Family Matters

No Mother’s Day? Why Model Christy Turlington Burns Wants a Boycott

Turlington Burns is calling on mothers to honor "No Mother's Day" instead, to raise awareness of the 358,000 mothers who die worldwide from pregnancy or childbirth complications each year.

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Urging moms to boycott Mother’s Day is kind of like asking patriots to burn the flag. It seems sacrilegious. Like it or not, Mother’s Day has achieved a singular spot in the American calendar.

But there are plenty of people who don’t look forward to the occasion — those who might be battling infertility or have lost their mothers come to mind — and it’s that latter group that may feel a particular kinship with what model-turned-maternal activist Christy Turlington Burns is trying to do.

In a two-minute video posted on Wednesday, Turlington Burns and a cast of celebrity and everyday mothers ask moms everywhere to embrace the unthinkable — shrug off the one day of the year devoted to singing their praises. No clumsily lettered cards, no breakfast in bed, no chocolate or fragrant spring blooms.

Turlington Burns, mother to Grace, 8, and Finn, 6, is not mounting a campaign against the commercialization of the day, though that’s a common complaint. Instead, she’s rallied Kelly Rutherford, Debra Messing, Blythe Danner and Jennifer Connelly, among other famous mothers, to ask women to participate in “No Mothers Day,” which the maternal health advocacy campaign Turlington Burns founded in 2010, Every Mother Counts, is sponsoring.

“I will choose to disappear and forgo the one day dedicated to me,” intone two mothers in the organization’s film clip, which was directed by Turlington Burns’ filmmaker husband, Ed Burns.

No emails. No phone calls. No Facebook updates. Or at least that’s the goal.

Each year, 358,000 mothers die from complications during pregnancy or childbirth. “One thousand,” begins the clip. “That is how many women will die this Mother’s Day. Not from old age. Not from cancer. But because these women were about to become mothers.”

Turlington Burns became interested in maternal mortality when she had a complication — her placenta wasn’t naturally expelled — after Grace’s birth. Once she learned that the same problem accounts for one of the leading causes of maternal death worldwide, she wanted to know more. She became a filmmaker in her own right, releasing No Woman, No Cry, which documented the global plight of pregnant women who struggle to access good medical care. The issue isn’t confined to the developing world: although American women don’t typically fear death when they become pregnant, the U.S. ranks 50th in maternal mortality prevention.

Worldwide, most maternal deaths could be avoided with better training, education and supplies. That, of course, costs money. Every Mother Counts suggests that people participate in a race to raise funds for the cause or donate to projects they support, including new health clinics in the Democratic Republic of Congo and motorcycles for health-care workers to reach laboring mothers in Kenya.

You could also help just by popping into Starbucks, which is selling a new CD, Every Mother Counts 2012, which features new or unreleased recordings from artists including Bono and The Edge, Alanis Morissette, Paul Simon and Edie Brickell, Patti Smith and Eddie Vedder. Eight dollars of the $12 price goes to Turlington Burns’ organization.

From the editing room this week, Turlington Burns talked about why the issue of maternal mortality resonates so deeply with her and whether she really believes moms will turn their backs on their special day:

Healthland: How did you come up with the idea of No Mothers Day?

Turlington Burns: There are a lot of organizations that focus on Mother’s Day as an opportunity. In order to really get people’s attention within that noisy period, we kind of needed to do something slightly different. We worked with a creative agency in New York [CHI&Partners] that created this moment to create space to get people’s attention and continue the dialogue after Mother’s Day.

So what if your kids insist on serving you pancakes in bed? Are you supposed to say no?

This message isn’t for small children. It’s for the people who value us in our lives, like our partners. Because most moms hold the family together. That’s their role, no matter if they’re a stay-at-home mom or a working mom.

How did you make the film? 

My husband directed it. We mostly filmed with friends and we used our home for a lot of the shots. He is used to filming on the fly and working with what we have. We had about 36 women, all people we know, some are friends, some are colleagues. People like Ann Curry, the Today show anchor and actress Jennifer Connelly and Heather Armstrong, who writes Dooce.

How do you think the message — “Our silence will speak the loudest for all mothers” — will be received?

The litmus test is how quickly people wrote me back and said, Count me in. We have five facts we share with people — like 90% of these deaths are preventable — so at least on that day you think about things you wouldn’t otherwise think about. This is happening but it’s one of those things we actually know how to solve.

Let’s say mothers see the video and get fired up. What can they do?

When I learned the global statistics, I couldn’t not do all that I could to do something about it. I’m hoping the film inspires people to want to do something. You can start an initiative to collect medical supplies. When you go into the hospital to have a baby, start up a collection of all the stuff they give you that you don’t use. As advocates, it’s our job to get people talking.

Are you concerned this campaign might be a little too provocative?

We talked about whether it’s too negative. No Mothers Day? What does that really mean? It’s a day to stop going through the motions. Now it feels obligatory, but even the origin of Mother’s Day was really an antiwar protest. It was moms saying, I’m fed up, our spouses are getting killed at war and we don’t want to take it anymore. Over the years, it changed from being mother-owned to being about the mother. Moms should be able to dictate how they want others to honor them. It’s about taking that back.