Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, May 08, 2015

Standing With Mothers Day

Mothers Day is, perhaps, an artificial Hallmark Holiday. Certainly, it's not a Catholic feast of any kind. However, it's an American holiday (however we came to have it) celebrating something which is, from a Catholic point of view, worth celebrating. Motherhood is an important and wonderful vocation. It's certainly not the only vocation for women, but obviously none of us would be here without our mothers, and although religious vocations for both men and women are traditionally seen a higher than the married vocation, that's balanced by the fact that we believe Mary was the most perfect of God's creations and through the incarnation God himself was born of her and had her as a mother.

Thus, it doesn't seem a bad idea for Catholic churches in the US, where Mothers Day is celebrated, to in some way integrate the holiday into Catholic life. One way which this is often done is to have a blessing at the end of mass for all the mothers present. Sometimes all the mothers in the congregation are asked to stand at the time of the blessing.

One can think good or ill of this. If the priest is going to give some group a blessing, it's not unusual to ask that group to come forward or in some other way set themselves apart. For instance, when they have the annual blessing of all the people who will be teaching the parish religion classes, the catechists are all asked to come forward. Of course, with 300+ people in a Sunday mass, and 20-40% of them mothers, you can't have all of them come forward to the altar rail to be blessed, there just isn't room. However, apparently some people feel like asking mothers to stand and receive a blessing is hard on non-mothers:
A few years ago I sat across from a woman who told me she doesn’t go to church on Mother’s Day because it is too hurtful. I’m not a mother, but I had never seen the day as hurtful. She had been married, had numerous miscarriages, divorced and was beyond child bearing years. It was like salt in mostly healed wounds to go to church on that day. This made me sad, but I understood.

Fast forward several years to Mother’s Day. A pastor asked all mothers to stand. On my immediate right, my mother stood and on my immediate left, a dear friend stood. I, a woman in her late 30s, sat. I don’t know how others saw me, but I felt dehumanized, gutted as a woman. Real women stood, empty shells sat. I do not normally feel this way. I do not like feeling this way. I want no woman to ever feel this way in church again.

Last year a friend from the States happened to visit on Mother’s Day and again the pastor (a different one) asked all mothers to stand. As a mother, she stood and I whispered to her, “I can’t take it, I’m standing.” She knows I’m not a mother yet she understood my standing / lie.
It strikes me that the problem here is not with asking mothers' to stand and receive a blessing, it's with someone thinking of herself as an "empty shell" because she isn't a mother. You see pieces that deserve criticism in this quarter. Too often, when writing about how people should just get married already, authors act as if everyone has a good spouse candidate just sitting around waiting, when in fact a lot of people who would very much like to be happily married and having children are not successfully finding someone to marry. Assuming that people are selfish or overly picky because they aren't married is foolish to say the least.

However, simply asking that mothers stand in order to say a prayer over them is not saying that women who are not mothers are not real women, are not mothers, etc. There are good arguments for not incorporating Mothers Day into mass, or for not doing in this particular way, and in the end I'm fairly ambivalent about the practice. I certainly put no great stake in being asked to stand and receive a blessing a month later on Father's day, and I wouldn't mind if that practice were dropped. But this is not one of those good arguments. By this line of thinking, any acknowledgement that some people are mothers (and thus by implication that others are not) is hurtful and should be avoided, and that's frankly silly, not to mention a bit selfish.


Enbrethiliel said...


On Facebook, some women I know who aren't mothers don't at all feel left out on Mother's Day because "not all children have two legs." =P

Enbrethiliel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Enbrethiliel said...


And on Twitter, someone who grew up without a mother just just wished herself and other orphans a happy "Take Care of Yourself" Day, while someone else asked for the date of "I Appreciate Mothers But I'm Not Sure If I Want to Be One and Need to Work on My Complex Feelings" Day.

Maybe I just haven't been paying as close attention to social media reactions to other special occasions, but there seems to be something about this celebration that makes everyone want to stick up for those who seem to have been left on the sidelines.

Brandon said...

I confess I just don't understand this sort of trophies-for-everyone perspective. I see a similar sort of thing all the time with single people; married people can't be given any special recognition unless single people are somehow also recognized. The world will apparently end if anyone isn't specifically included.

I think one thing that irritates me about the whole thing is that it gums up the works by which everything gets done. Societies and cultures preserve themselves by encouraging good practices and discouraging bad practices; and that can only be by some kind of punishment or reward, an expression of disapproval or approval. Social disapproval can be quite brutal, and active exclusion quite harsh, so it's not surprising that this has been limited; that would actually be fine on its own. But this sort of case shows the problem: you get people who go around grousing about expressions of social approval just because they don't feel they themselves are getting enough of it. And if you can't selectively express disapproval of things that are thought to harm your society and culture (because it's judgmental), and can't selectively express approval of things that are thought especially to benefit them (because it's hurtful to those left out), you don't have a real society or a real culture at all. There's nothing to give it unity or aim. You just have stagnation and putrefaction.

Sarah said...

What I think about more often are those with dead mothers, especially those who have lost theirs just recently, or those who just lost a child. It's hard because we can't stop celebrating everything because of the sorrows of others. On the other hand, I'm sympathetic to those who have qualms. Mother's Day is so ubiquitous - much more so now, with social media and Facebook. A friend of mine whose mother died a month ago had an intense bout of depression this year, and sometimes the repeated posts on Facebook means salt in the wound. Maybe a prayer inserted for those who have lost, or who have suffered from infertility, would help?

Anonymous said...

It is silly to ask someone not to honor mothers, but I also understand how painful it can be to have your lack of family called attention to, especially in a context where your sadness at not having a family is almost never acknowledged. I'm heartbroken that I won't have a family, and almost nobody seems to care. "At least your house is clean and you don't have to drive a minivan!", they say. And, yeah, that’s a plus. But the conveniences of being childless and its sorrows are incommensurate with one another. I know it sounds ridiculous to feel like an empty shell, but it’s hard not to. In part, it’s hard because of the unfulfilled desire to be a part of a family, and in part it’s hard because there are a lot of cues that people who don't have children are less important and have less meaningful lives than those who do. Most ministries in my church are for people with kids. At work, everything is scheduled around those who have families. I've never seen a single blog post or homily extolling the virtues of extended singlehood. In contrast, here’re some clips from two blog posts which have been popular in my feed this week: “What my kids bring to my life and how they have changed me is like seeing in color after living my whole life in black and white.”, “ [The author has a happy single life, then gets married and has a baby. Being a mother exhausts her and she gets uber frustrated. She wants her old life back. Then her single friend (Veronique), artistic and with an exciting, jet-setting style, makes a visit. It turns out that Veronique is miserable.] I expected to feel relief at Veronique’s woe—after all, her admissions amounted to foundational cracks in a lifestyle I had lusted for with near idolatry. But instead I felt only wonder and the spreading epiphany that mothering—that vocation I wore like a penitent’s hair shirt—had spared me the tyranny, the terrible poverty, of my unconstrained will. As I glimpsed the bleakness in Veronique’s life, I realized I never could have borne the curse I had craved so long—that of gaining the whole world, only to lose my soul. In His all-seeing mercy, god had eliminated for me the option of exclusive self-service when I bore Dominic. As a wife and mother, my heart might bleed, but I knew it would never shrivel, pumped full as it was with the occupational hazards of delight and terror, grief and compassion. When Veronique left, I clutched my son to my breast and wept with gratitude.”

What I (and many other would-be-mothers) would do to see the world in color! to slow the shriveling of our hearts! to be spared the tyranny of being single! or whatever… I mean, I do try to make up for the comforts of my life in various ways so I don’t become a horrible person, and I know that accepting childlessness is it’s own purification. But the refrain we hear is: parents are the ones who become better people, parents have meaningful lives because they’re working on such a great project, nobody knows real joy until they hold their baby, I used to think my life was fulfilling—then I had kids and I learned what TRUE fulfillment meant. Eventually the suggestion sinks in: non-parents are missing out on something central to being human. And for people who wanted kids, this suggestion is just confirmation of what we’ve long been feeling and crying about. (That was in defense of feeling like an empty shell (it’s hard not to!), not in defense of foregoing asking mothers to stand for a blessing on Mothers’ Day.)

MrsDarwin said...

Anon, that blog post about Veronique is pretty appalling. "I thank God that I am not like other women, spared the vile curse of self-service!" Just wait until Dominic gets a little older and Mom discovers how very easy it is to be self-centered as a mother...

I tell you what I would like, as a mother: a moratorium on blog posts by first-time mothers about mothering. (Also, posts on marriage by people who have been engaged for six months or married for a year and a half.)

Also, I think it's not true that no one knows true joy until they hold their baby (yeah, I saw that one going around too) because that pretty much implies that joy only comes in one flavor, and the idea that joy can be confined to one facet of the human experience is ludicrous. as all you needed to summon the joy genie was a baby-shaped bottle. Anyway, Julian of Norwich said that Jesus experienced the greatest pain ever on the cross, but immeasurably more joy, because the pain was finite but the joy was infinite. So I think it's load of bloggy BS that someone can't know joy until she has a baby. In fact, it's a pretty offensive sentiment.

Anonymous said...

One more thing about the anti-mothers-standing-up post that prompted this discussion: I think that the author's positive project seems more valuable than her negative one. Her litany of prayers for non-mothers who wanted to be mothers (and mothers who are suffering in a special way) is something we should emulate (though it might be a bit wet-blanket to go through the whole thing on Mothers' Day). Acknowledging that someone is suffering in a particular way and praying for them in particular are good ways to make suffering more bearable, and I think the ways in which non-mothers who wanted to be mothers suffer is much more painful and ubiquitous than most people recognize.

Thanks for your reply, MrsDarwin! I so love your blog.

MrsDarwin said...

Anon, precisely, and it's this lack of fellowship in prayer which leaves such a bad taste in one's mouth in regard to the post you quoted. Anyone who could acknowledge that her single friend is actually miserable, and who could turn that realization into an extended meditation on her own life without offering the slightest breath of prayer for her suffering friend, has not actually learned as much about selflessness as she thinks.

Also, this line: "As a wife and mother, my heart might bleed, but I knew it would never shrivel." This is a lie, whether or not the author knows it. Again, if she imagines that motherhood means that God has given her foolproof protection against coldness and hardness of heart, not only is she much deceived, but she doesn't seem to have a large acquaintance among actual people with actual mothers.

I confess, I never read these kind of blog posts because I already know from the titles and the one-sentence summaries on Facebook that they're bound to be psuedo-inspirational claptrap, but you're absolutely right that people like this writer truly seem to be peddling the idea that a woman who is not a mother is somehow living on a lesser plane of feminine existence. Bullshit. I give you permission, if you find it helpful to borrow a bit of outside affirmation in this regard, to never read another stupid manipulative, clickbait-y post on motherhood again. Let me say it again: this stuff is trash and treacle, designed to jerk tears and garner likes, no matter how sincere the author thinks she's being. This kind of Christianity-lite does no one any spiritual favors. Reject it, and all its works, and all its empty promises!

Growl. I hate that kind of blogging so much. I just should write a post about it instead of clogging up the combox. And thanks for the kind words! We really do appreciate our readers.

Darwin said...

MrsDarwin got here before me and said things well. Just to add my own two cents: The idea that parenthood is proof against selfishness strikes me as kind of backwards. Parenthood adds a host of responsibilities, and selfishness is when we put ourselves above our responsibilities to others. So parenthood actually provides a lot of new opportunities for selfishness.

This is close to home, in that I struggle with this every day. When I get home from a long day at work, wanting to go sit somewhere and not talk to anyone (except MrsDarwin) and not hear any noise is selfish -- but only because I have a number of people who depend of my who have a claim to see me and receive affection from me when I'm still awake. If I didn't have kids, it wouldn't be selfish of me to sit down and be quiet for half an hour.

Which isn't to say that not having kids when one wants kids isn't hard and painful. The fact that being a parent is hard at times doesn't make the misery of wanting to be a parent and not being able to any less.

But the idea that being a parent protects someone from selfishness strikes me as disconnected from reality and I wish people would stop peddling that kind of thing. Not only is it hard on people who already have the sorrow of not having the family they wish for -- it also creates unrealistic expectations and the possibility of despair for those its meant to praise.