Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: a Mother's Day Talk

by EmilyCC

This isn’t a cheery talk.  (My husband, Nate: “I think people are going to want to shoot themselves afterwards.”)  But, my points in this talk are twofold: we all can mother (Jesus and Heavenly Father are prime examples) and all that God asks for us in our mothering is to do it in love.  This talk ended up being more conservative than I’d like–you’ll see me struggle with the incongruity between our treatment of Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother.  And, I dropped some of my inclusive language because other readers said that members of my conservative ward could get caught up in my language and miss what I was saying (unfortunately, I think they’re right).

Thanks to my mom and husband who mothered me through this talk (it’s rough to write a Mother’s Day talk when one is a relatively new mother and often overwhelmed at her new job) and all the posts below that inspired this talk.

I can’t think of a talk that is harder for a woman to give than the Mother’s Day talk.  In a church that lauds the role of motherhood, this holiday can be especially difficult.

The sentiment behind Mother’s Day is right.  We want to praise our mothers and thank them for all the good work they have done. 

In a way, though, Mother’s Day feels like Easter. 

How could we ever show our gratitude to the Savior for the Atonement? 
How can we thank our mothers and those who have mothered us? 
How can we, as mothers, express our gratitude for the blessing of having children?

It is at once too much recognition and too little.  We overcompensate in our inability to properly recognize the sacrifices that those who mother make. 

For many, today is a holiday that is fraught with ambivalence.  There are those who privately mourn and feel isolated.

There are people who have lost their mothers, and women who have lost their children.  These losses can be through death or the result of estrangement.  There are people who don’t have happy relationships with their mothers.

What could a sacrament meeting talk do to assuage that pain?

There are single women who long to mother their own offspring.  There are married women struggling with infertility. There are women who don’t know if they want to be mothers.  Yet, the Church tells them that motherhood is their ultimate goal and purpose here on Earth.

There are other situations that I haven’t listed here but are just as complicated and difficult as the ones mentioned above.

Most of us know people who do not come to Church on Mother’s day because the subject is so painful.

To those of you who are dealing with pain, sorrow, grief, and ambivalence over this holiday and still came to Church, I think you should stand up and get a chocolate at the end of this meeting, too.

We often focus on mothers because they are an easy target (um, that’s their title after all), but I want to try looking at today as a holiday that celebrates the mothering instinct in each of us rather than looking to a small group who have been lucky enough to bear children.

I know that both Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother mother us, but since we don’t know much about Heavenly Mother, I want to look at how Heavenly Father mothers us as one example of how we can change the way we look at Mother’s Day.   

Throughout the scriptures, we see images of the Lord giving birth, nursing, raising up His children.  When God talks to the Israelites throughout the OT, we see countless examples of a loving parent, guiding, delivering, and nurturing His children.

In Isaiah 66:13, we see that Heavenly Father wants to comfort us as a mother.

In 1 Corinthians 3:1-2, we see that Heavenly Father looks to feed and nourish us with milk as a mother.

The instinct to mother is divine.  It transcends beyond gender, beyond biology.  Now, I don’t want to dismiss the pain of women who want to be mothers by what I’m about to say, so I don’t mean this as cold comfort.  But, I think we all have opportunities to mother in our families, in our callings, with our friends.  And even when our attempts at mothering our children, our family, our friends fall short, we can take comfort that in these acts of mothering, in these acts of love, God is using us to show His love to His children and teaching us how to love as He does.

This past fall, I felt that love as I learned about the history of the women in my matrilineal line.

We often use the phrase “standing on the shoulders of giants” to talk about someone who has made an intellectual leap (often scientific) because of the research of past thinkers.  But, I think this idea is just as applicable when we look at our family history.  I look at the women in my family, and I see that their mothering has had a profound affect on who I am today.

 The stories I’m going to share with you today aren’t the warm and fuzzy.  They speak of pain and sorrow, but also endurance and faith and love.  I tell these stories because I am so grateful for what these women overcame.  Because of what they did and what they sacrificed, I stand on their shoulders and am blessed with opportunities they couldn’t have imagined.  When my own faith in the Church falters, when I have a difficult day with my children or husband, when I feel inadequate and downtrodden, I look to their examples of perseverance and realize that perfection isn’t my goal when I mother, love is.

My relationship with my long-dead matriarchs started when I read an essay one about President Hinckley’s wife, Marjorie Pay Hinckley. 

President Hinckley states in Discourses of President Gordon B. Hinckley (Volume 1, p. 230):

“At the marriage of each of our daughters and granddaughters, my wife has presented a special gift. It is not a vacuum cleaner or dishes or anything utilitarian. It is a seven-generation family chart of her maternal line, beautifully framed. It is made up of photographs of her maternal great-great-grandmother, of her great-grandmother, of her grandmother, her mother, herself, her daughter, and her newly married granddaughter.

Every woman in that picture for seven generations has been a Relief Society worker. This beautiful family history chart becomes an ever-present reminder to the younger ones of this generation of the great responsibility they carry, of the great obligation they have to move forward this work in the tradition of their mothers and grandmothers in service in the Relief Society.”

I loved this idea, and I was ready to make one for my mom and sisters until I realized I didn’t know anyone beyond my Grandma Nora.

Grandma Nora rarely talked about her family of origin.  We knew that Grandma Nora’s mother died of breast cancer when she was 13 and that because of an abusive father, Grandma Nora had left her father’s house at age 15 and drifted from house to house of friends and family members (Grandma Nora experienced mothering from people who provided her shelter, who even made sure she was able to go to college.  Some were strangers, some were distant family members).

Grandma Nora had a hard life.  She lost her mother and sister when she was so young.  She was plagued with depression.  She was often hard to connect with.  She and my grandpa divorced in their 50’s, and she was often lonely. 

But, I know she loved me and her family.  And, I know that she was a good woman who worked hard in her home and in the Church.  This was a girl who went to Church after the death of her mother and was the only one in her family who continued to do so.  My aunt says that this is a woman who took all the pain and abuse she witnessed and carried it inside her so her children and grandchildren did not have to see such ugliness.

She endured, she was faithful, and she did her best to nurture her children so that her pain would not be their pain.  She offered her shoulders and her children and grandchildren have been blessed because of her life.

Whether due to lack of memories or suppression of memories, my grandmother never spoke of her mother until the end of her life.  And, even then, she didn’t say much. 

In fact, we are still uncertain of what my great grandmother’s name was.  (plug the importance of genealogy).  I found references to “Lula Clair” in a genealogy book. I’ve heard her called, “Claire.” I’ve even seen, “Clara Lulu” somewhere. But, most often, I’ve seen her referred to as “Clara.”  We only have a handful of pictures.  There’s one with her sisters—she looks a like my grandma and a little like my mom with short brown hair and a petite frame.  I like this picture; she looks spunky and happy.

A few months after reading the piece about Sister Hinckley, I received a letter from a distant cousin about a family reunion for my great-grandmother’s family.  I packed up the kids, and dragged Nate to Show Low to meet with 200 total strangers.  For those of you who don’t know me, there is only one thing I fear more than the idea of being in a room full of strangers, and that is being in a room full of total strangers…and Nate.  For those of you who don’t know Nate, well, know that Nate takes a perverse amount of pleasure in saying things to shock those around him. 

So despite the inner horror I felt at spending a weekend with strangers, I was excited for the opportunity to finally get to know Clara. 

But, Clara’s stories aren’t the rosy warm ones I hoped would make up for Grandma Nora’s.

Clara’s parents were good people I learned at the family reunion, faithful Church members who died in a car crash in 1922 when they were hit by a train on their way home from Thatcher where they were attending a Church genealogy meeting. Clara was one of the younger of their 13 children, and after her parent’s death Clara was probably raised by an older sibling, but we’re not sure.

What we do know about Clara happened a few years after her parents’ death, when she married a man that the family didn’t approve of.

Clara’s husband was a miner, a trucker, and frequently unemployed. They moved around the dozens of mining towns scattered across Eastern Arizona never staying in one place more than a few years.  I’m sure many of you here could describe the hardness of that life better than I could even imagine.

Clara’s husband was abusive to her and her children.

The only stories I have about Clara came from Grandma Nora at the end of her life.  Grandma Nora told my sister about the time when Clara loaded up her 4 kids in the car to have a “picnic” in town.  (Clara didn’t know how to drive at the time.) And, while the kids were enjoying their picnic, Clara walked to the local police station, where she asked the police chief if he could stop her husband from hitting her. 

Grandma Nora remembered Clara trying to shield Nora and the other children from her husband’s abuse.

While domestic violence still exists today, the strides we have made since Clara’s time are noteworthy.  We talk about it in public, it is a crime, there are resources for women who are being abused.  We have bishops, like our own, who know what to do in these situations.

During the Depression, in a little town in Eastern Arizona, Clara looked to the only resource she could think of.  I can’t imagine the courage she had as she tried to find a way to protect her family.

Clara was poor and alone.  Her husband wasn’t a good man.  Yet, she loved her children, and at a time when domestic violence wasn’t talked about in public, she was courageous and tried to get help to protect her children and herself.  And, she perservered.  She kept going to Church and was faithful when her husband was not.

She mothered her children as long as she was alive.  At the reunion, I learned more of her willingness to sacrifice even during the late stages of her disease.  As she was dying, she took her children and made a trip to see her sister in California.  She hoped to die on that trip so that her children would not be left to the mercy of their father.

Clara had a great grandmother also, named Alice.  Alice was a fourth wife of a polygamous Church leader.  In the 1850’s Alice immigrated from England after joining the Church.  She never learned to read, and from her husband’s letters to others (he never wrote to her directly), our family learned that she wasn’t the favored wife and her children weren’t the favored sons.

Yet, she remained true to the Church, and she raised four sons that became upstanding men.

Why share such stories of sadness on Mother’s Day?  Because the stories of suffering can teach us as much, maybe more, than the stories of joy.  We keep our ancestors’ examples alive and applicable through our sharing. 

And, there is value in these stories, even if they aren’t pretty or happy, we can learn from them as they show mothering shining through our human imperfections, showing humanity, faith, and divine love.  This is what I believe Malachi is talking about in Malachi 4:6.

These are the stories of my great mothers though they don’t fit the traditional stereotype of motherhood that we show off on Mother’s Day. 

Yet, they should be celebrated because ultimately, my great mothers did the things that mattered the most.  They did right when people around them did them wrong by mothering with love.  By doing this, they stayed true to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I am eternally grateful to them for these two facts because they are the ones who have given me the gifts I treasure most—the love of my family and the church I belong to.

Sometimes, God asks us to simply go through events in our lives.  To endure them as best we can, to make our choices with thought and care.  And, to love others, to mother others as we live our lives.  The Savior himself exemplified this.

At the end of his life as Jesus endures such suffering, he mothers his mother

  1. John 19: 25-27

  25 ¶ Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his amother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of bCleophas, and Mary Magdalene.

  26 When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the adisciple standing by, whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, bWoman, behold thy son!

  27 Then saith he to the disciple, Behold thy amother! And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home.

As we see Heavenly Father and Jesus mother us, as we look to the examples of our ancestors for those who were able to mother with such devotion, even if their mothering didn’t involve baking or sewing or keeping a clean house, we see the pure love of the Gospel.  We see why our Savior died for us.  He sacrificed, as a mother would, because He loves us.

My mother and mother-in-law are here today, and I could give you a rockstar talk about them and their accomplishments.  Whatever good that comes from me comes in large part to what they have accomplished and sacrificed (and continue to sacrifice) in their own lives.

We can see so many examples of mothering all around us in this ward that transcend beyond biology. 

I am particularly grateful to the women who have mothered me and my children and who haven’t had the experience of bearing children.  Their love and selflessness overwhelms me and has taught me more than anything else about the innate goodness of human beings.  There are women in this ward who have not given birth but who have mothered me in Young Women’s  and continue to mother me as I have grown into an adult.  They have mothered my children in meetings, on their laps, and in nursery and they will continue to—I’m sorry, you have your work cut out for you.  You are women who’s examples of mothering mean more than I can express.

There are mothers in this ward who I look to as examples of what I want to do as I raise my children.  Some are my age and younger.  Some are women who’s sons and daughters I grew up with—I know that their mothering is divine.

I want to end with stating that ultimately, what we celebrate about mothers on Mother’s Day is much more than a biological link. It’s the desire to connect with others, to love and help other people, to nurture as our Heavenly Father and Mother do.

Celebrating this idea isn’t limited to our kin. It can, and should, be much more. It can be a celebration of women who set tremendous examples for us. Of people we see every week at church, tending their children, or greeting and welcoming other ward members, giving hugs. The character of nurturing and giving and caring for others, acts of mothering, is something we can all celebrate. (Last two paragraphs are completely plagiarized from Kaimi’s MD talk because I couldn’t have said any of this better myself!)

Here are some of my inspirations for this Mother’s Day Talk:
Feminist Genealogy by EmilyCC
Matrilineal Lines of Authority and Marjorie Pay Hinckley by Maria
Turning the Hearts of the Children by Starfoxy
Mother’s Day: My Talk by Kaimi

Here are some bloggers’ Mother’s Day talks (or at least they could be Mother’s Day talks):
Amelia’s Women of Righteousness: a Mother’s Day Talk
Sheila’s When Mother’s Day Sucks
Spunky’s Mother’s Day for the Motherless and Infertile
Julie M. Smith’s Mother’s Day

If you’re giving a talk on Sunday, what will you focus on?  If you wish you could give the talk on Mother’s Day, what would you say?


EmilyCC works for a national non-profit and lives in Phoenix, Arizona with her spouse and three children. She is a former editor of Exponent II and a founding blogger at The Exponent.

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12 Responses

  1. Kirsten says:

    I’ve only been asked to give a talk on Mother’s Day once. It was when I lived in the Cambridge 1st Ward– a unique audience for any non-traditional, by the book ideas. I spoke about being adopted and the evolution of my feelings toward my birth mother. As a teen I didn’t call her birth “mother”, rather my birth “unit”. She wasn’t my “mother”. I suppose it was my thought that I was honoring my real mom (I call my adoptive mother my real mom, because that’s what she is!) trying to make her somehow better than my birth mother. As I got older, I changed that view dramatically. It was when I held my daughter for the first time that I realized just what a sacrifice it was for my birth mother to give me up to another woman to raise. I began to honor her gift rather than try and pretend she didn’t exist.
    I make a deep connection with my physical birth mother and my spiritual Heavenly Mother. I have never met either, and realize that I most likely will have to wait until the next life to do so. I lamented on the lack of discussion and knowledge of our Heavenly Mother in church, but seem to deal with it better because of the lack of knowledge of my birth mother.
    I have the paperwork from the state of Wisconsin to find my birth parents. Actually I filled them out three times already, but as of yet haven’t sent them in. I ask myself “What are you waiting for? Aren’t you curious? Don’t you want to know who they are?” I’ve asked my parents for their blessing and they’ve given it. I suppose I’m just a bit anxious. I fear that maybe she won’t want to meet me. The last thing I want to do is up-end the life she has now–maybe she’s married and has never told her family about me. But wouldn’t she be wondering about me too? Every year on my birthday isn’t she thinking of me as I think of her?
    I have to believe that our Heavenly Mother must feel this as well. Doesn’t she wish she had contact with us? We can pray and talk with our Heavenly Father daily, does this make her sad or jealous?
    Whether or not I ever send in the paperwork, I know that one day I’ll meet my birth mother one day. I hope she feels familiar and that there will be a unique connection between us. The same goes for my Heavenly Mother. With both women, there will be a lifetime of happenings and thoughts to discuss. I really look forward to that day…

  2. EmilyCC says:

    Kirsten, this is beautiful…thank you for sharing your story.

  3. Alisa says:

    I’ve never thought about birth mothers and Heavenly Mothers. Very interesting connection, Kirsten. That’s totally something for me to think about.

  4. Jessawhy says:

    Thank you for this beautiful talk. It made me cry.
    If I am every asked to speak on Mother’s Day, I will borrow heavily from this great work that you have done. (Stand on your shoulders, perhaps?)

    As I read between the lines, I can really see your own growth in this talk. I can imagine that it was difficult for you and that it allowed you to look at motherhood from so many angles. I always find that I’m more centered and focused on a topic when I’ve had to research and think deeply about it. I’m glad for you that you had this opportunity.

  5. Alisa says:


    Thanks for going back and adding in your talk (I almost missed it!). Wow. You really tackled a lot of the issues here and gave such a real, powerful, even practical talk. No ivory pedestals. But really good examples, much inclusiveness, and acknowledgement of the very hard decisions women often have to make.

    This is awakening the family history bug in me. I want to do matriarchal lines now!

  6. Pat Jarvis says:

    Emily, that is a heartfelt wonderful talk.

  7. EmilyCC says:

    Jessawhy, Alisa, and Pat, thanks for your kind words. It was a talk that led to a lot of growth and ultimately, gave me some comfort about how I felt about Mother’s Day.

  8. Brooke says:

    Emily, I also gave a mother’s day talk as a mother of young boys–just a few years ago. And you better believe I was picking the brains of Caroline and Jana and amelia and others around me so that I could avoid the bothersome tendencies of most speakers on mother’s day. I really focused on something you address, and that is that mothering is something everyone can and should do (after I set up a definition for “mothering”). You have made me want to dig it up.

    I love the sharing of your foremothers’ stories. What interesting (and painful) pasts your family has. I am realizing lately how ignorant I am of the stories in my family. I need to do me some reading.

  9. EQ3 says:

    A mother is a person who seeing there are only four pieces of pie for five people, promptly announces she never did care for pie.

  10. Kevin says:

    That’s interesting, I felt dumb after I read this. Thanks.

  11. Rachel says:

    I loved this Mother’s Day talk, and am so glad you once shared it in your ward and here. I love whole stories, and whole mothers. They are much more hopeful and inspiring to me than the angel kind.

  1. May 8, 2012

    […] Need a talk about Mother’s Day? Jana gave one in 2007 EmilyCC’s was in 2009 […]

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