The Mother’s Day Conundrum

I am debating whether or not to attend church on Mother’s Day next week.

On the one hand, I love that on Mother’s Day we hear stories about women and often even quotes by women – something that is sadly lacking on so many other Sundays. In Mother’s Day talks I’ve heard about women church leaders, Deborah, Eliza R. Snow, and even Heavenly Mother. I’ve heard about people’s mothers and their complicated lives and relationships. My heart and soul sing to hear women and their unique lives and contributions acknowledged from the pulpit.

But on the other hand, I am often uncomfortable with how women are talked about on Mother’s Day. I don’t connect to the pedestalizing of mothers – the constant references to their heroic selflessness and transcendent spirituality. That just doesn’t represent my reality. I’m a mom three times over, and I love my kids a lot, but I have no intention giving up all my desires and dreams for them. Nor am I a tower of spirituality, as anyone who knows me can attest. I am a messy, flawed person who has and will make many mistakes in my parenting, as I have and will make many mistakes in every other facet of my life. Roses definitely do not bloom beneath my feet.

I also become uncomfortable if Mother’s Day talks implicitly reduce women – who are complicated, multifaceted beings with many identities and loyalties– to this one role.  Too often in Mother’s Day talks I’ve heard that old correlation of women having motherhood as their central purpose and identity in life, while men have priesthood.  Telling women than their central purpose and identity is motherhood can be hurtful. Aside from all the other problems with this type of gender role rhetoric, I’ve had non-mother friends who have been deeply, deeply wounded by this teaching. They leave the meetings gutted and wondering if, in a Mormon worldview, there is any point to their lives.

Last night I was explaining to a friend some of my hesitations about Mother’s Day talks, and he told me that not talking about something because it might hurt a few people in the audience was stupid. In his thinking, any topic might hurt someone somewhere if they couldn’t live up to the ideal. But I tried to explain to him that this topic of motherhood is so incredibly fraught for women. In much of Mormon rhetoric, motherhood is all the women have and are. That’s it. In Mormon gender role differentiation, women don’t have other identity markers like priesthood holder and often they don’t have wage-earner either, as so many Mormon men have in addition to fatherhood. Because of that fraught, loaded nature of this topic of motherhood, Mother’s Day talks are a minefield and have the potential of making women — mothers and non-mothers — feel pretty bad about themselves.

So what do I want to hear on Mothers Day? I’d like to hear about strong women who have contributed to the world in a variety of ways. I’d like to hear about complicated women who make mistakes but keep on trying, either in their relationships or other facets of their lives. I’d like to hear about women in the Bible who are models of wisdom and insight to the rest of us. I’d like to hear about Heavenly Mother. And bonus points of someone talks about the pacifist and socially responsible origins of Mothers Day.

What are your feelings about Mother’s Day talks? And Mother’s Day at church in general? What would you like to hear over the pulpit on Mother’s Day?


Caroline is a PhD student in Women's Studies in Religion and mother of three.

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30 Responses

  1. Wendy says:

    My sentiments exactly, Caroline. I face a similar conflicted decision every Mother’s Day for various reasons.

    Someone in my ward who knows that I often choose not to attend church on this holiday, asked me what would cause me to want to attend. My immediate answer was if the talks and songs centered on Heavenly Mother. And also if the opening and closing prayers in sacrament meeting included Her by addressing Her and the Father together. Or just Her. He’s gotten a lot of air time when it comes to prayers at church. I think it’s time we get to openly commune with Her at church. Especially on this day in this church that continues to oppress Her daughters.

    Thank you for including that link to the history of Mother’s Day. So informative and sad! Somehow it doesn’t surprise me that it’s origins were fraught with conflict.

    • Caroline says:

      Thanks for the comment, Wendy. I would be overcome with happiness if a prayer in church ever addressed or acknowledged Her in any way.

  2. Shanna says:

    I don’t feel like the church or the gospel oppresses me. If anything, I think it’s the prevailing culture of women not striving to their potential (and the men who encourage it) that’s oppressive because they misunderstand certain teachings and commandments. The gospel teachings in our church and the council given to men and women alike encourage us to hold to a very high standard of improvement, one that transcends simple gender roles. A standard that is being sold short by women and men who think our gender role is so limited. Men and Women alike are encouraged to be educated, continuously learn, care for one another, be self reliant, and contribute to society in a variety of ways.

    If I was in a better mood, I’d say I feel sad for those who limit their potential to one thing. But I’m particularly annoyed at one such member right now so I’m just going to say they’re lazy, don’t want to do/learn hard things, and enjoy hiding behind the “motherhood is the only important thing” myth. Hate me.

  3. Marivene says:

    Personally, I put in a lot of unpaid time, both at home & at church, & frankly, I would just like to feel like that time is appreciated for the sacrifice that it is, instead of the implication that it gives me something to do. I can find plenty of things to do, & have never had a problem with boredom.

    I would love to hear a talk about the Biblical Elizabeth. How hard it must have been for her to be barren when children were literally everything in her culture, yet she continued to serve in the temple.

    Or Rebecca. She drew the water for 10 camels, & her parents were not wild about the idea of her leaving with Abraham’s servant to become Isaac’s wife, but the decision under Jewish law was hers (!), & she said she would go.

    Or Tabitha, who cared for the poor & needy. This one seems particularly fitting in light of all the refugees.

  4. Andrew R. says:

    “I’m a mom three times over, and I love my kids a lot, but I have no intention giving up all my desires and dreams for them.”

    I really have difficulty believing this. Yes, you will not be giving up all your desires and dreams. But you have already probably put them on hold, for pregnancy and early years parenting. You will have decided not to do something that you would have done if you had no children. You have made sacrifices – and no doubt your husband has also.

    I don’t believe it has to be an all or nothing situation. Being a parent is a sacrifice, and in my experience the sacrifice is generally greater for the mother – not least of all from a physical point of view. I have five grandchildren – 4 with one daughter, and 1 from another. Only the second on the one with four was born vaginally. One emergency cesarean, one after a non-productive labour, two elective because of medical advice. That’s a lot of sacrifice. The daughter with four children can not have any more – on medical advice has been sterilised. She is intending to now, at 30, train as a midwife. The other is half way through training to be a school teacher. She will take a break next year for a second child.

    Both will live their desires and dreams – but in a lengthened time frame (compared with men) and with physical complications. So they have sacrificed, and will continue to sacrifice.

    • Rachel says:

      Thanks for explaining the physical sacrifices women who give birth make. Got it now. ?? Totally missed that when I ACTUALLY was pregnant, giving birth, and nursing for 9 years straight.

    • Olivia says:

      Ladies, we are SO LUCKY that we have these wise men who dedicate so much time and effort to explaining to us how to Woman on every post by women. I mean, how could women know anything about mothering and sacrifices and how you give up stuff for kids without men to come and tell us about it? #blessed

    • Anon says:

      “I really have difficulty believing this.”

      Therein lies the problem. The first step to true connection and understanding is to *believe* what someone tells you about her own experience. Pause. Consider. Feel free to explain how *your* experience diverges, but please, please control your urge to explain how her insight into her own life is incorrect. Believe the words of women.

      • Anon for this says:

        “I really have difficulty believing this.”

        Andrew *was* explaining how his experience diverged, not explaining how her insight was incorrect. He didn’t say “You’re wrong”. He said he had difficulty believing this, said “in my experience”, & gave examples from his experience. Why do his experiences not count, too?

      • EBK says:

        From what I read: Andrew quoted a woman I’m assuming he doesn’t know in real life speaking about her own life and experience, told her he didn’t believe it, went on to tell her how she was wrong about her own life, then followed it up with examples explaining why he thinks her experience must be similar to the experience of women in his family. His experiences count, but he has absolutely no experience in regards to the OP’s life. So his insistence that she has already given up or put on hold some of her dreams and desires is out of line.

    • Maegan says:

      Mic drop, ladies ?? (I really like this post. It perfectly sums up my own feelings on Mother’s Day. Even if I were a mother, the day would still make me uncomfortable. I was also unaware of its historical roots.)

    • Ziff says:

      You have difficulty believing this because . . . why? Because it’s jarring to consider that women are people first, and *not* reducible to the role of mother that you’d like to so completely slot them into?

      Some days I feel like you’re trying to understand the concerns of women in the Church, and then other days, I feel like you’re just trolling here. Lately, it’s more of the latter.

      • Andrew R. says:

        The thing, and only thing, I said I have difficulty believing was that she has “no intention giving up all my desires and dreams for them.”

        Why? Simple, because to an extend she already has. And also because she doesn’t know what may be round the corner, requiring the choice to do so. And that is what parents generally do. I do, you do.

        We don’t give them all up, and I don’t believe anyone should. And the giving up should be shared between Mum and Dad. But we do give up some of the things we enjoy. It was more a comment of how much she has already done than a condemnation of wanting to do the things she wants to do. I am sorry people read it that way.

        I am trying to understand the concerns of women in the church. However, in this place I am trying to understand the concerns of a sub-set of women in the church that I have not generally encountered – especially in the women I know well.

      • Maegan says:

        Well, you get points for trying. If you really want to understand something, you should listen more and talk less. Have you ever tried just reading a blog post *without* commenting? Whether unintentional or not, many of your comments come off patronizing and condescending.

  5. EFH says:

    Caroline, what you have written about is true. I have felt all those sentiments you have explained so eloquently here. For me, I think it is important to go and be present even though there might be annoying statements. Frankly, I do not know if there is one Sunday where I do not hear one. But I do not mind it anymore. Things are changing and I want to be present as they change. And talking about women as mothers, scientists, teachers, artists etc will take time to develop. I want to be part of this learning process. My absence will not do any good to anyone (unless I am skipping church because I want to go to the beach or for a great hike – this would be beneficial to my health). But skipping it just because the topic is sensitive or controversial? No, to me, that is not a good enough reason.

    • Caroline says:

      I’m glad you are going to go — and I hope you often speak up in SS or RS to give alternate perspectives. I too feel like that’s a very important contribution to make to the community. I’ll probably show up myself because at heart, I’m an optimist, and I always hope there’s a chance I will hear something outside the typical script, something vulnerable, nuanced, or enlightening.

  6. Spunky says:

    *physical sacrifice.

    Because physical sacrifice is only recognised in giving birth. Adoptive mothers offer no physical sacrifice, lazy buggars.

  7. Gemma says:

    Spot on. If, like me, you are in a ward were 90% of the sacrament talks are book reports on General Conference talks, Mother’s Day is a nice treat because we hear more personal stories from the speakers as well as stories about women. I usually avoid it though because too often the message is that women are not adulting (should I say womaning?) properly if they aren’t mothers, and I’m childless not-by-choice. So I wish we could find a way to celebrate all types of women’s service in the Church and the world at large on other Sundays, and not just shoehorn it in on one holiday each year.

    Another thing I find problematic about Mother’s Day: I also live in a ward where the bishopric and other priesthood leaders insist on relieving all of the women primary/YW/SS/RS teachers of their duties on Mother’s Day. I get the impulse to be kind and let the ladies have a break, but it just silences women’s voices for the day (literally with the teachers, and often it has a chilling effect on class discussion). Which seems really counterproductive if we’re taking a Sunday to celebrate women and their contributions!

    • Caroline says:

      “I get the impulse to be kind and let the ladies have a break, but it just silences women’s voices for the day.” I had never thought of that — good point. While I had never thought about this silencing when it comes to relieving women of duties on Mother’s Day, I had thought about — and disliked — impulses to only have men speak on Mother’s Day to “give women a break.” No thanks. I’d far rather hear from women on Mother’s Day.

      • Andrew R. says:

        You do understand that men have mothers too, right? It would be completely sexist to only have women speak on Mother’s Day, surely?

        Whilst our Mother’s Day is not this weekend we do celebrate it as part of Mothering Sunday (which is, or course, more about the Mother Church). I have always had a greater desire to send a card and present to my mother on Mother’s Day than her birthday. Why? Simple really, there is no corresponding Son’s Day.

        I send my Mum a present on her birthday, she generally gives me more for my birthday. Same for Christmas. But she can’t reciprocate my Mother’s Day giving and thinking. I love my Mum, and am very grateful for all that she has done for me.

        I believe in a day of celebrating what our mothers have done for us. That some women have not been blessed with children should not stop us from doing this. Should we not talk about raising our sons to go on missions because some parents don’t have a son to send on a mission?

      • Ziff says:

        The situations aren’t exactly comparable. Women are taught in the Church that being a mother is the *only* way they can truly fulfill their divine gender role. Sending a son on a mission isn’t taught as the only way to successfully parent (although maybe it’s close; getting your kids to marry in the temple might trump it). To then have a day celebrating that divine gender role for those for whom it has worked out is obviously painful to everyone else. Not to mention, as Caroline points out so well, that the idea that women are only meant to do this one thing is painful to lots of women, mothers or not.

  8. All my best thoughts about Mother’s Day as a childless woman came spilling out over the pulpit a few years ago in a talk I called A Not-A-Mother’s Thoughts on Mother’s Day. It generated a lot (relative to things I post anyway) of discussion on FB, and then was the opening blog post on We so our best to help women navigate the emotional minefield that church can be on this second Sunday in May!

  9. Susan says:

    We go to church every Sunday because that is where the Lord wants and needs us to be. It is where we get help and where we help others. Though women are multifaceted it is not wrong to celebrate on one day their role as mothers. I have sat through the refiner’s fire of Mother’s Day talks myself and I think more congregations and people are aware of the -holding up a perfect example only makes some feel bad- problem. We are growing as a people and church. We are not Zion. Women are strong enough to handle letting others honor their mothers and continuing to forge their own individual identities as women of God in whatever role he has placed them in at the time.

  10. marcella says:

    While I am grateful they no longer have special flowers for the mothers “with the most children” and the “most recently born child” and the “oldest mother” and the “youngest mother” and all the others on the list I remember cringing at growing up. I just wish we could acknowledge that we have a Mother in Heaven who loves us and our own earthly mother and leave it at that. I don’t want to have to stand at the end to receive a broken flower nor do I need a cookie during the RS hour and I really, really, really, really don’t want to have to sing (or listen to others sing) Love at Home which I hate, hate, hate. They can sing that on Father’s day instead 🙂

  11. Caroline says:

    “I just wish we could acknowledge that we have a Mother in Heaven who loves us.” Amen. I’d be so so thrilled to hear her acknowledged.

  12. Erin D. says:

    Thank you Caroline! I’m reading this on Mother’s Day. I did decide to go to church today and it was hard for me. I’ve been in Primary for awhile, but today the dads came in to help with primary, so us ladies could go to Relief Society and Sunday School. I haven’t been to either in a long time. I left feeling sad. I never heard Heavenly Mother mentioned once in Sacrament, Sunday School or Relief Society. I heard Heavenly Father mentioned over and over again in prayers, songs, talks, and lessons. Today I felt very acutely how absent our Heavenly Mother is in our worship every Sunday. Did she not also sacrifice her Son for us? Did she not also help with creation and the plan of salvation? Not even on Mother’s Day could we honor her. Well, no one may have heard her mentioned in Sacrament Meeting, Sunday School, or Relief Society/ Priesthood, but the Primary kids heard about her today. I’m the Primary chorister, and I wouldn’t give up my duties to lead the opening song today. I reminded all the kids that we have a Heavenly Mother and informed them that they would be singing to her today. I had them sing the first verse of “I Know My Father Lives” except we replaced the word “Father” with “Mother”. I explained to them that we had to do this because there are no songs in the Children’s Songbook about our Heavenly Mother. I also encouraged any of them who might be musically inclined to write a song about Her that could be included in the songbook one day. The songbook has a whole section of songs (35 to be exact) dedicated to Heavenly Father. Hopefully one day we can have at least one song dedicated to Her.

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