As I sat around a table with a group of women, all of whom were either clergy or clergy wives, we began discussing the difficulties of creating a life around ministry. We all had different stories, different moments in our vocational lives that stuck out to us as beautiful or terrible or annoying. As we swapped stories, we discovered one moment every single one of us agreed upon — one Sunday that elicited a moan and an eyeroll from the entire group of women. That day was Mother’s Day.
This gave me pause. Twelve of us sat at the table that morning; it was filled with women of varying ages and stages of life, and not a single one of us experienced warm fuzzy feelings about Mother’s Day. As the conversation continued, I discerned two overarching reasons why this was the case and considered some ways our churches can do better.
Reason one: Pain and complexity
“I don’t show up on Mother’s Day,” said one pastor’s wife, a mother of three. She told us she had difficulty conceiving and shared that her oldest two children were adopted. “For years,” she said, “Mother’s Day was the most painful day of the year for me. And even though I now have children, I will never forget that misery, so I still won’t go to church that day.”
Another woman shared that Mother’s Day came less than a month after the anniversary of her mother’s passing, so it was too painful. One of the single women told me she always wanted a family but she didn’t think it would ever happen for her, and another single woman lamented that there never was a celebration for those who gladly chose singleness. Many other women discussed the difficult interpersonal relationships they had with their mothers and how those struggles colored the day.
On and on the stories went — including stories of women who had lost children, or whose children were estranged from them. Although the stories and the perspectives differed — some of us looked to our mothers, and others looked to our own status as mothers (or lack thereof) — the results were the same: Mother’s Day was too painful.
But we also knew those for whom Mother’s Day was a celebration. The woman with a new baby, for example, who was celebrating her first Mother’s Day, or the woman whose adult children came home every year just to spend Mother’s Day with her. Although the women around my table that day were fervent in their dislike of Mother’s Day, they also were fervent in their opinions that those who wanted to celebrate it should be able to do so.
“They focus on one sweet and simple narrative rather than recognizing and acknowledging the breadth, depth and complexity of feelings from the women (and men) in the pews.”
The problem is that most of our churches only approach Mother’s Day from a celebratory perspective. They then exacerbate this problem by presuming every woman there is eager and happy to join in the celebration. They focus on one sweet and simple narrative rather than recognizing and acknowledging the breadth, depth and complexity of feelings from the women (and men) in the pews on Mother’s Day.
Reason two: Gendering God
In addition to those who struggled with Mother’s Day because of the pain and complexity associated with it, many of us also objected to the gendering of God’s qualities.
So often on Mother’s Day we hear how women exemplify the kindness and love of God. They are selfless and self-sacrificing, and they model servanthood and grace. These are the key words every sermon or prayer makes sure to include as they discuss how wonderful mothers are.
This never bothered me until I realized that the key words on Father’s Day were strength and leadership.
When we honor mothers, as well as women in general, words like “strength” and “leadership” should be a part of our celebrations. Mothers are indeed incredibly strong and exemplify wonderful leadership skills in both personal and professional capacities. Every time we fail or refuse to acknowledge this, we pay homage to a complementarian system that both defines and limits the roles of women.
But it’s actually even more dangerous than that. It’s a theological problem, too.
Every time our Mother’s Day services limit the characteristics of grace, kindness or servanthood to women, while our Father’s Day services limit strength and leadership to men, we fail to recognize the full extent to which any and all of us are made in the image of God. It could make us think that certain qualities of God are more feminine while others are more masculine, but this is not true.
Our God is gracious, and this is not a feminine quality — it is a godly one. Our God is kind and self-giving. These are not feminine qualities — they are godly ones. Our God is powerful, strong and wise. These are not manly qualities of God — they are godly qualities reflected by both men and women as beings who are created in God’s image.
How we can do better
Regarding both the qualities we name and the complexities we don’t, it is time for churches to do better. What could our worship services look like if we held space for the varying and complex feelings people bring into the sanctuary on Mother’s Day? What if we offered moments of celebration as well as moments of lament, prayers of gratitude as well as pleas for restoration? How could we be intentional about naming the myriad godly characteristics we see in women and mothers, not simply those traits that are traditionally considered feminine?
“What could our worship services look like if we held space for the varying and complex feelings people bring into the sanctuary on Mother’s Day?”
We must learn to acknowledge and honor the scope of experiences and the breadth of godly qualities women in our congregations bring with them on Mother’s Day. This will undoubtedly be more difficult than our typical and traditional Mother’s Day plans. It will take much more intentionality. It will require us to listen to the voices of the women in our congregations and keep them in our minds as we pray, think and plan ways to thoughtfully approach this.
But I do believe it is possible, if we are willing to try. If we could develop a way to recognize Mother’s Day in all its complexities, and to recognize motherhood in all its complexity too, maybe we could take the Mother’s Day service from eye-rolling to enriching, from cringe-worthy to care-filled. Rather than a service that is wearisome, maybe we could again make it worshipful.
Andrea Huffman currently serves as a pastoral resident at Second Baptist Church in Liberty, Mo. She has served in ministry for the last 12 years, during which time she also birthed three children, earned two graduate degrees and bought a partridge for her pear tree. She currently resides in Liberty with her husband and their delightful handful of kids.
On this Mother’s Day, will churches act more like Rome or Christ? | Opinion by Alicia D. Myers
How Hagar shows us the meaning of divine motherhood | Opinion by Mallory Challis
What I found hidden in my mother’s Bible after her death | Opinion by Kim Brewer
Rethinking Mother’s Day | Opinion by Brett Younger
Is Sunday morning worship the place to celebrate Mother’s Day? It’s complicated | Opinion by Christy Edwards