by Heidi Dirks
Holidays can be a time of togetherness and celebration with traditions that bring joy and warm memories. However, they can also highlight painful parts of life and ostracize those who feel they do not fit in with the celebrations that surround them.
Mother’s Day is no exception, and many people in our churches are acutely aware of the pain this day can bring. In order for churches to welcome all people, and be places of emotional safety, we must be intentional about how, and if, we acknowledge and celebrate this day.
Origins of Mother’s Day
The celebration of mothers goes back to ancient Greece and Rome, where festivals were held to celebrate mother goddesses. Mothering Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Lent, is celebrated in some parts of Europe. While it began as a celebration of one’s “mother church,” bringing families together as they all returned to their home church, it has become increasingly secularized.
Our modern Mother’s Day celebration can be traced back to the late 1800’s where Ann Jarvis held work clubs to teach domestic skills to women in West Virginia, as well as care for soldiers wounded in the American Civil War. After the end of the war, these groups organized “Mother’s Friendship Day” events to encourage peace and reconciliation.
When Jarvis died, her daughter, Anna Jarvis, organized the first “Mother’s Day” to honour all that mothers do for their children. As the day became increasingly commercialized, with the giving of flowers and cards to mothers, she fought to keep the day as a celebration of one’s own mother rather than all mothers. Also during this time suffragette and abolitionist Julia Ward Howe wrote the “Mother’s Day Proclamation,” appealing for peace.
Mother’s Day in Church Services
Although the origins of Mother’s Day are connected to church attendance and pacifist values, Mother’s Day is not a church holiday and churches are under no obligation to celebrate or recognize this day. It is good to celebrate mothers, and women who mother people in their lives, and this should happen throughout the year. But it is also important to acknowledge that this day is hard for many people.
Given the complicated emotions and memories that are often associated with this day, the dangers of including Mother’s Day in a service often outweigh the benefits. On a personal note, I know many women who have spent years avoiding church on Mother’s Day because attending a service on this day was too painful for them.
Churches that choose to include a celebration of Mother’s Day as part of a church service are wise to do so in a thoughtful and critical way, recognizing that people in the congregation have a variety of backgrounds and experiences that affect how they experience a day that celebrates motherhood.
Some women have lost children, have strained relationships with their children, or have not been able to conceive the children they have so desired. Other people may have difficult relationships with their mothers, are painfully reminded of the loss of their own mother, or feel abandoned by their mother. Churches should be a welcoming place no matter what story we bring.
As churches desire to celebrate mothers, they may unintentionally make this day difficult for some women. In an effort to recognize mothers by giving them flowers or asking them to stand during a service, they have asked the sometimes complicated question of who is a mother. Is a woman who has lost a child to miscarriage or stillbirth considered a mother? What if a woman gave birth in the midst of difficult circumstances and it is not public knowledge that they have a child? If a woman identifies as a mother, but does not have children as a part of their lives, will others make assumptions or ask prying questions? What about foster mothers?
As churches try to include personal stories from congregants and provide space to honour mothers, they may pressure individuals to share when they are not comfortable doing so. No one should ever be put on the spot or pressured to share in a church service, but ensuring emotional safety is especially important on holidays. If people are offered the opportunity to share, churches should give space for a variety of stories about experiences with mothers and motherhood.
Mother’s Day may serve as a yearly opportunity to preach about how women are supposed to live. While this connects to the mother’s work clubs founded by Jarvis, it strays from the focus of celebrating the work of mothers. Mother’s Day should be a celebration of all that women do to love God and serve others. Women need encouragement and affirming words about their worth in God’s eyes, not guilt or pressure to conform to a narrow idea of what women are expected to be.
Womanhood and Motherhood
We must resist the assumption that womanhood and motherhood are synonymous. Scripture describes the pain of women who were unable to have children, a circumstance that came with serious consequences in ancient times (Gen. 29-30).
There are many reasons that women do not have biological children, such as infertility, singleness, and a decision to not pursue parenthood. Motherhood is a good thing, but it does not define one’s value as a person or as a follower of Christ. All people have inherent worth because they are created in the image of God.
We also need to distinguish between a woman who has given birth to a child and women who mother others. One does not need to be a biological mother in order to mother others, loving them and teaching them to love God (Deut. 6:7-9; Luke 18:15-17). Celebrating women who have mothered us does not take away from the celebration of our biological mother. Mother’s Day can be a celebration of women who live in obedience to God’s call on their lives, which may or may not include having biological children.
Taking a Thoughtful Stance
Scripture speaks of God’s comfort and healing for those who are grieving and struggling (Psalm 23; Psalm 34:18; Matt. 5:4). Churches cannot be blind to the pain felt by many people during holidays, including Mother’s Day. Followers of Christ have the privilege of extending the good news of God’s comfort to those who struggle, and in order to do this effectively churches need to be thoughtful and careful of any inclusion of Mother’s Day celebrations in their services.
Heidi Dirks (Braeside), BA, BEd, MA (Counselling), is a member of the Board of Church Ministries.