Mother Earth

Despite the signs in many shops, despite the permeation of Americanisms into correct English, today is not Mother’s Day. Today is Mothering Sunday. 

The tendency to adopt American words and customs seems to bother me more than it does native Britons. 

Perhaps it’s because I am so aware of the words being used, while for natives, the creeping Americanization can just sneak in unnoticed... 

Or maybe it is because I find that I learn so much from the differences between our cultures and customs, just as I believe that we learn and grow most from all of our encounters with different perspectives. 

In any case, I hope that British mothers of all sorts are celebrated and honoured today, and I also hope that it isn’t with Starbucks coffee, dinner at MacDonalds or KFC, and a gift from the Gap or one of the other American shops lining so many English high streets. 

I am pleased to remind you today that Mothering Sunday is completely unconnected from the American holiday of Mothers’ day. 

The origins of this holiday – the real British one – Mothering Sunday – date back to a time when it was common for the children of lower class families to leave home and family at the tender age of ten to work as domestic servants or as apprentices. 

Mothering Sunday was a day when these children were allowed time off to visit their mothers and families. 

I think of my own son when he ten years old. He was tender and vulnerable. He certainly couldn’t fend for himself in a hostile adult world. I find it almost impossible to imagine what it was like for young children and their parents to need to separate so completely at a time when they would rightly be closely connected. 

And what of the reunions that took place on Mothering Day? Can a mother bear to hold her child again after a year of separation, only to have him pulled away again? How does she cope with a year of changes that she has missed seeing? 

Can a child cope with it in any way other than to become emotional distant? Mothering day must have been a day of much joy and many tears. 

Today, Mothering Sunday has become a holiday dedicated to honouring mothers. Yes – it is very commercial, like everything else in our modern-day culture, but this morning, let’s focus on the very worthwhile notion of a day set aside for motherhood. 

Mothering and mothers may mean something very different to each of us. While we might like to think about the ideal of a loving mother and the joy of motherhood, the truth is much more complex. This holiday and motherhood itself is filled with contradictions and mixed feelings. 

We heard some of this in our second reading. Mothers are not usually the perfect images we see in the ads with unlimited patience and no personal needs to attend to. 

Some of us had wonderful mothers. These were women who gave deeply of themselves for our sakes. They were the ones with a cool cloth on our brow whenever we were feverish and they had a touch that could instantly ease the pain of a scraped knee or a bruised ego. They were there for us when we needed them and still managed to give us the space we needed to grow. For these fine mothers, we offer our admiration and gratitude. 

But for others among us, this image of mother is foreign. We may have lost our mothers too soon or our mothers may have been unable or even unwilling to meet our needs because of their own life challenges. If this was our experience, we may still carry around the longing we have long felt for the comfort we needed and never received. 

For some mothers too, Mothering Day brings up especially difficult feelings. There are mothers who have had and lost children. Whether our children are absent from our lives because of death or estrangement, it is a particular torment that is hard for anyone else to fully understand. Painful also, is the experience of mothers whose children are present but are destined to suffer with mental or physical illness. 

Mothering Sunday is difficult also for many women who are not mothers. Whether they chose this path or dearly longed to be mothers but could not, it can be agonizing to be inundated with messages portraying motherhood as the highest objective in women’s lives. If a woman is not a mother, has she missed out on life’s greatest joy and purpose, as these messages seem to suggest? 

In the real world, relationships between mothers and children encounter ecstatic highs and agonizing lows. The weave of joy and woe in life’s rich fabric is so tight that these events cannot often be separated from one another. 

Mothers know this perhaps better than anyone else. It begins with pregnancy where physical discomfort and the joy of a new life within are inextricably linked. In childbirth, is there any way to know where tears of pain end and the tears of joy begin? 

Relationships between mothers and children must deal constantly with the conflicting needs of children to be close to and to separate from their parents. 

Separation takes many forms, from the two year old whose only word seems to be “no”, to the teenager who might not even say that much! All of them create unexpected bumps in what we – at the birth of a child – dream will be a smooth road of love and ease. 

Indeed, this struggle points to what I think is at the core of what it is to be maternal. Being maternal means caring so much for someone else that you are willing to do almost anything for them. And it also means accepting the pain of separation that must come if our children are to grow and develop into their own fully realized selves. 

Being maternal requires entering into the complex dance of bringing close, nurturing, and letting go. It is a daring and courageous way of living, because it means allowing ourselves to care so much that we are deeply and frighteningly vulnerable. It is knowing that our love will bring us pain and going ahead anyway. 

I am very pleased that the real name of today’s holiday includes Mothering rather than Mother’s. We don’t need to give birth to be mothering and so this difference in name gives us permission to look more broadly. 

Some of us have had people – wonderful, caring people – who mothered us when our own mothers could not fulfil that role. Some of us have mothered children who were not our own, but who needed someone to fill that role. 

And fathers – we can certainly be maternal too! When my son Jacob was a baby, I wanted nothing more than to get a piece of motherhood, and I did. I learned to be a good diaper changer. I learned to bathe my delicate infant and to clip his paper-thin fingernails so he wouldn’t scratch his flawless skin. 

And I was very jealous of the special bond that Jacob and Miriam had through breast-feeding. Try as I might, I simply lacked the right equipment. The day he started taking a bottle was a great day for me indeed! 

Just as being maternal does not require being a mother, the object of our mothering does not have to be a child. One of my great thrills in life has been creating things and nurturing their growth – I’ve given birth to ideas, gardens, initiatives, programmes, groups, and inventions. 

I’ve learned over the years – often through painful experience – that to mother these creations well, I have to be both committed to giving them what they need and prepared to let go – to let them have their own life. 

When I was in business school six years ago, I began a lecture series. The birth was difficult and my newborn effort did not thrive all at once. I had to pour my energy, time, and love into it. Eventually, it began to grow. Had I continued to hold it closely, it could not have flourished. I had to gradually let it go into the hands of others. 

This particular baby has continued to grow and thrive in the care of others. Now – years later and thousands of miles away – I receive periodic announcements about upcoming events in that series. 

I am proud of my baby and how far it has come, but I do feel that little twinge to realize that I am no longer an essential part of its life – to know that it no longer needs me. I just wish it would call me every once in a while! Would that be so difficult? 

Loving and letting go. It is not easy, but it is essential if children of any kind are to grow and thrive.