Why Mother’s Day at Church is the Single Most Painful Day for Some Moms

Let’s reimagine ways we can honor mothers without wounding others.

A week ago, as I anticipated this upcoming Mother’s Day, I felt ready to fight for my flower. Each year, I look forward to the carnation and the vague, glowing tribute churches often pay to women who mother. After all, haven’t I earned it? After birthing and raising a daughter and (count them) five sons, after 29 years of the daily dying-to-self that defines mothers’ lives, I am grateful for any Mother’s Day payback—even for the greasy (delicious) donut my church handed out one year.

But I am increasingly recognizing the tremendous cost of that flower (or donut). A few days ago, I posted a simple query on social media: “How do you feel about Mother’s Day celebrations in church?” In one day, 150 women responded with passion and detail—and the messages are still coming. After reading their stories, it became clear to me: Mother’s Day Sunday is, for many, the single most painful day of the entire church year.

Like salt in a wound

Most churches try to honor mothers in some way, but rather than attracting women with its special focus, legions either stay home from church on that day or leave their church service filled with resentment and pain. Many women have told me why. Single mothers describe it as momentary attention that lapses into invisibility again once the day passes, leaving them struggling to raise their kids alone. Bonnie, a mother of a beautiful adopted daughter, tells of one Mother’s Day when her pastor invited children to hand out chocolate kisses to their mothers. He was very specific about who qualified: They were to give their candy “not to the women who are like a mother to you” but only to “the woman who gave birth to you.” Bonnie was horrified and actually shouted out, “Or who has adopted you!” Sandra lost her own mother early and was never able to have children of her own despite her great longing. On Mother’s Day, with neither a mother nor children, she tells me she feels “like I have been abandoned by God’s people.” Shari, who tragically lost her daughter to cancer, finds her church celebrations devastating, like “salt in a wound.” On this day, many women grieve children they never had or children they have lost. They grieve mothers they never had or mothers they have lost. I, too, carry great grief on this day.

However well-meaning, Mother’s Day messages from the pulpit can be disturbing as well. Amy, who married later in life and is mom to stepchildren, told me she is weary of sermons that glorify motherhood and tending a home. Some pastors go so far as to say or imply that a life of motherhood and housekeeping is a woman’s highest calling. Judy, a theologian who teaches around the world, recalls a Mother’s Day sermon on the Proverbs 31 woman ending with an admonition for all women to recommit themselves to domestic tasks and to “working with their hands.” Carrie, a devoted mother of five who has beautifully cared for her home and family, tells me after the day’s specially-themed sermon on motherhood, inevitably, she leaves feeling like a failure. Let us all confess: Mother’s Day is a mess.

At this point, though, I want to pause and give a bouquet to every pastor. Whatever the mistakes and insensitivities, ministers have an impossible job as they face Mother’s Day. How can they honor mothers without wounding others in their congregation? Most deserve kudos for bravely stepping into this minefield. But perhaps they shouldn’t even try?

Many of the 150 respondents I asked said, “Leave Mother’s Day to Hallmark and leave church for worshiping Jesus.” But I protest.

We can’t—and shouldn’t—ignore it

We can’t ignore Mother’s Day in church any more than we can ignore Christmas—nor should we. The world blares messages of consumerism, yes, but also of love and appreciation for mothers. For the church to stay silent would be worse than celebrating it badly. All of us who mother (whether we work outside the home or not) need this affirmation and encouragement in a culture that appears increasingly to honor work and career above raising children. Despite the sometimes unbiblical hyperbole we may hear in sermons (that motherhood is our highest calling), the truth remains that mothering is a high calling, designed by God himself as a crucible of love, blessing, and regeneration. Mary, the mother of Jesus, reminds us all to willingly offer our bodies and lives for the bringing of life and the redemptive purposes of God. Mothers in the trenches can forget this. During the 20-plus years I was either pregnant, nursing, or potty training, I struggled, unseen and silent, with combat fatigue and exhaustion. During that period in particular, Mother’s Day—at home and at church—offered a day of renewal and remembrance.

And remembrance is biblical. The fifth commandment, “Honor your father and your mother” (Ex. 20:12), was hardly an afterthought of God’s. It was and still is essential to the well-being of God’s people. Of course handing out gifts in church one day a year doesn’t allow us to tick that command off our to-do list, but it does afford us a moment to corporately respect and pay tribute to those who gave us life, regardless of their character.

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