Leaning In To The Both/And of Mother’s Day

This week, I’ve been thinking about what my friend and super blogger Beth Woolsey calls the Both/And of parenting, the idea that two competing impulses can be held within the same moment.

When my sons left for Outdoor School on Monday, I felt this Both/And acutely:

  • I was both excited that they had this opportunity to study science at the Oregon coast for a few days, and sad they were going away.
  • Being without my raucous boys for a few days meant I could finish up my end-of-semester tasks without much distraction, but also that my raucous boys weren’t home, providing distraction.
  • Going to Outdoor School symbolized their successful navigation through five years at Dundee Elementary, but holy cow: they are fifth graders, and their time at Dundee Elementary, the best school ever, is coming to an end.

As Beth writes on her blog, each moment of parenting (of life, actually) can hold such paradox, but she argues instead of feeling discomforted by the seeming poles of feeling, we best step into the messy middle.

Beth’s idea of the Both/And seems especially appropriate now, too, a few days away from Mother’s Day. Because I wonder: is it possible to both celebrate Mother’s Day and the full life many mothers have; and also acknowledge that for many women, the holiday represents grief and emptiness?

Can we rejoice with the good, exhausting, unbelievable work so many mothers do, and also mourn, recognizing that people without children have been marginalized and excluded by our churches, by biblical interpretations of what it means to be godly, by the very way society functions?

Can we at least acknowledge that some women might want to skip church—and life—altogether on Mother’s Day, because they are reminded, on that day, that they have not fulfilled what they’ve been told is their biblical mandate to bear children?

Amy Young’s excellent blog post, “A non-mom speaks about Mother’s Day,” expresses what the holiday feels like for women who haven’t felt called to have children. When a pastor in her church asks all women to stand on Mother’s Day, she writes, those who are not mothers stand out. Young writes: “I felt dehumanized, gutted as a woman. Real women stood, empty shells sat.

While reading Young’s post, I kept thinking me too. My own experience on Mother’s Day have, all too often, left me feeling dehumanized, gutted, less than real. An empty shell.

I knew that empty shell feeling before I had children, when I felt marginalized by Christians who believed motherhood was the greatest, perhaps only, achievement to which women should strive, and well into my 30s, I didn’t have that One Thing that gave me passage into the Christian women’s club.

I knew that empty shell feeling after becoming a mother, because I have been to Mother’s Day services and heard prayers lauding all the mothers in the audience who carried their children for nine months, endured impossibly painful labor, their own bodily sacrifices a symbol of God’s own creation, and thought That is not me.

I still know what an empty shell feeling must be like l because I have friends who haven’t felt called to parenting, but who have loved, nurtured, mentored others, their work a clear reflection of God’s creative impulses.

I still know because I’ve had friends who have struggled with infertility, desperately wanting to be parents but being thwarted by every effort. I can only imagine what it must feel like for them to be excluded on a day they so badly want to celebrate.

So, how can we both honor mothers on this holiday, and realize the day is fraught for many?

How can we step into this paradox?

Several years ago, my friend Elizabeth, an amazing pastor and prophetic voice, provided a way. On Mother’s Day, she opened our service with a prayer that included every person born female sitting in her congregation. Women who birthed babies and who adopted. Women who wanted earnestly to have children, but could not. Women who mothered by serving as aunts and grandparents, sisters and best friends, teachers and caregivers. Women who stepped into the lives of others and nurtured them, calling into being each person’s greatest gifts.

Elizabeth understands (it’s that prophetic voice thing). Her prayer was a gift, showing that the best way to both honor mothers and avoid alienating others is to acknowledge and celebrate the many ways we are all, every one of us, creators of life, bearers of the Imago Dei, the Mother who both made and sustains everything, and called it good.