Those of a certain age likely share my childhood church experiences of Mother’s Day.
During the service, the oldest and youngest mothers present were recognized. All women were offered carnations to wear – pink if your mother was living, white if deceased.
And, of course, families took Moms out to eat lunch after church, so she wouldn’t have to cook that Sunday.
This was in a time – long ago in a galaxy far, far away – when restaurant visits among my social strata were rare.
In my rearing, the only eating out was occasional trips to the Dairy Queen for burgers, a few times on vacations (which were still burger events for me), and Mother’s Day.
Nowadays, the average American eats out an average of 5.9 times each week.
A brief anecdote by Maralee McKee (America’s modern manners and etiquette expert) illustrates how unintentionally brutal those Mother’s Day observances could be.
“I once suffered a miscarriage shortly before Mother’s Day,” she writes. “When I entered the sanctuary that Sunday, an usher carrying a basket of carnations greeted me.
“‘Happy Mother’s Day, pretty lady!’ He innocently beamed. ‘I know you must be a mom! Here’s a flower.’ In a sudden daze, I accepted the flower from his hand and rushed to the bathroom crying.”
In the early years of our congregation’s life, we pastoral leaders put special effort in planning Mother’s (and Father’s) Day – though without the sentimental trappings – to highlight and honor the work of parenting.
Typically, in place of a sermon, we asked selected members to speak of their own mother’s and father’s enduring influence on their lives. We heard some extraordinary stories of steadfast strength, and encouragement, and tenderness, and gratitude in those testimonies.
But afterwards, to our genuine surprise, we got more than a little pushback from others.
The initial complaint came from one of our members who very much wanted to have a child but was biologically unable to do so. She experienced the emphasis on mothering as a torment.
Others resisted the emphasis because of their history of parental discord, abuse or abandonment. Others were still grieving the loss of a mother or father, and the liturgical attention stirred more pain than appreciation.
We eventually stopped marking these days in any focused way – something I still regret. I wish we could have adapted our observances to provide opportunity to acknowledge, for some, the painful memories. Generally speaking, though, the church doesn’t do lament very well.
In Scripture’s cultural background, the inability to have children was a profound source both of social shame and an economic hazard – which is why the reversal of barrenness was a lucid metaphor of God’s saving work (as with Sarai in Genesis 11:30 and Elizabeth in Luke 1:7).
Vividly, the author of Proverbs compares Sheol to “the barren womb, the earth ever thirsty for water, and the fire that never says ‘Enough’” (30:16).
Other texts that speak of the work of God’s redemptive power illustrated as the reversal of “barren” (childless) status include: Genesis 11:30, 25:21, 29:31; Exodus 23:26; Judges 13:3; 1 Samuel 2:5; Psalm 113:9; Isaiah 49:21, 54:1; Luke 1:7, 1:36; Hebrews 11:11.
In his final hours as he bore the cross to his place of execution, Jesus says to women grieving his fate: “For the days are surely coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.’”
The context of his statement is a warning against the destruction to come, basically saying, “thank God you don’t have children who will suffer this fate.”
But by implication, in the age to come, such as these will have their shame turned to fecund praise (Luke 23:29).
I have a number of friends who have adopted children who do not allow the lack of familial genetics to be a barrier to steadfast parenting.
And many more friends, with or without their own children – teachers, childcare providers, grandparents and aunts and uncles, godparents, coaches – who play invaluable nurturing roles in the lives of young ones.
The ancient African proverb – “It takes a village to raise a child” – is no less pertinent, now and here, as there and then.
Parenting is a profound responsibility, not to mention a perilous duty.
Communities of faith need to learn how to recognize, support and enrich this calling, without stigmatizing those who don’t have children, or traumatizing those who have lost children, or reifying inherited gender roles.
Ken Sehested is curator of prayerandpolitiks.org, an online journal at the intersection of spiritual formation and prophetic action. He was the founding co-pastor of Circle of Mercy Congregation in Asheville, North Carolina.