A week ago, as I anticipated this upcoming Mother’s Day, I felt ready to fight for my flower. Each year, I look forward to the carnation and the vague, glowing tribute churches often pay to women who mother. After all, haven’t I earned it? After birthing and raising a daughter and (count them) five sons, after 29 years of the daily dying-to-self that defines mothers’ lives, I am grateful for any Mother’s Day payback—even for the greasy (delicious) donut my church handed out one year.
But I am increasingly recognizing the tremendous cost of that flower (or donut). A few days ago, I posted a simple query on social media: “How do you feel about Mother’s Day celebrations in church?” In one day, 150 women responded with passion and detail—and the messages are still coming. After reading their stories, it became clear to me: Mother’s Day Sunday is, for many, the single most painful day of the entire church year.
Like salt in a wound
Most churches try to honor mothers in some way, but rather than attracting women with its special focus, legions either stay home from church on that day or leave their church service filled with resentment and pain. Many women have told me why. Single mothers describe it as momentary attention that lapses into invisibility again once the day passes, leaving them struggling to raise their kids alone. Bonnie, a mother of a beautiful adopted daughter, tells of one Mother’s Day when her pastor invited children to hand out chocolate kisses to their mothers. He was very specific about who qualified: They were to give their candy “not to the women who are like a mother to you” but only to “the woman who gave birth to you.” Bonnie was horrified and actually shouted out, “Or who has adopted you!” Sandra lost her own mother early and was never able to have children of her own despite her great longing. On Mother’s Day, with neither a mother nor children, she tells me she feels “like I have been abandoned by God’s people.” Shari, who tragically lost her daughter to cancer, finds her church celebrations devastating, like “salt in a wound.” On this day, many women grieve children they never had or children they have lost. They grieve mothers they never had or mothers they have lost. I, too, carry great grief on this day.
However well-meaning, Mother’s Day messages from the pulpit can be disturbing as well. Amy, who married later in life and is mom to stepchildren, told me she is weary of sermons that glorify motherhood and tending a home. Some pastors go so far as to say or imply that a life of motherhood and housekeeping is a woman’s highest calling. Judy, a theologian who teaches around the world, recalls a Mother’s Day sermon on the Proverbs 31 woman ending with an admonition for all women to recommit themselves to domestic tasks and to “working with their hands.” Carrie, a devoted mother of five who has beautifully cared for her home and family, tells me after the day’s specially-themed sermon on motherhood, inevitably, she leaves feeling like a failure. Let us all confess: Mother’s Day is a mess.
At this point, though, I want to pause and give a bouquet to every pastor. Whatever the mistakes and insensitivities, ministers have an impossible job as they face Mother’s Day. How can they honor mothers without wounding others in their congregation? Most deserve kudos for bravely stepping into this minefield. But perhaps they shouldn’t even try?
Many of the 150 respondents I asked said, “Leave Mother’s Day to Hallmark and leave church for worshiping Jesus.” But I protest.
We can’t—and shouldn’t—ignore it
We can’t ignore Mother’s Day in church any more than we can ignore Christmas—nor should we. The world blares messages of consumerism, yes, but also of love and appreciation for mothers. For the church to stay silent would be worse than celebrating it badly. All of us who mother (whether we work outside the home or not) need this affirmation and encouragement in a culture that appears increasingly to honor work and career above raising children. Despite the sometimes unbiblical hyperbole we may hear in sermons (that motherhood is our highest calling), the truth remains that mothering is a high calling, designed by God himself as a crucible of love, blessing, and regeneration. Mary, the mother of Jesus, reminds us all to willingly offer our bodies and lives for the bringing of life and the redemptive purposes of God. Mothers in the trenches can forget this. During the 20-plus years I was either pregnant, nursing, or potty training, I struggled, unseen and silent, with combat fatigue and exhaustion. During that period in particular, Mother’s Day—at home and at church—offered a day of renewal and remembrance.
And remembrance is biblical. The fifth commandment, “Honor your father and your mother” (Ex. 20:12), was hardly an afterthought of God’s. It was and still is essential to the well-being of God’s people. Of course handing out gifts in church one day a year doesn’t allow us to tick that command off our to-do list, but it does afford us a moment to corporately respect and pay tribute to those who gave us life, regardless of their character.
If we forgo Mother’s Day in church, we all lose out in another way as well. In our culture of identity politics, we are increasingly encouraged to define ourselves by our traumas: childless, abused, motherless, disowned. Yet as members of the body of Christ we are called to something more: to “rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Rom. 12:15). We must honestly acknowledge our own afflictions even as we’re beckoned to enter into others’ joys and afflictions.
Mother’s Day offers another chance to enlarge our compassion and empathy. Let the exhausted pregnant woman comfort the grieving childless woman. Let men give praise to their wives. Let children thank their spiritual mothers. Let the happily mothered comfort the abandoned daughter. In other words, let the body of Christ minister to its own members—for this is our truest family. Jesus himself reminds us of this when he asked rhetorically, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers? … Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matt.12:48, 50 ESV). Jesus constantly deepened and enlarged the family of God this way. Even in his final dying moments on the cross, he drew his mother and John, his beloved disciple, to one another as mother and son.
Space for more
How can we do this better on the second Sunday of every May? Rather than doing less (as many disappointed and resigned women have concluded), I think we need to do more. We need more than the distribution of flowers and a round of applause. We need more than narrow or idealized notions of motherhood. We need more than an insistence on a single emotion. What all mothers and women need on Mother’s Day is the same thing the church needs every day: that we “keep the unity of the Spirit” (Eph. 4:3) and “love one another deeply, from the heart” (1 Pet. 1:22).
We can start by acknowledging the realities of mothering in a deeply fallen world. Let’s give the overworked Proverbs 31 woman a rest and instead make room for the complexities and struggles we all live with every day. To do this, pastors can invite women to share their stories, however they choose to tell them. Let’s bring the microphone to the pews (as my church does), making time and space for stories both beautiful and tragic. For those who cannot speak, we can invite them to write their story. Perhaps the church bulletin can host a collection of brief quotes or stories from members of the church. Through these avenues of honest sharing and listening, those without a mother may find a mother in Christ. Those without children may find spiritual sons and daughters.
Yes, there will be laughing and rejoicing, if we are so blessed. And, yes, there will also be tears. We cannot be afraid of this. We’re good at praising and celebrating together, but we often don’t know how to lament together—and it’s time we learned. The Psalms give us both permission and language to complain, rejoice, and grieve together. And Mother’s Day gives us a critical day on which to do so. Pastors, who themselves tirelessly “mother” and “father” their congregations, can make space on this day to allow the body of Christ to truly see and serve one another anew.
If we do this, will some still feel deep hurt or will mistakes still be made? Of course. We, the church, will never be more than human. But if we do not take risks and reimagine how we honor one another on this day, we’ll miss another chance to be the family Christ died for.
Leslie Leyland Fields is the author of 10 books, including Crossing the Waters: Following Jesus through the Storms, the Fish, the Doubt and the Seas and Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers: Finding Freedom from Hurt and Hate. She lives with her family on Kodiak Island, Alaska.