This Sunday will be celebrated in the USA and Canada as “Mothers’ Day”. It has different historical origins from the UK’s “Mothering Sunday” which is always kept on the fourth Sunday of Lent. The UK version dates back to an old Church custom of connecting with “mother church”. In the USA, however, Mothers’ Day began in 1905, the year Anna Jarvis’s mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis, died. Anna Jarvis proposed a holiday that would honor mothers and their work. Ann Reeves Jarvis had been a peace activist, who notably had cared for wounded soldiers in the Civil War, caring equally for soldiers who had fought on either side, both as an act of compassion for the individual men, but also as a means of protest against the war. Men may fight their battles, Reeves Jarvis thought, but mothers do not want their men to go to war at all. (One is put in mind of other movements of women with similar aims – such as the Women for Peace movement Northern Ireland (later known as Peace People). Led by Mairead Maguire (nee Corrigan) and Betty Williams, women joined hands across the divide to try to find a peaceful resolution for the Troubles.)
On both sides of the pond, though, despite their different origins, Mothers’ Day gradually morphed into a commercialized event that is purely an appreciation day for mothers. The commercialization began even in the first few years after Jarvis began the tradition, and she was horrified at the sentimentalization of her original idea. Why? On one level, it’s nice to celebrate people you love: what could be wrong with that? But Anna Jarvis’s upset was well founded. Because unfortunately there is now something spectacularly skewed about the way these days are named and celebrated.
For one thing, not everyone has good feelings about their own mothers, about being a mother, or about the loss or pain associated with motherhood. And for another, it isn’t only biological mothers who “mother” people–a whole host of aunts, uncles, friends and relations take part in the nurturing work that “mothers” people into adulthood. But a much stronger critique comes in observing how the day is celebrated culturally. In conversations over the last couple of weeks in my city, I’ve heard one woman after another say that they will be celebrated by their family “giving me a day off”. It seems to me that naming a day – one day a year – on which mothers are relieved from the generally accepted duties of motherhood (cooking, cleaning, looking after everyone) reinforces the very things we ought to be challenging. One day a year on which I’m not expected to do all the cooking, cleaning, laundry, and other household management? That’s a huge backwards step from celebrating women like Ann Reeves Jarvis and Maired Maguire who have spent their lives as peace activists. Is one day of appreciation for women, without challenging the cultural assumption that their primary function is as domestic servants, really something to celebrate? How about the rest of the family learns to shoulder their share of the burden all year round?
Churches are under considerable pressure to go along with this cultural event, forgetting the idea of mother church; forgetting the laudable aims of women who have given their lives in the promotion of a better and more peaceful world, and instead finding themselves pressurized to a schmaltzy and narrow celebration of motherhood, which, in reality, diminishes our idea of motherhood, exalting the domestic sphere and ignoring the wider picture altogether.
Here is a clip from something I wrote in a book a few years back, raising a small but important challenge: if we are going to celebrate Mothers Day, we need to free ourselves from its commercialization and think differently about what we are doing, promoting the place of women in the world, understanding the wider notion of mothering, and not reinforcing a worn-out idea of mothers as martyrs to the family.
While Jesus was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, ‘Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.’But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’
Matthew 12: 46-50
“… While, on the surface, it seems a nice idea to spend a whole Sunday celebrating mothers, it has a complicated flip-side. Why only mothers? Why not fathers, grandparents, children, aunts and uncles, siblings, single people, childless people, and more? The romanticisation of the mother-child relationship is full of fraught overtones: what does it say to women who are not mothers? Are we suggesting that their contribution to the world is somehow less valuable, less worth a celebratory day? The new focus on Mothers’ Day comes with barbs for those who are childless but not by choice, for those who are infertile, who have suffered miscarriages, for women whose children have died or are estranged, or for single or widowed fathers.
Some years ago I suffered an early miscarriage and, given the brevity of the experience, was almost surprised to find that while the world continued to turn unawares, I was quite washed away with grief. One of my closest friends at the time was a woman older than me who had longed for children but never been able to have any herself. Rather than talking interminably about my situation, she simply checked up on me regularly to make sure that I was eating and sleeping properly, and getting out and having some fun.
After a few weeks, Mothering Sunday loomed on the horizon. I began to tell myself that I would be fine by then, how I would think happy thoughts and get through the Sunday services without a worry. Then my friend called. ‘I’ve booked a cottage in the country,” she announced. “Inform your church you are taking the weekend off. You need to come away with us. We will not spend a single moment thinking about mothers and children; we will have a mid-Lent feast that focuses on the family of the Church. That’s you and me, kid.’
She was so right. The last thing I (and the six other men and women she had invited away for the weekend) needed was to dwell on our raw and recent griefs, and have them aggravated by children with bunches of flowers and the vaguely implied message that real women are mothers. Instead, we cooked and talked, laughed and sang, prayed and gave thanks for community and friendship and life in all its fullness. I came home at the end of the weekend with hope reborn in my heart that life would go on.
Jesus’ words concerning his mother and family are among his “hard sayings” – they sound rude and lacking in compassion, and hard to reconcile with the Jesus who seems to care about everyone everywhere. Yet maybe, rather than rejecting his own mother and brothers, he is calling us to broaden our vision of community, so that we can encompass those who cannot retreat to tight-knit family units of their own.
I think it would be worth putting serious thought into reshaping today’s feast so that family life is placed firmly within the wider context of the community of Mother Church. We may fear an outcry if we shifted the focus of Mothers’ Day, but our concept of family life will be sad and inadequate if we allow it to be constructed for us by advertising campaigns and the greeting card industry. If, like Jesus, we have the courage to embrace a much wider concept of community than the nuclear family, then we too might find that we don’t have to accept our culture’s narrow and exclusive myths about families.
post originally published in 2014