All women share the gift of motherhood—whether they have children or not.
I will not be attending church this Sunday, because it’s Mother’s Day, and I choose not to be present at that inevitable moment when all the mothers of the congregation are recognized.
I have nothing against mothers; this is about my life. At many churches, there comes a point in the service where the pastor says, “I’d like all you mothers to stand,” and everyone applauds as women of all ages rise and smile. In some congregations, prizes are given for those with the most children, those who are oldest, those who are the most recent mothers, and so forth.
I don’t think we do anything like this at my church, but there is always the Mother’s Day brunch after the service, and during the meal kids from the youth group scatter throughout the crowd and hand a carnation to every woman. At that point I must decide whether to be annoyed by it and refuse to take the flower, or to be gracious and carry around the bloom while feeling completely fraudulent in doing so.
For this reason, I don’t attend church on Mother’s Day. I was able to stand up one year, long ago, in another church, the one and only time I was pregnant. But I lost that baby just a couple of weeks later. Today I am past the age of childbearing, and I am happy with my life. I accept it as a gift from God, and I do practice gratitude and recognize the many graces of my days. But I would have preferred motherhood, and so this single boycotted day of the year is my simple protest against the imperfection of life.
Enough of my story. This article is for every woman who is childless. I have decided what I would say if I were the pastor on Mother’s Day. I would ask the mothers to stand, because they deserve applause, by all means. But after they were seated, I would ask all those women to stand who are not mothers. And I would say something like this:
Some of you are not mothers by choice. You personally have determined the wisest course for you. Maybe the reasons are medical. Or maybe they have to do with the demands of your personal mission—whether that’s a career to which you are called or a ministry that would be hard on a family.
Some of you are not mothers simply because your life took a certain path that did not include motherhood. You have done what seemed right, made the decisions that were consistent with who you are and what you love. Maybe you never married or arrived at a situation that you considered healthy for the nurturing of children. Maybe major life events removed you from the motherhood track.
Some of you are not mothers because of severe damage in your life or in the life of your family. That damage could be abuse, debilitating depression, addiction, or other illness, or a condition of soul that has required most of your time and energy for the sake of healing and restoration. All of this got in the way of life that includes partnership and childrearing.
Some of you are not mothers despite every effort you made to become one. You tried for months or years to become pregnant or to finalize an adoption, but those plans were thwarted at every turn, through no fault of your own. The only people who could possibly understand how desperate and abandoned you feel are those who have experienced this situation themselves.
Whatever your reason for being childless, please know this: You are indeed a source of life to the world. You possess the ability to nurture others, and, if you free yourself to do so, you will be amazed at how fertile you actually are.
There is no substitute for physical motherhood. And for one who longs to have children in her house, nothing else will do. Don’t ever deny the grief of that. Don’t minimize this burden of emptiness. Don’t repress your desire to give birth. That very desire is a unique and particular energy of womanhood, for those who have children and those who have not.
At a personal retreat I made a while ago, I was surprised to receive an image of myself as pregnant with God. Wasn’t that privilege reserved for Mary, the mother of Jesus? But no, the incarnation changed everything. Divine life merged with human life, and now every person has the ability to birth God, to bring the divine to life.
Do you understand that you are always pregnant? That life is constantly churning and growing within you? Your specific character, history, situation, and giftedness manifest God in a way unlike any other expression. God waits to reside in the womb that is your life. Holy love and grace ripen inside you and, when the time is right, will be born and will flourish in this lonely, needy world.
This is spiritual talk, I know, and it provides little comfort when your physical body aches to grow a child. If you are in the center of such desolation, my words probably won’t touch you at all. But read them anyway. And then read them again.
There’s a principle here that each of us must learn sooner or later. We are not defined by or confined to the obvious physical situation. As we live our visible lives, we exist in our eternal lives, and the characteristics of the eternal will ultimately overwhelm and transform the visible.
So, as best you can this Mother’s Day, allow your desire for giving life to beat wildly and without shame. When words come to the surface—words of pain, anxiety, anger, anticipation, longing, joy—share them with someone. If you stay silent, the world will suffer for it. If you hide your life because it wasn’t the one you’d hoped for, the human family will miss you and grieve.
For anyone—pastors, friends, fellow parishioners—who wants to handle Mother’s Day in a way that is generous to all, please try a larger view. Motherhood in God’s kingdom goes far beyond physical childbirth or parenting through adoption. Motherhood is about nurturing, and many women who have never been mothers physically nevertheless brim with the ability and passion to nurture others.
Motherhood has to do with protecting life while it’s in formation, whether that is life in the womb or the life of a struggling ministry or the life of a family that has been battered by circumstances. Motherhood is about a mentoring relationship, and mentoring happens whenever the need is identified and the mentor and mentee are willing.
So, when you speak of motherhood or when you honor it, honor the transcendent gift of motherhood in all its forms. Honor those who nurture others by visits to home and hospital, by providing a safe and cheerful place for preschoolers, or by being a nonjudgmental and loving presence for the teenagers.
Don’t forget the spiritual mothers, many of them nuns, who have nurtured many a priest and leader through their spiritual direction. Honor the older women who so often are the very backbone of a faith community. One of the most joyous Christians I ever knew, an elderly woman who became an example to me of true faith, never married nor had children. But she was a light to me even when I was an angst-filled adolescent. I knew she had something that made it possible to be content with life—and I hoped to know that kind of spiritual peace.
Happy Mother’s Day to you—beloved of God, one who is blessed and who blesses others.
This article appeared in the May 2010 issue of U.S. Catholic magazine (Vol. 75, No. 5, pages 34-35).
Image: Tom Wright