Mothers' Day

May is a tough time for liturgical purists, second only to December. Two of the holiest holidays of the American civil religious calendar fall on weekends in May -- Mother's Day at the beginning of the month and Memorial Day at the end -- and many American Protestant churches have stronger traditions of observing these dates than of observing the Church's own calendar. Those who would insist on giving pride of place to Pentecost, the major Christian holy day that typically falls during May, or even suggest that the civil holidays might not have a proper place in Christian worship at all, face an uphill battle in many church cultures.

It's not that I find the emphasis on mothers at church one Sunday out of 52 to be deeply personally distressing. Motherhood is honorable, and so often unsung; it's hard to object in principle to celebrating mothers.

And yet I cringe on Mother's Day, in solidarity with the women I love who skip church that day rather than face the emotional onslaught, either because it twists the knife of their own childlessness, or because it amplifies the absence of their own dear mothers, or because it reminds them too painfully of their broken or even abusive maternal relationships. At the very least, I believe that whenever we honor mothers, we need to honor and pray for these women also.

Really, if I'm honest with myself, it's not just disinterested solidarity that makes me cringe. My childlessness is not always before me, as it is for women who are all too aware, month by month, of their bodies' stubborn refusal to bear life, or for those whose children have died. Because my pain is less pronounced than that of many of my sisters, and because the position of advocate is so much more comfortable than the position of sufferer, I generally downplay my own sensitivities to mother-adulation. As indeed I just did in the last couple of paragraphs of this post.

It surprises me, frankly, the extent to which such things do bother me personally. I did not expect to be as relieved as I was, this morning, when the men and kids distributing flowers to the "mothers" in the congregation explicitly offered a flower to every adult woman present, sparing me the awkwardness of feeling like I should refuse a flower if it was offered to me or feeling like I was being left out if it was not. I did not expect to be as shaken as I was, some months ago, when I was put on the spot at a church women's gathering and asked to answer before a group of strangers a somewhat personal question the phrasing of which betrayed an assumption that all churchwomen either already are or will soon become mothers.

It's that surprising discomfort that lies behind my impulse to solidarity/advocacy. If I -- who am for the most part content with the direction my so-far-childfree life has taken, who find satisfaction in other forms of care-giving and life-nurturing, who still have hope that I will someday have the children I wish for, and who never did imagine motherhood as the principle fulfillment of my adult vocation -- if I am made uncomfortable and melancholy by the forceful reminder that I do not yet have the children I always thought I would have by now, how much more the women whose longing for children is not so mitigated? And how many of them can't, or won't, speak up -- will just skip church, without ever telling anyone why?

(Let me just say that I absolutely think that skipping church is the right thing for some women to do on Mother's Day, however sensitive their congregational leadership tries to be. To those who have come to that conclusion: more power to you. Have a lovely weekend, and we'll look forward to seeing you next week.)

My friend Lauren recently wrote at length about her first miscarriage on her parenting blog. I didn't learn about her miscarriage until months after it happened (living on the other side of the country and all), and I didn't learn about the extent of her grief until years later. It reminds me that the women most in need of support are often least equipped to seek it out. There may be nothing we can say to make Mother's Day easy for a woman who is powerfully confronted by her lack of a much-wanted child. But we can pray for her, and try to make a space where she might know that her pain will be embraced and tenderly cared for should she choose to speak it, and bring her cookies.

As for the other 51 weeks of the year, I concur with Melissa that we need to break down the distinction between mothers and non-mothers and collectively be the village that it takes to raise our children. What I want for Mother's Day is a Church in which women with children are not left feeling isolated and overwhelmed, and women without children are not left feeling excluded or uninvolved. Jill Lepore points out the intriguingly recent advent of the notion that some adults are "parents" and others are not. Retrieving a culture of collective responsibility for children may be a lost cause in society at large, where reliable birth control and the marginalization of families has reduced the raising of children to an expensive hobby, but in our churches perhaps it is not too late to embrace the idea that we are all parents, whether we have children "of our own" or not.

A major responsibility for creating such a culture must rest with those of us who do not have children, or who do not now have children living at home. Our friends with kids are busy; inviting us into the lives of their families is one more thing on a to do list that never gets all the way done. Besides that, they have been taught by our culture that adults without kids of their own generally find other people's kids to be more of a nuisance than a pleasure. Unless we explicitly tell them otherwise, they have every reason to suppose that we'd rather not hang out if it means that one or the other member of the adult couple we're visiting is going to be perpetually preoccupied with the very short attention span of the toddler in tow or the primary topic of conversation is liable to be options in cloth diapering, breast pumps, and infant daycare. It's up to us to take the initiative to be involved with the families around us.

Likewise at church, I'm sure many children's ministries directors have given up on even seeking volunteers among the non-parents in a congregation because there is such a low rate of response. I used to get a bit huffy about this, interpreting to mean that we who are childless are not valued as potential members of a childcare team. Now I suspect that it was fear of rejection and/or lack of precedent that was behind this oversight.

I must wrap up this overlong and rambling missive with words of thanksgiving for my parent-friends who have, despite their busy-ness, welcomed me into the lives of their families. Thank you for sharing your kids with me. Thank you for not not inviting me over because there are toys everywhere. Thank you, Steve, for responding three years ago to the news that I was suffering a renewed bout of depression with the invitation: "Do you want to hold my baby? She's better than Prozac." (Indeed; she is.) I don't have a fully worked out theory of the place of mess and distraction and disruption in my eschatological vision, but I know that some of the sweetest foretastes of the Wedding Feast of the Lamb have involved a fellow feaster who had spread her meal all over herself and her high chair and the floor, or who had exhausted his capacity to sit still in his booster chair and taken to exploring the imaginary cave under the table.


Steve Lansingh said...

Regarding, say, the last third of the post:

One of the things that we as community-group leaders did was to bring our son with us for most of the meetings. We thought we'd just do it the first year when he would mostly fall asleep, but we just kept right on doing it. Recently one of the guys in our group told us he's learned so much about parenting and family life just from watching us live out ours among them, and it occurred to me how rare that is (unless you have a group that's just solely for parents). Corin has a boatload of surrogate parents he's developed now who dote on him.

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