Monday, May 9, 2011

Happy Mothers Day?

Mothers Day is a day sure to elicit strong emotions from everyone.  Each person has their own opinions on what is appropriate and who should be celebrated on this day.  I've had some rather interesting conversations about this lately, especially about how it should be celebrated at and in the context of our Church.  I thought I might put my own thoughts and feelings down.

I think the conflict in celebrating Mothers Day comes from a fundamental confusion about what is being celebrated.  Are we celebrating acts of mothering?  The motherly qualities that teach and comfort, even if only in moments?  Are we celebrating the idea, the divine role of mothering?  Or are we celebrating those women who serve 'in the trenches' day in and day out?  Who sacrifice their bodies, their times, their own needs in order to give completely to their children?  The ones who are actively mothers, with children that they care for, seemingly unceasingly?  Herein, lies the conflict, at least for me.  I haven't come to any conclusions about what the day is meant to celebrate, only ideas about how to celebrate depending on which interpretation you're using.

At my church, it's traditional for all adult women to be given a small gift at the end of Sacrament Meeting on Mothers Day.  This is usually arranged by the Young Men's organization, so boys 12-18 years old and their leaders.  In order to avoid anyone having to make awkward determinations about who is or is not a mother, they have all the women stand and receive the gift, usually something simple, like a chocolate bar, a plant or a bookmark.  The first year I was an adult in a ward where there were families, I didn't have any children of my own; I had only been married less than 2 months!  I felt awkward receiving a gift and being celebrated for something I hadn't done yet.  The year after that, I was pregnant with my first child and felt a little better about being celebrated because I was on the path to motherhood, but it was still early and very few people knew I was pregnant.  I was still pretty sick at that point too.  Obviously since then, I've had a child and been a mother, in a way that was obvious to everyone.

I've found there is so much pressure on those who are asked to give a talk or teach a lesson on Mothers Day.  There is pressure to include everyone, women who have children at home, women who haven't been able to have children because of infertility, women who have grown children and some of whom are grandmothers, women who are unmarried or waiting to have children, women who never had children for whatever reason but have had motherly influences on others as aunts, teachers, leaders, etc.  Yet, I've also felt that when you say "We're all mothers, no matter what" it at least somewhat minimizes the struggles and day to day sacrifices of those who are mothers.  Let me say that when I tell people what the biggest adjustment about parenthood was for me, it was the relentlessness. Parenting does not stop.  You may do all the same tasks: cooking, cleaning, changing diapers, reading books, etc as a babysitter, a nanny, an aunt or a grandmothers, but at some point, your shift is over and you give the kids back to their parents.  When you're the parent, your shift never stops.  You may get a few hours here and there where you're not performing the childcare yourself, but you are always thinking about it, thinking about what you need to teach your children, thinking about the responsibility you have for them.  There is a never a break from that.  And that is what makes parenthood different.  So not every woman is a mother.  (The conversation about when you become a mother is a separate one.  I have friends who have lost babies or are birthmothers who placed their babies for adoption.  I wouldn't dream of telling them that since they aren't caring for their children every day that they're not mothers.  Same with how I wouldn't tell an adoptive mother that since she doesn't share genetics with her children, that she isn't really a mother.  Like I said, that's a different conversation.)

Both my sister and my sister-in-law are very involved aunts in the lives of their nieces and nephews.  They babysit the kids, take them out for special events, have them over for sleepovers, and care for all their needs in the hours/days the kids are with them.  These women are performing mothering acts, having a motherly influence.  My daughter loves her Auntie Katie so much and is just about as comfortable with her as she is with me.  But, Katie isn't her mother, I am.  At the end of the day, I am the one worrying about if Jilly is eating enough, if she is where she should be developmentally, if she has the clothes she needs, and so on.  The aunts enrich the lives of the children and teach them many things, these kids are so blessed to have them!  These ladies will make fantastic mothers when that day comes.  But at this time, they're not mothers, and while their efforts are motherly and definitely valuable, they're not the same as those I make as a mother.

But on the other side, I definitely believe that all women are endowed with special qualities and abilities from our Heavenly parents that are those of mothers and motherhood.  I believe every woman (and really, you could swap mother for father and motherhood for fatherhood throughout all of this) has the potential and the inherent qualities to be motherly.  This is what I think people really mean when they say "We're all mothers."  I think they mean "We're all motherly, because we are created in the image of our Heavenly Mother."  This is where I absolutely feel it appropriate and important to recognize the motherly influences of all different roles.

Growing up, I had a great mother.  She taught me not only day to day skills and modeled how to be a mother, but she taught me important character and spiritual lessons.  I learned how to cook, a little bit of sewing, how to change a diaper, how to make hospital corners when making a bed, how to read, and so many more things.  She also taught me, by example and by talking with me, to be confident in who I am and how I deserve to be treated, how to look for the fun and humor in life, how to find the silver lining, and how to examine and analyze a situation and look for the deeper meaning.  I also had many other women in my life who have been motherly to me and influenced and taught me.  When I was in college, especially the year I got engaged and married, there was a senior missionary couple at the Institute.  The wife, Sister Smith, took everyone under her wing, and was an especial support to me during that time.  She helped me get ready to go through the temple for my endowments and encouraged me, and most of all, was happy for me about my upcoming marriage.  She filled a void with her mothering of me.  I am grateful for hers and many other women's mothering efforts on my behalf.  I have so benefited from them.  But their influence and efforts and sacrifices, while amazing, weren't quite the same as my own mother's and I don't want to project the idea that they are equal.

I think this is the conflict of Mothers Day.  Do we celebrate the efforts and sacrifices of mothers or the influence and divine nature of the institution of motherhood?  That can be a personal decision for each person in their own family.  This year, my husband made an effort to pamper me all weekend and tell me how much he appreciated all I did as a mother for our children.  And when I wrote out the card to my own mother, I wrote it only from me and thanked her for what she did as a mother.  I had my kids give her presents, hug her, kiss her, and tell her Happy Mothers Day, but it was mostly about me celebrating her efforts as a mother, not necessarily as a grandmother.  But, when you're involved in a church or organization, as I am, and Mothers Day needs to be addressed by the group, how do you best do that?  You want to value everyone and all their efforts, yet you cover such a large and varied group it's hard to do without annoying or offending or hurting someone.  Here is how I think Mothers Day should be approached, at least in the context of my church.

I think all the talks in Sacrament Meeting should be about the divine nature of womanhood and motherhood.  I want to hear about how all women are patterned after our Heavenly Mother and the qualities given to us from Her.  I want to hear about the motherly influence each of us can have on others, no matter if we have born and raised children or not.  I want it to be about those divine qualities of nurturing, spirituality, patience, faith, and love.  I feel that is a way to include all women and celebrate Mothers Day for each of us.  I do not want to hear about how being a mother is about teaching your kids how to clean the toilet or make jam or other tasks.  I'm not saying those are bad things, but I do think making the celebration of Mothers Day, by the Church, about those things can only lead to offense and upset.  Women without children will feel belittled and ignored because they can't do those things with their own children.  Women with children will feel like they're being held up to a standard that is impossible to live up to and more discouraged about things that really don't matter, like how often they sweep the floor.  Let's focus on the principles and divinity of the gifts of mothering, not on the nitty gritty details that vary for each woman and her situation.  Sunday School, I would say to ignore it completely and just continue with the normally scheduled lesson.  And for Relief Society and Young Womens, I have two ideas, depending on the ward.  For either plan, I would like it if the men of the ward took over Primary and Nursery and all the sisters (including YW) could meet together (they could do this either only the third hour, or to have the biggest impact, have the men take over the 2nd hour Primary classes as well, so the women can go to Sunday School too).   The first suggestion is to  have a lesson on motherhood, in the same vein as the Sacrament Meeting talks.  Let us celebrate the beautiful and divine influence we can have as mothers and motherly figures.  Let us encourage those future mothers (whether they be the YW or just RS sisters who haven't had children yet) about how noble and rewarding motherhood is!  Let us uplift all the women in the ward and recognize their motherly efforts.  Let us truly bond as sisters and as women, daughters of Heavenly parents who love us and have given us so much.  The second suggestion is to gather together and just 'take the day off', if you will.  This happened in a few wards of my friends' yesterday.  The women gathered in the cultural hall (or wherever) and got to sit and chat and socialize, while eating yummy treats, like a chocolate fountain or cheesecake.  Sure, it's not deeply spiritual, but it would be so nice to have that opportunity for all the sisters of the ward to get to spend time together.  I know it would be especially rewarding to those women who serve in Primary and Young Women each week, sacrificing the chance to go to Sunday School and Relief Society for their own spiritual nourishment, and instead work with small squirmy children and teenagers who resist all authority.  Often these women feel so isolated from the Relief Society and sisterhood, and one day a year to congregate with and enrich those bonds of sisterhood could make a big difference.

This also leads me to another thing about Mothers Day that I take issue with.  There is an attitude in the Church that women are saints and men are sinners.  Look at the difference between the General RS Meeting talks and the talks given in the Priesthood session of General Conference.  The women are vaunted and nearly beatified, constantly being told about how wonderful and long suffering they are.  The men are told that they're constantly screwing up, like they're all viewing pornography and ignoring their Priesthood responsibilities.  Overall, it's like "The poor saintly women have to put up with these sinful, dumb men."  And then, when a woman leader does get up and not even harshly, but gently, call the women to task, she is ridiculed and excoriated and the cry of "How dare she say that!  Doesn't she know that I can't do that because of these circumstances in my life?!  We don't all live in that perfect world!"  (Some of the uproar after Sister Julie B. Beck's "Mothers Who Know" talk a few years ago, comes to mind.)  This attitude plays out on both Mothers Day and Fathers Day.  Have you noticed the difference in how they are celebrated at church?  When was the last time you heard a Sacrament Meeting talk on the third Sunday of June contain the phrase "We're all fathers"?  Have you ever heard it?  I don't know that I have.  I do know that I've heard plenty of talks that still showcase a father's weaknesses and faults and make fun of them.  How sad!  So everything I have suggested for celebrating Mothers Day is meant to be applied completely equally to Fathers Day.  (I feel that the attitude I've described also desperately needs to change, but this is another thing that is a conversation for another day.)

Mothers Day is a day to celebrate mothers as well as the institution of motherhood and influence of mothering.  So much of the conflict and upset surround this day could be resolved, or at least ameliorated, by recognizing and acknowledging the divide in how the holiday is perceived and adjusted the celebrations thusly.  What are your thoughts on any of this?  How do you perceive Mothers Day?  What do you want to see, in how it is celebrated, specifically at church?  What is the purpose of the day?   The conclusions that I have come to aren't hard and fast.  I would like to other people's experiences and thoughts.

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