Last year I spent Mother’s Day alone with my two-year-old son. My husband was deployed to the other side of the world and the town where we were stationed was hours away from any family. So it was just the two of us. I made the best of the situation and planned a simple day with my boy. We spent all morning at the park, basking in the warm sunshine after a long Nebraska winter. We picked up Chipotle, our favorite meal to share, for lunch. My husband was able to Skype in for a few minutes so we enjoyed that time “together” as a family.
That afternoon, just as I was feeling that I’d made the best of an imperfect situation, I got wind of some Mother’s Day related drama in my extended family. From miles away, the news managed to ruin the rest of my day. Even now, a year later, the happy day that my son and I spent together is overshadowed by the memory of that incident.
As much as I’d like to think that my disappointing Mother’s Day is a unique one, I know better. For many of us, men and women alike, this day is not purely one of celebration. Instead it feels akin to a minefield as we navigate tricky emotions and complex relationships.
Why is Mother’s Day so fraught with emotions?
We are disappointed. For those of us who are mothers, we manage our expectations of how the day should look. If I could just have one afternoon without settling an argument between the children. Or If he could just have a nice dinner planned so I didn’t have to cook today. When our expectations aren’t met, we’re left dealing with disappointment. This disappointment, which often starts out on a surface level, can spiral into something deeper, trapping us in a cloud of disillusionment.
Our relationships are complicated. It’s hard to celebrate Mother’s Day when we have troubled relationships with either our mother or our children. The oft-quoted Bible verse from Proverbs 31 about children rising up and blessing their mother can feel like a slap in the face to those who are in a strained or estranged relationship.
We are dealing with loss. Finally, Mother’s Day is difficult for those of us who have experienced loss. For those mourning the death of a mother or of a child, this day is a painful reminder of what is missing. There’s an equally strong, yet different loss by those who have dreamt of being a mother, yet are spending another Mother’s Day childless. And loss is also felt by adoptees for whom Mother’s Day can be especially complex. Adoptees can spend the day celebrating the mother who raised them, yet still experience sorrow over the loss of their birth mother.
Our society puts pressure on us. All of our personal feelings about Mother’s Day are further complicated by the spin that our society, both secular and religious, puts on this day. Mothers are raised to superhuman status, as evidenced by greeting cards designed for Mother’s Day. Each card extols a seemingly perfect woman. This same message is repeated in church, where women are often made to feel that their sole purpose in life is to raise children. Whether these messages are being given intentionally or not, they are equally problematic.
In case I’m sounding overly negative, let me be clear: I adore being a mother. It is an honor and joy to raise my children, and I take my role as a parent very seriously. Yet more than anything, I’ve learned that mothering is multifaceted. It is beautiful and delightful and important and sacred. It is emotional and difficult and draining too. Here is the truth: motherhood encompasses lots of things, but it doesn’t include perfection.
The Bible portrays God as a mother.
This is where the cult worship of motherhood surrounding Mother’s Day makes me uncomfortable. In our celebration of mothering, we’re perpetuating the idea that mothers should be perfect, that they should be martyrs for the sake of their children. But if Mother’s Day is about perfection, is it any wonder that it ends up being a day of disappointment?
At the same time that I’ve been reflecting on the complicated emotions surrounding Mother’s Day, I’ve been simultaneously exploring the biblical images of God as a mother. And while I didn’t originally see a connection between these two subjects, I am now beginning to.
All my life I heard God referred to as a father: a father who loves and cherishes, a father who disciplines and chastens, a father who gives good gifts and comforts his children. In other words, the image of a biblical father is robust and multifaceted. But Christian mothers? Too often the picture of a godly mother is limited to Proverbs 31 where a personification of wisdom has been turned into a mythical, unachievable female role model. Though she possesses many good qualities, the “woman” in Proverbs 31 comes off stiff and one-dimensional. Perhaps this is where the perfect mother stereotype begins for many of us.
As I’ve studied the portrayals of God as a woman, I’ve gained a fuller picture of what it means for me to be a mother. These images are wholly unlike anything I’ve heard in a Mother’s Day sermon or at a ladies brunch. In Isaiah 42:14 we’re given the picture of God in childbirth—laboring, panting, anguished. In Luke 13:34 we see God as a hen, clucking away at her chicks and longing to shelter them under her wings. God becomes a breastfeeding mother in Isaiah 49:15, swollen and leaking. These pictures show the sides of mothering that are messy, undignified, and even undone. Suddenly the picture of a Christian mother is broadened. It is humanized. And as our eyes are opened to these stunning images of God, we can begin to accept a view of motherhood that moves away from the platitudes of the greeting card aisle and into the fullness of what parenting really means.
As I follow God, the perfect parent, I want to recognize that Mother’s Day isn’t about perfection for me. In fact, it is through God that I have freedom from perfection. This Mother’s Day I believe that we can honor our mothers and honor the art of mothering while still being honest with ourselves about the hard things. We can lower the stakes for ourselves and for our children by holding each other to a standard of grace rather than of perfection. This Mother’s Day will probably include some happiness and some heartache too. And I’m learning that’s okay.