenberg writes in this weekend’s NYT, everyone is grieving. “We may need to be reminded that behind the outrage and blame is bereavement, that we may be entering a long age of grief and we have no one to console us for our losses or to build something new with, except one another.”
Here’s to building something new, with you.
And kids, I still love the phone calls!