Five years ago, I heard a sermon about Hannah crying out to God in the temple in her anguish over not having a child, and the daring, political act of allowing her pain to be seen by the world.
Back then, I was a stranger to Hannah’s particular anguish — her desperate and perpetually unmet prayer to have a child. At the time, her story changed my life in another way: It inspired me to allow myself to be fully seen as a bisexual Christian woman, and I got the name Hannah tattooed in Hebrew on my hip so I’d never forget the impact of her story.
But now, all these years later, I understand her pain so much more. My own as yet unfulfilled desire to be a mother has, at times, led me to trace my fingers along the Hebrew letters on my skin and share Hannah’s tears.
Mother’s Day is coming, and it brings with it many different emotions and layers for myself and many. The church bears the challenge of deciding how to respond to this holiday, that — while not religious — falls every year on Sunday, and holds so much space in our cultural life. It is not easy to know how to grapple with such a challenge. So, I offer my own experience as a reluctantly childless woman, and a pastor — and the insight this has given me on how churches may best show up on this particularly loaded day.
Here are three tips for approaching Mother’s Day in your church:
1. Understand that Mother's Day is complicated.
There has been an increasing amount of talk in recent years about the layers of Mother’s Day. While it is a joyful opportunity to celebrate wonderful mothers and mother figures in our lives, it can be exceptionally painful for those who have lost their mothers or have difficult relationships with them, those who have lost children or cannot have children, and those actively struggling with infertility. It is so important to recognize these realities, but it’s almost important to know that for many people, their experiences don’t fall neatly into one of these categories.
I am a woman who doesn’t have children but wants them, and who fears that I will never have them. But my childlessness is a factor of having neither the partner nor the means to have a child on my own. I don’t know yet if fertility will play into my journey. And while some might be inclined to tell women like me that we shouldn’t worry because we have “plenty of time,” the pain of being 32, and wanting a child, and not being able to have one, is very present and real. I don’t fit into the category of “fertility struggles” or “child loss” — my pain is different. But it still matters, and deserves to be seen by the church.
Other friends find Mother’s Day difficult because they don’t want to have children of their own. Not being a mother isn’t painful for them, per se, but being made to feel like they should want children or that motherhood is their divinely ordained purpose in life can be frustrating and alienating. I have friends who are foster moms who sometimes have children on their hips, hold them and love them, and then have to let them go and be empty-armed again. I have friends who are parents but who fall outside the gender binary, and there are no greeting-card sanctioned holidays to celebrate their gifts of nurture and care.
For so many people, Mother’s Day falls outside the bounds of easy description. And for a lot of us, it isn’t one experience at all, but many all jumbled together. If the church desires to honor the full scope of this day, it should look for ways to acknowledge and embrace the entire complex universe of ways that people experience it.
2. Be careful about how you use the Bible.
The Bible is chock-full of women who encounter motherhood in different ways. There is plenty within our sacred text that speaks to the pain of women who cannot have children, women who lose their children, those who give up their children to be adopted by others (by choice or by force), and women who are denied value in society entirely because they are not mothers. Over and over again, the Bible reveals to us God’s particular care and love for these women. But it is important for us to recognize the limitations of the Bible in speaking to the full range of women’s experiences.
When a childless woman is present in a biblical story, she is always sad about being childless. While someone like me may find solace and commiseration in Hannah’s story, such narratives leave little space for women who do not feel called to motherhood at all. In biblical times, women’s value was entirely wrapped up in their ability to reproduce. We know that that is not what makes women worthy of love, appreciation, and value, but we cannot rely solely on biblical teachings to profess that truth as a church. Women who have lost children, meanwhile, find biblical stories of women like Mary, and the centurion’s wife, whose children die and then are miraculously returned to life. As a church, we must hold space for the relentless grief of permanent loss.
Additionally — perhaps most significantly — every story of a distraught childless woman who prays and begs God to fill her womb ends with that prayer being fulfilled. Sarah gives birth to Isaac. Hannah gives birth to Samuel. We know that in our world, such prayers are not always granted. Interpretations of Scripture over the centuries have done incredible damage by suggesting that unanswered prayers like these are a matter of insufficient faith or otherwise proposing that God intends such pain as a lesson.
There is much in the Bible to surround and uplift both joy and grief around motherhood. But God is present with us beyond the pages of the Bible and the experiences it contains. We are called as a church to witness to the truth of God’s love and grace in these other stories and lives, too — the ones that don’t unfold the way the Bible suggests.
3. Don’t confine issues around motherhood to Mother’s Day only.
The more we acknowledge the complexities of Mother’s Day, the more overwhelming it can seem to try to name everything in a single Sunday. In light of this, many pastors and churches decide not to acknowledge Mother’s Day at all — pointing out that it is not a religious holiday anyway. This is a reasonable approach, but the church often speaks into people’s everyday lives beyond the bounds of worship and liturgy. That can include cultural holidays like this one. Rather than ignore it entirely, I wonder if our increasing awareness of the many layers of Mother’s Day might compel us to recognize that we should be confronting and naming these various experiences far more than once a year.
Women and others struggle with the pain of childlessness all year long. We can and should find ways to care for those wrestling with such pain — to name it and them in our church life — in different seasons, and not just on the one day of the year when card companies and commercials tell us to think about it.
And motherhood may be the only widespread cultural holiday that lifts up the gifts of women, but we know that motherhood is not a woman’s only value or gift. How might we celebrate women in other ways and other times, so that we don’t promote the dangerous and antiquated message that motherhood is woman’s sole purpose? And how might we celebrate nontraditional families, other nurturers and parents who are not necessarily women, other loved ones we care for who are not necessarily our children, throughout the year?
In some of his final moments, Jesus told Mary and his beloved disciple, “Woman, behold your son” and “Behold your mother.” Our instruction from the one we serve and follow is to be family to one another, beyond the bounds of blood and law. When we lift up these relationships in the life of our church communities, we honor Christ’s teaching and the gift of love that he he has given us to share with one another.
If we commit ourselves, as Christians and communities of faith, to see one another in our full complex experiences of life, if we name and honor and celebrate and walk with one another in each of life’s many layers day after day and week after week, then Mother’s Day will still come each year, as it always does. And it will no doubt, still carry both joy and pain for people. But perhaps it will not be so much an overwhelming challenge to us, to cram a universe worth of feeling and experience that we otherwise neglect into a single day.
Instead, if we do this work faithfully and well all year round, Mother’s Day will just be another day to remind us of God’s love for us, and our love for one another, and the myriad particular ways that love can surround us.