On Mother’s Day in many congregations across the U.S., churches will hand out flowers, host breakfast and tea, or offer applause for women in attendance.
While the goal is to honor women and mothers, Elizabeth Hagan, a minister at Georgia’s First Christian Church Athens and author of Birthed: Finding Grace Through Infertility, told Sojourners that the celebrations can cause discomfort, pain, or even disillusionment for many in the pews.
When Hagan experienced a long season of infertility and wasn’t serving a church at the time, she said she would skip that Sunday altogether.
“I didn’t trust that I would be safe; that I wouldn’t feel like I had to run from the church crying,” she said. “If I didn’t feel like they were going to be sensitive to the full experience of pain, I just didn't want to go.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 4 married women between the ages of 15-49 have trouble getting pregnant or carrying a pregnancy to term.
In addition to congregants who are dealing with infertility and miscarriage, there are also those who aren’t mothers and don’t wish to become them.
Jenna DeWitt, an asexual writer who attends a United Methodist church, said she doesn’t resonate with the conflation of motherhood and womanhood, which she has all too often experienced in ecclesial contexts.
“I’m child-free and I never want to change that,” she told Sojourners. For this reason, she too will often stay home on Mother’s Day. “I don’t want to have to explain why I don’t want kids and be shamed over that.”
DeWitt believes that the church’s focus on the nuclear family can sometimes border on idolatry.
“It’s so important on holidays like this that we don’t make them a worship event because the point of our worship is Jesus — a savior who had no children of his own,” she said. “He had no spouse, he wasn’t a parent, but he was a parent of all of us.”
God as mother
Instead of enforcing such expectations on Mother’s Day, DeWitt suggests putting the emphasis on God as mother. Katherine Douglass, a professor of ministry and practical theology at Seattle Pacific University, said that scripture gives Christians the chance to think of God not just as father, but mother too.
“Regardless of your relationship with your mom or your identity as a mother or not as a mother, there are some really beautiful images of God as a mother,” she told Sojourners, citing the Hebrew word that is often translated as “compassion” but she said more accurately refers to God’s motherly love.
She noted that God is described as having a womb in Job 38, and some scholars translate “El Shaddai” as “The God with Breasts.” Elsewhere, God is described as a comforting mother (Isaiah 66:13), a woman in labor (Isaiah 42:14), and a mother hen (Matthew 23:37, Luke 13:34).
“I find those passages to be really redemptive and a healthy way to recalibrate the motherhood conversation,” Douglass said. In this way, the second Sunday of May can be “an excuse to bring these analogies to a conscious level.”
Mother’s Day brings range of emotions
Hagan said that while there “can be a lot of messiness” in trying to make Mother’s Day celebrations all-inclusive, acknowledging the range of emotions felt is a good start. She made her own attempt by writing a Mother’s Day prayer for use in liturgies.
The call-and-response prayer mentions mothers who have died, who make daily sacrifices, and who have adopted or fostered children. It also acknowledges those who have complicated relationships with their mothers.
“[Mother’s Day] can be joyous for you, but this can be painful for me, and we can still be in community with each other,” she said.
Similarly, womanist scholar Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder, a professor at Chicago Theological Seminary, warns against churches preaching about motherhood in a monolithic framework. She suggested pastors open the text to various images of motherhood, some of which “are flowery and wonderful,” while others — like the stories of Rizpah and Hagar — are more complicated.
She said Mother’s Day provides an opportunity to reimagine and elevate other texts that honor the nuances of the day, such as the poetry of Francis Ellen Watkins Harper or songs like 2Pac’s “Dear Mama.”
“Womanist theology says that we have to think about mothers in all frames, in all backgrounds, in all contexts,” she told Sojourners.
Keeping Mother’s Day out of church
Douglass pointed out that Mother’s Day isn’t a church holiday and said it would be perfectly acceptable to treat it like any given Sunday.
DeWitt, who prefers sticking to the lectionary, agrees.
“I think if people want to celebrate parents, you can encourage them to do that in their own time, but that’s not what worship is for,” she said. “The church is about the family of God, not about the nuclear family.”
As a “little form of rebellion,” Douglass’ family doesn’t celebrate Mother’s Day at all — or Father’s Day or Valentine’s Day, for that matter.
“We don’t need a national holiday to tell us to celebrate,” she said.
But Douglass said she was reminded of the need to be culturally sensitive while working at a church in Germany in 2007. Despite her family’s personal rebellion, she said she believed canceling the occasion would do a disservice to the mothers who felt like they deserved at least one day to feel seen and appreciated.
Buckhanon Crowder echoed this sentiment, noting how in many Black churches, much of the labor and financial foundation of families has been undergirded by women — and in many cases by mothers.
“In that regard, it is an opportunity to say, ‘thank you,’” she said.
For Douglass, working in Germany compelled her to do what she could to shift toward celebrating women and their work throughout the year, inside and outside of the church. Executing this ideal is “often in the simple things,” she said; things like advocating for equitable education for children, raising money for schools, and taking care of neighborhood kids.
Buckhanon Crowder said womanist theology calls us to step up in these ways — to think about the ways in which laws and systems are precluding the health and well-being of mothers.
“If our mothers aren’t healthy, our children aren’t healthy,” she said. “If our mothers and children aren’t healthy, our communities aren’t healthy. And what does that say for our future?”