Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

5/7 2015

Mother’s Day: It’s Complicated

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Mothers-DayMy friend Judy once told me that every year on Mother’s Day, she makes sure to sign up to volunteer in her church’s nursery during worship. When I asked her why, she said, “Ever since my mom died, I just can’t be in worship on Mother’s Day. They make such a big deal of it in the service: they recognize all the moms, and the sermon is always about motherhood. And it’s just too painful for me, so I work in the nursery instead.”

Often churches imagine that by celebrating Mother’s Day very publicly in Sunday morning worship, they’re doing a good thing – after all, they’re honoring all the hard-working moms out there who may not always get the appreciation they deserve. But Judy’s story got me thinking: What if observing Mother’s Day this way is actually causing pain or even doing harm to people in our faith communities?

Consider the following people, some of whom are likely to be in your congregation on Mother’s Day:

  • A couple who has recently suffered a miscarriage or stillbirth
  • A woman who has learned that she is unable to conceive children biologically
  • A person whose mother has recently died
  • A woman whose child has died
  • A woman who wants to be married but isn’t, and doesn’t know if she’ll ever get the chance to become a mom
  • A person whose own mother was abusive or neglectful
  • A woman who has chosen to place her child for adoption
  • A teenager who is pregnant and doesn’t feel ready to be a mother
  • A woman who does not feel called to parenthood

For all of these people, Mother’s Day is likely to stir some very complicated feelings such as grief, anger, disappointment, jealousy, or despair. These are not feelings we typically like to talk much about in church, which is why I think we tend to handle Mother’s Day in a way that focuses only on the joyful aspects of motherhood, and does not acknowledge the true complexity of that experience – even for those who have chosen to become mothers and are happy with their choice.

So, what can we do? One option is to find ways of naming the complexity of motherhood more fully in our liturgy and prayers. For example, in the prayers of the people, instead of just saying “Thank you, God, for our mothers,” we could pray something like “Thank you, God, for our mothers and for those who have been like mothers to us. Help us to hold our grief for mothers and children who have died, for relationships between mothers and children that have been broken, and for dreams of motherhood that may never come to be.” Even a prayer like this, though, may be experienced as excluding those who do not feel called to be parents, as if they are not “real” women if they are not mothers.

This is why we should also think very carefully about recognizing mothers in public ways in our congregations. Some communities have a tradition of giving out flowers to all the mothers during worship on Mother’s Day. But imagine you are the person whose child has died, or who has placed your child for adoption, or who desperately wants to be a mother but can’t because of biology or life circumstance. How would it feel to you to be excluded from the category of “mother” in this way?

Maybe the best way forward is just not to make a big deal of Mother’s Day in church. After all, it’s not a religious holiday or a part of the liturgical year. In fact, in a lot of ways it’s become what some would call a “Hallmark holiday,” meaning that it primarily benefits those who have commercialized it and who reap monetary rewards from it (even Anna Jarvis, the woman who founded Mother’s Day in the United States, later tried to get it removed from the national calendar because of the way it had become commercialized – read more here). So, this year, maybe we’ll want to try just printing “Happy Mother’s Day!” somewhere on the bulletin, and then going on with worship appropriate for the sixth Sunday of Easter. If we do, we may find that a number of people in our congregations will breathe a sigh of relief.

The Rev. Dr. Leanna K. Fuller is assistant professor of pastoral care at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and teaches in the MDiv program. Her ministry experience includes serving as associate pastor of Oakland Christian Church in Suffolk, Va., where she coordinated youth ministry and Christian education programming. She writes regularly on pastoral care and counseling, pastoral theology, and congregational conflict. You can follow her on Twitter at @LeannaFuller74.

Comments ( 10 )

  • Leanna, thank you for this.

    I’ve always wanted to be a mom, but I never struggled with Mother’s Day much until last year. 2014 was my sister’s first Mother’s Day. It was also just over 7 weeks after a medically necessary but very much unwanted hysterectomy.

    Balancing the joy at the precious twins and my own grief was almost impossible.

    If my church had done the “all mothers stand up” thing or distributed flowers, I don’t think I would’ve made it through the service.

    I think mothers are amazing. I’ve already bought cards and presents. I don’t want to take anything away from mothers.

    I just wish people could see how treating motherhood as THE way to be a female member of the body of Christ alienates and hurts those of us who aren’t mothers. I appreciate it whenever those who are mothers are aware of the possible situations of those who aren’t.

  • I can appreciate the sentiment of “remember your friends for whom this is a sad day, and be especially kind to them.” I am all in with “Don’t go overboard on celebrating because marketers are hyping the day as a money making opportunity.” But I am not on board with saying, “This holiday is inherently unjust and unkind because it doesn’t celebrate everyone.”

    Celebrating a person doesn’t take anything away from another person who is not celebrated on that particular day. You can see how twisted this logic is just by applying it to International Women’s Day. Don’t celebrate it because some people are not women and will never be women? Because some people have been hurt by women? Because some people have loved and lost women? We would never do that.

    Many people also find Christmastime difficult, because of lost loved ones, difficult family memories, sadness that they cannot have Christmas with what or whom they wish. This grief is real. However, we do not forgo Christmas joy because of Christmas sorrow. Instead, we remember and honor that sorrow in worship and sometimes with special services. I think we should take the same approach with Mother’s Day (and Father’s Day, too). We would all be better served by remembering that motherhood is a complicated part of life (especially since Mother’s Day is definitely happening outside of the church doors) than by dispensing with mentioning it altogether because it can’t be all happiness and light.

  • Church feels like a dangerous place for me to be on Mothers’ Day because infertility has kept me from being able to have children (and please don’t tell me to “just adopt” because that’s neither an easy, quick, nor inexpensive process). If the church doesn’t have the dreaded flower presentation, there’s the equally awful “stand up and be applauded” exercise that effectively separates the wheat from the chaff. (and the church and society make it clear to me which one they think I am).

    Church isn’t supposed to elevate one group of members over another, but it often ends up doing so on Mothers’ and Fathers’ Days. Some churches try to be more inclusive by asking all those who’ve “acted as a mother or father” to someone to stand up, but that feels contrived because we all know it’s really the actual parents everyone wants to celebrate, not those who haven’t done 24/7 duty as a “real” parent.

    I often feel as if on Mothers’ Day churches lose their focus, turning the worship service into a worship of mothers instead of a worship of God. Perhaps every year on that day God, like me, feels left out, devalued, and even alienated?

    I like the approach suggested in this blog post, to embrace the complexity of feelings this Hallmark holiday triggers, to acknowledge the grief and pain that arise as a romanticized and idealized vision of motherhood is celebrated. Unfortunately, as the post also points out, the church isn’t comfortable with the feelings that characterize a great loss. Unless, of course, those feelings occur during an actual funeral. The church does good funerals. But there are so many other significant losses we face in life beyond that of the death of a loved one, and the church usually offers cold comfort when it comes to those. Raise your hand if you can remember a point in a worship service during which the loss of a child to miscarriage was ever addressed at any length, for example.

    Some years ago I attended a Mothers’ Day service at a Unitarian Universalist church because the pastor had chosen specifically to focus on what Mothers’ Day means to those who have suffered the loss of children and motherhood through infertility, still births, and early infant and child deaths. It was a meaningful service for me because it was the first in which my experience of motherhood (a miscarriage and then unresolved infertility) was recognized and validated. She got a lot of feedback saying it was a downer, so she hasn’t held another service like that since.

    Until churches are willing to acknowledge the complexities of Mothers’ and Fathers’ Days, regardless of how uncomfortable the reminder of how the joy of some is the deep sorrow of others, I will continue to protect myself from the church by staying far away from it on those days.

  • Nicely written. I would come down on the position that Mother’s Day has nothing to do with church — especially not with worship. Far too many pastors are afraid to stick to the lectionary, focus on Easter and in other ways remember that worship is not “about us.”

    Tomorrow during the “children’s Chat” the kids will sing a song about mothers, then they will distribute carnations to ALL of the women in worship. That’s it and that is probably more than should be done. What hoops are jumped through in your congregation on Father’s Day?. I rest my case.

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