What I Wish My Pastor Would Say About Mothers
Three women share how they'd like you to deal with Mothers' Day
Ah, Mother's Day! It's sweet, it's happy, it's beautiful … and it's tricky. Some women are delighted to come to church on Mother's Day. But some women are hurting so deeply that they'll skip church. How do you shower love on moms but show compassion to the wounded? We asked three ordinary women, "What do you wish your pastor would or wouldn't say on Mother's Day?" Then we just let them talk. You won't find any pastor bashing here, but you will find some practical, helpful advice from mature women who love Christ and his church. Here's my encouragement: based on these perspectives, try to make one positive change in what you say or don't say this coming Mothers' Day.
It's Just Tricky, Margot Starbuck
"God couldn't be everywhere, so he gave us mothers."
The church signboard I passed on my morning walk rattled me. Is God always so sorely limited? Did God give the addicted mother of the passing driver who beat her children?
And this from a church secretary who truly meant well.
Those of us who lead worship also mean well. And yet honoring mothers in worship on Mother's Day can be, and usually is, equally dicey.
As an adopted person, and a mama by birth and adoption, I'm keenly aware of the many women in the pews around me who don't get to wear a red rose on their lapels and stand sheepishly to be honored. Some are the friends I hold in my heart who would love to be moms, but—for various reasons—are not. Some have been unable to conceive. Some have had abortions. Others never married. Without ever meaning to, I filter every word of even the best Mother's Day liturgies through their ears.
I also remember the visible, and invisible, birth moms. Adoptive moms may offer a prayer of gratitude for those who carried our children—their children—into the world. For many of us these mothers may, by default, remain nameless and faceless. Others we can pray for by name.
But there are also the mothers in our pews who were shuttled away to homes for unwed mothers, in the 1950s and 60s and 70s, giving birth alone and returning home with empty arms. Assured that they'd "forget" and "move on," these mothers never forgot. Whether or not they stand to be recognized, the child they'll be thinking of, as pew neighbors are clapping, will be the ones they never held. Many will be among the many women sitting at home because Mother's Day—no matter how well it's handled in worship—is simply too painful.
The practicalities for pastors and worship leaders of recognizing and honoring all mothers, is altogether wily. It's hard.
As a nation, we've often glorified motherhood. The pieces of my unique story—being raised by a mother who'd lost her own mother as a toddler—fell into place, oddly enough, while browsing through popular women's magazines from the 1940s and 50s. As a nation desperately tried to regain "normalcy" in the wake of war, the idealized mothers symbolized the domestic anchor of stability. "Perfect" mothers, a la June Cleaver, raised perfect children, who were fed infant formula and Corn Flakes, and kept perfect homes—ideally wielding a shiny new Hoover vacuum cleaner. That perfect mother is the one who guided my grandmother as she raised the girl who raised me. Even today we can still cling to an idealized, and often unattainable, version of motherhood.
So, keenly aware of my own imperfections, I'll likely squirm on Mother's Day if praise is lauded on those of us who have raised, or are raising, children. For days, television ads will have featured glimpses of sacrificial mothers who ask for no more than a four-dollar greeting card as thanks for squeezing out a kid, changing his diapers, preparing meals and cleaning toilets. Though I've grudgingly done all those things, the more pressing awareness with which I live—and perhaps my children do as well!—is of the areas where I fail. Like all mothers, I do the best I can. Sometimes I succeed. So while I'll probably bristle at any prayers blanketing me as the giver of noble sacrificial mother-love, I'll find myself included in ones that ask God to help mothers love like He loved us. Especially when we fail.
Bottom line: mentioning Mother's Day in worship is just tricky. There's no formula. So perhaps we acknowledge that most families are messy. Or maybe we make a mental note to also mention birth moms on one of the other fifty-one Sundays of the year. Perhaps we simply admit that it's a difficult day for many. Or we acknowledge that God is keenly aware of all that we hold in our hearts.
On Mother's Day, the best we can do is to keep it real.
Margot Starbuck wrote her most recent book, Not Who I Imagined: Surprised by a Loving God, for people who want to glimpse God's gracious countenance because they were raised by regular fallible mothers and fathers. Connect at www.MargotStarbuck.com or on Facebook.
Tell me my calling matters, Emily Pastor
I stood in line with my very pregnant belly as the checker asked if this was my first baby. Surprise filled her face when I replied, "No my third." As I finished swiping my debit card she commented, "You just look so young." Yes, I guess I am. In our culture, 27 is young to have three children already, and in many ways I stepped into the role of motherhood blind, as the first of my friends to have babies. This June, I will have three children 4 years-old and under. Suffice it to say, I am tired all of the time.
This stage of motherhood with small children is very physically and emotionally demanding. I love my family and my work as a mom, but that doesn't mean the work isn't hard or taxing. Often my most basic needs must take back seat as I care for my children. For every day that I fall in bed satisfied with a day full of snuggles and sparkly magical parenthood moments, there is another day in which I see my brokenness and failures to measure up to the "perfect mother" I always hoped I'd be. We mothers don't get performance reviews. There's no boss standing by giving objective encouragement and constructive criticism. It's so easy to lose perspective and think that I am the only one barely surviving some days of this wonderfully exhausting role called motherhood. On Mother's Day, I don't need a standing ovation, but I do need affirmation and support.
I need to hear that my role as a mom to young children is hard, valuable, kingdom work. Remind me that my unseen sacrifices and struggles are seen and valued by the Lord. I often feel undervalued, misunderstood and looked over by a culture that applauds outward and visible contributions to society. So much of my work as a mother is hidden away in the unseen moments of grace with my children. As I bend over with my tremendously pregnant body to pick up the thousandth crayon, I receive no applause. When I respond patiently toward a tantrum throwing toddler, no one says "Way to keep your cool!" I sacrifice and struggle because of love, and loving others is kingdom work.
I also need to hear that my work as a mom is valued by the church. Tell me that my baby crying in service is not an inconvenience or a distraction, but an important reminder that the kingdom belongs to the child-like. Remind me that I don't need to be involved in a million ministry commitments when I have my hands full nurturing several souls. Encourage me to give the small, the ordinary, and the mundane things to God and watch him bless and multiply my efforts. Thank me for sowing the seeds of love in the souls of the youngest among us.
Finally, I need support. After having my first child, I felt the desperate need for a mentor. I needed someone who had walked the path of motherhood before me, to give me perspective and nurture my soul. I am blessed with a godly mother of my own I could go to for advice and support, but I know that every young mother doesn't have that. On Mother's Day, I would love to see a group of older women standing in the front of the service who were available and willing to take a younger mom under their wing. In my mind, a mentor is not someone who has all the answers or is a spiritual giant, but someone who is willing to listen and love. Because really, all a tired mom needs to keep going is a listening ear, a good cry, and maybe some banana bread.
Emily Pastor is a wife, mother and disciple of Jesus. She lives in the Pacific Northwest, sharing her house and life with college women in their community home.
Some Practical Do's and Don'ts, Mary Bellus
My husband, Dan, and I have been married for about 13 years. A little over five years ago we moved into a very family-friendly neighborhood, complete with kids, dogs, parks, and even a jungle gym right in our backyard. We couldn't help but see that weather-beaten swing set as a sign of a family to come. But after a couple years of trying, nothing happened. So we kicked it up a notch with charting, temperature taking, and ovulation tests. Still nothing. After years of praying, stressing, and pure frustration, we've felt that we're hearing a clear "no." During this struggle, we haven't been to church at all on Mother's Day. When I look back to past Mother's Days when I did attend, I've been so disenchanted with the way the services have been handled. There always seemed to be an over the top celebration, with flowers and prizes and even brunch, that left me thinking, "Wow, this is IT. This is the pinnacle of a woman's success." Of course, I didn't really believe that, but it was hard not to wonder if that's what the church was thinking or trying to convey.
I'm starting to realize and trying to accept that motherhood is never going to happen for me. I've had such hope in the past that "something will happen," but I'm trying to come to a place of acceptance. But it's still hard. Every day I see countless baby announcements, sonograms, and newborn pictures on social media, and I try to smile and see the joy in a new, precious life (and I do). But right now there are certain things that are too difficult for me, and going to church on Mother's Day is one of them. But there are some things I'd love for you to know that might make Mother's Day a more palatable service for those who aren't mothers.
Don't hand out flowers to the moms. I think most of us are familiar with this ritual, but this is one of the reasons I feel uncomfortable about going to church on Mother's Day. For me, it's impossible not to think of the women who are childless, or like me, struggling with infertility, or those who have lost a child or a mother, waiting to receive or not receive their red carnation. This public display of "honor" can be awkward and painful to many in the congregation. If you want to give flowers to the moms, it's better to have them in a certain place in the church where they can pick them up as they leave. That way, the moms can feel special, but there's less of a chance for awkward moments.
Don't call out those without children as "honorary moms." Some churches include those women who aren't moms in their service, with a special call from the pulpit to "stand up if you're a daughter, sister, or aunt because you're our 'honorary moms!'" I think these pastors and churches are sincerely trying to include everyone, and I can appreciate the thought behind it. However, to be singled out publicly regarding our childlessness is so polarizing. We realize that when you honor the mothers in the pews, you're not dishonoring us, but the minute you call public attention to our childlessness, you put us in a category apart. Every day we're flooded with the world of marriage and family in our personal relationships and on social media. The last place we want to feel singled out is among our church family.
Do honor mothers appropriately. I think that a sanctuary decked out in Mother's Day flowers is a beautiful sight. The men of the church getting together to make a special Mother's Day brunch, and the children lined up to sing a sweet song to them during the service are respectful, meaningful, and appropriate gestures. But why do some churches feel it's necessary to not stop there?
In the many small, suburban churches I've attended throughout the years, I've witnessed some pretty cringe-worthy special events, all in the name of "Honoring Mom." Handing out prizes to the oldest mom, the newest mom, and the mom with the most kids, turns motherhood into some sort of game, and can convey the idea to some that life is a competition to get married and have children. We're no longer honoring mothers, but the act of becoming a mother. Womanhood is not only about marriage and children.
When a church service goes overboard on Mother's Day, and really only honors mothers on that day, I start to wonder if the church's message is that a woman's highest achievement is marriage and family. Where does that leave me and other women like me, who are childless?
Do honor women in a realistic and balanced way. I think an interesting idea to incorporate into a Mother's Day service would be to not only honor mothers, but to profile other women from different backgrounds and walks of life—artists, poets, women in government, female mentors, women who work in their career or community, women who care for an aging parent, or women who work with young adults. There could even be a special place in the service where someone who's struggled with infertility or who has lost a child, can read a poem they wrote that speaks to their circumstances and what this day means to them. It would sobering, for sure, but it would offer a more realistic and balanced view of what womanhood truly is, and would convey the real joys, passions, ambitions, and pains of many women on Mother's Day.
Mary Bellus is the senior marketing designer at the Aspen Group. She lives in suburban Chicago with her husband, Dan. You can follow Mary on Twitter @MaryBellus.
Matt Woodley serves as the Editor for PreachingToday.com and the Pastor of Compassion Ministries at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois. He is also the author of God With Us: The Gospel of Matthew (IVP).