I can’t believe I am about to defend Mother’s Day – I who dislike being fussed over and think of the occasion mainly as the day I’m going to be forced to stand and feel conspicuous in the middle of Mass.
Nevertheless, I’ve seen some attacks on Mother’s Day from strange quarters over the years, beginning about 20 years ago when I went to greet a priest friend after Mass and overheard him being reamed out by some lady telling him he had no business speaking about mothers in his homily because it made people like her from dysfunctional families feel left out.
Poor man. That was the moment I first began to understand the burdens of a parish priest. If you can’t even give a few innocuous pleasantries about motherhood on Mother’s Day without catching it, you are obviously never going to win.
For a number of years now I’ve participated in blog post discussions in which women were invited to share their fondest experiences of Mother’s Day. Without fail, the first comment is always from a woman struggling with infertility objecting that Mother’s Day is unfair: those mothers have their blessings already and blessing them again feels like rubbing my nose in it.
I recently read a poignant essay from a woman who painfully regrets a long-ago repented abortion making a similar point. Mother’s Day is filled with grief for her, and Mass feels like torture that day.
I’m of two minds on the matter. On the one hand, when you encounter the same objection repeatedly, you can’t just dismiss it, you have to “hear” it.
Have you seen the recent comments from Elizabeth Smart about why she didn’t try harder to escape her kidnapper? She said in part she remembered a teacher once comparing the loss of virginity to being a piece of used chewing gum, so after she was raped she felt dirty and unworthy of rescue. Her remarks have led to a vigorous discussion about Christian “purity culture.” It’s important to encourage sexual purity, but it’s important not to give girls the impression there’s no way to recover if they mess up – or in Smart’s case, are attacked.
I have to think something similar must be in the minds of women put out by Mother’s Day: the fear that if they are not mothers, or have a checkered sexual past, there’s no real room for them in the Church except as afterthoughts.
Of course nothing could be further from the truth. The Church welcomes women as Jesus himself welcomed them in the Gospel. Think of the Samaritan woman in John 4. She goes to draw water during the heat of the day, by herself. It would have been more usual to go in the cool of morning or evening with friends, so her solitude in itself suggests a woman isolated by sin. Perhaps others judged her; just as probably she withdrew from them out of her own sense of shame.
Anguished, alone, hardened (we can tell from the way she speaks to him at first) she encounters Jesus, who has gone to the well deliberately to meet her. How do we know? Because he sends the disciples away for food and it does not take twelve men to buy groceries!
What a markedly different woman she is after meeting Jesus! Heart on fire, she who had avoided notice runs back to tell her entire village. Come see this man – He told me everything I ever did! Her past has no hold over her; Jesus has liberated her utterly. That’s the way Jesus treats women, and it’s what the Church wants for them too: mercy and wholeness, not perpetual shame.
We have to do a better job communicating to these sisters of ours, broken by infertility or by abortion or miscarriage, that they are not lesser than. Their grief counts for a lot with Jesus and with us. It draws down grace. They participate fully in the calling of all women to “spiritual motherhood,” which is not some cheap consolation prize, but the essence of what John Paul II called “the feminine genius” – the innate capacity to recognize the dignity of the human person and draw it out.
The foregoing is true and important, yet I still have to ask on the other hand: are we not called to be happy for people, and to encourage others to carry their crosses, even if they seem lighter than our own? When we see others getting recognition and think, “they shouldn’t give that prize because I’m not eligible,” is that not the deadly sin of envy epitomized? Does Mary Magdalene resent the honor given to Mary the Queen?
Isn’t it possible that hurt feelings on Mother’s Day are not because the Church excludes me, but only that I still have some healing to do to accept my cross or forgive myself?
In a culture rapidly losing its ability to see that mothers and fathers are each in complementary ways necessary, ragging on Mother’s Day seems like a bad plan.