Where is the mama?

Once upon a time my husband and I sat with friends in their Southwestern home, when their two year old daughter reached that point on the other side of tired, where her little child’s eyes began to be flooded with giant tears. The only thing that calmed her were stories told at bedside, and the promise of sleep.

When the mother, story-teller returned, I asked what kind of stories her daughter liked, and was given a real answer: She liked complex, dramatic stories. Always. The more complicated and dramatic the plots, the better. To demonstrate, the mother pulled out a large, heavy volume that had been in her husband’s family for generations. She tenderly opened the pages, revealing the most vibrant illustrations in hues of gold, and red, and blue, and green. She showed me some of her very favorites, and then she turned to the story she had just told, two times.

It was one I had heard when I was small. A mother goat leaves her young kids at home, after warning them about a sly wolf who would come to trick them. Come the wolf did, and despite the mother’s warning, the kids let him in, to very sadly be eaten. Fortunately, the mother goat returned just in time to cut her still-living babies out of the wolf’s belly. It is a grisly cross between Little Red Riding Hood and the Three Little Pigs, I know. That grisliness was precisely my friend’s point, for that is the type of story her two-year old loves to hear.

Next my friend told me something else. Every time she reads her daughter a book or tale, the child asks, “Where’s da mama in this story?” because at two, she is young enough to know that there should be a mama there, but also old enough to know that there often isn’t. Another friend (and fellow Exponent blogger) once theorized that the phenomena of absent mothers shows up in children’s stories generally and Disney movies more specifically, because losing one’s mother is the scariest thing a child can think of, and, it can be thought by any child, no matter how young. As such, that storyline is able to speak to children in a way that others are not.

Among other things, it helps explain that touching scene in the book version of Peter Pan, when the lost boys have just presented Wendy with a house, and the twins cry, “And we are your children,” before they all fall on their knees, and plead, “O Wendy lady, be our mother.” In Peter’s words, what they needed was “just a nice motherly person.”

O Wendy Lady

There is a part of me that thinks that Peter was on to something very important, and that his remarks may actually relate to the entire human condition. That same part of me has spent a substantial amount of time reflecting on the child’s question, “Where’s da mama in this story?” And every time it has led me to another series of questions, my own. Where is the mama in this theology? In this faith? In that Sacrament talk? Are we, like my friend’s child, young enough to know that there should be a mama there, but just old enough to know that there often isn’t?

That is how I feel: young and old at the same time, which newness and oldness bring forth other feelings. There is rejoicing and also mourning–the first because I know with Eliza that there is “a mother there,” the second because of the darkness of the glass, and the thickness of the veil: The absence of Heavenly Mother is one of the most frightening things that I can think of. It is something that I can understand. And, it speaks to me in ways that other theological story-lines do not. Indeed, it is forceful beyond belief.

This might clarify why I was so overcome by another quote and conversation, shared with me some time ago by one of my Philosophy of Religion classmates. The quote was from Meister Eckhart, who asked very simply, “What does God do all day long?” before answering even more simply, “God gives birth. From all eternity God lies on a maternity bed giving birth.” Someone restated, “The essence of God is birthing.” My friend affirmed, “I think so. It is odd that with all the birthing God does, i.e., birthing a Son, a Holy Spirit, and a creation, that God is called ‘Dad.'” “Rather than a mother?” I chimed in. “Rather than ‘Mommy.’ Instead of calling God ‘Abba,’ Jesus should have called him, ‘Mommy.'”

It tasted good to me in the way Joseph Smith said true things would. This leads me to believe that it contains something substantial, and not only because it makes the most beautiful and compelling story of all.


Rachel is a PhD student in Philosophy of Religion and Theology at Claremont Graduate University. She co-edited _Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings_ with Joanna Brooks and Hannah Wheelwright. She is also a lover of all things books and bikes.

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35 Responses

  1. Ziff says:

    “Where is the mama in this theology?”

    Great question, Rachel. I like this post!

  2. Em says:

    I love this, and it really spoke to me. It isn’t like the absence of a Mother in our theology is a new idea to me. It just hit me differently — over and over I hear about how I am supposed to become a mother, and then how I am supposed to nurture and how glorious and eternal that is, and also that someday I will be exalted with my husband. And yet there is this giant hole. Pretty much everything I learned about motherhood I learned FROM my mom. So how am I supposed to envision an eternal role for myself with no model?

    • Rachel says:

      Thank you, Em. And you are absolutely right that if we, as women, are to become like our Heavenly Mother one day, we need a clearer example.

  3. Emily U says:

    Rachel, that question is going to stick with me for a long time. Thank you for asking it.

  4. One of the trends in Young Adult (and sometimes Children’s) fiction is the removal of parents. They would be in the way of the child getting into trouble, having adventures, or figuring things out for themselves. It also builds that extra bit of drama, having that hole in the heart.

    I think it’s a horrible trend, and enjoy the books I can find where the teens and children work with (or sometimes in conflict of) their parents, feeling out their growth toward adulthood while still having that lifeline for help, encouragement and advice when needed.

    It’s certainly almost painful to have a theology where we have this thread of hope in an Heavenly Mother, but have goten nothing more. It’s almost like we’re shy, wanting to know more, but almost afraid to know more, as it could mean disappointment from the expectations we’ve created.

    On a side note, my personal plan for a YA novel is of a young women living with her widowed father and his employer (who was her mother’s close friend), an elf of a couple hundred years who makes designer shoes. Gives her the stable father, a female confidant she can actually talk to, and some one sided (with occasional inspirational feelings) diary entries to her mother, who she hardly remembers or knows. Now if I can just get to writing. 😉

    Beautiful post. Thanks.

    • Rachel says:

      “It’s certainly almost painful to have a theology where we have this thread of hope in an Heavenly Mother, but have gotten nothing more.” It is painful to me.

      You are welcome. Thank you for reading it. Good luck with your YA novel.

      • I think it’s more painful than those theologies which have no hint of a female deity at all. Question is, are we better off with the hint, or does it just make the longing more painful?

      • Nona says:

        Question is, are we better off with the hint, or does it just make the longing more painful?

        That is the exact question I was just sitting here asking myself!

      • Rachel says:

        To me it is definitely a different Kind of pain.

        I am still grateful for the hint, if only because it offers me a beautiful and real hope.

  5. Kirsten says:

    this is lovely — and has been a great catalyst for careful thought & reflection this morning, so thank you!

  6. Julia Dickens says:

    My father always told me that he believed we don’t hear about our heavenly mother because our Heavenly Father wanted to protect her. “How do you think Heavenly Father would feel if people on earth used heavenly mother’s name in vain?” he would ask me. That put it in perspective for me as a child, and I have always loved that explanation.

    • Rachel says:

      I heard that perspective as a child as well, but when I was hired by BYU full-time to research Heavenly Mother in 2008, it was no longer enough for me. I learned that no Prophet, Apostle, or other General Authority ever gave voice to that idea. The first record of it was by a 19th century seminary teacher, who I’m sure was well meaning.

      Instead, some Church Presidents and General Authorities chose to speak a great deal about Heavenly Mother. This was truer of leaders closer to Joseph Smith’s time, but even Spencer W. Kimball who was the President when I was born spoke of Heavenly Mother in close to six Conference talks, and Elder Neal A. Maxwell explicitly said that truth about Heavenly Mother is something that is among “the most relevant and most needed” in our time, and that that is why “the Lord gave us this doctrinal truth” in part from “Eliza R. Snow,” who “expressed it in her hymn ‘O My Father.'” (Things as They Really Are, Chapter 14, Living Prophets.)

      You can read the paper that I helped research here: http://byustudies.byu.edu/PDFLibrary/50.1PaulsenPulidoMother-482bf17d-bbc5-4530-a7cc-c1a1b7e5b079.pdf

      • Lia says:

        Wow, that’s surprising that the idea that Heavenly Mother isn’t talked about in order to protect her was not from a Prophet or other GA. I think almost every friend I have ever spoken to about Heavenly Mother has heard that explanation.

    • MDearest says:

      What kind of infantilized female needs such protection from verbal slurs that she cannot make herself available to her children? Heaven Father easily endures the trivial profanity of men. A female deity, who is our mother, surely could as well. There is very little that would keep me from expressing love to my children, and the paltry vocalizations of a few people wouldn’t even register.

      We need more knowledge of our Heavenly Mother and less folk-tale explanations. If gender in the eternities is important, as doctrine holds that it is, then women need a role model that is not male. If on the other hand, both genders are to become like Heavenly Father, then gender differences in the eternities just aren’t that important. If Heavenly Father’s house is supposed to be a house of order, this conflict needs to be resolved. You can’t have it both ways.

      • Libby says:

        Julia, I’m glad that brought you comfort. It has never done so for me — I still frequently feel like a child who needs her mommy desperately, and I’ve found that when I seek her out she is there.

        I think she must be the best kind of mother: one who can listen to our screams and rants and adolescent tantrums and still love us.

    • spunky says:

      I heard that as well, but it never made sense to me. It made me feel bad for even asking about Her, like I should be ashamed that I even thought of Her.

      In working on the oral histories at CGU, one of the respondents gave the best answer I have ever heard about this concept. I have since adopted her take, which is essence is: Heavenly Mother is a God. She can take care of Herself, no matter what anyone else says, She is equal and equally perfect to Heavenly Father. Because of this, She does not need Heavenly Father or anyone else to veil Her from us.

      I really, really love that. And it reminds me that to falsely guard Her really only obstructs amd insults Her deity. Yes, we need to be respectful. But respect is not the same as neglectful blindfolds.

  7. MDearest says:

    Also, I love watching that .gif!

    • spunky says:

      This is a lovely post, Rachel, thank you. Usually posts about Heavenly Mother do not speak to me, because they are usually so intertwined with what I feel is a perfected model of mother/daughter relationship in this life. I had no relationship with my mother but for negativity, so that perspective always discomforted me. But this post is different. I found it soothing, and makes me wonder about Her.

      It makes me wonder if I had Her, of had been taught to rely on Her, and to seek Her, if the relationship I had with my mother might have been better because I was able to seek for a female divine, rather than a Divine Father who only separated us because I was not even good enough for my earthy mother, much less my Eternal Mother.

      So you made me think about Her in a peaceful way.

      And that is momentous for me.

      Thank you.

  8. liz johnson says:

    What a lovely post. I need a mama in my theology. I wonder how on earth she’s going to reveal herself to us – I love to imagine the possibilities.

  9. annie5white says:

    I love this! As someone who grew up in a Christian tradition with ZERO belief in any sort of female deity, this really stirs my soul. It is something I never even thought about until I was 25. I envy you Mormons. 😉 She may be silent.. but she is present.

    • Rachel says:

      I really appreciate your comment. I once got to give a presentation at an academic conference about the need for a divine feminine in feminist theology generally, and Latter-day Saint theology more specifically. The audience had a fair share of Mormons present, but many other faiths were represented as well. Of the latter group, close to ten women came up to me, thanking me for my remarks. One told me that my paper made her cry. Another that it made her close to crying. Another still that it gave her “the chills.” To me all of it was a testament to something I have long felt: this is a universal need. This is not just my need.

  10. Jess says:

    I love this SO much. I get so frustrated that in Mormondom we focus so much on families and the importance of parents, yet we leave half of our most important Parents out of the discussion. This gave me some new things to ponder. Thanks!

    • Rachel says:

      Thank you, Jess. I get frustrated with that same thing, so I try hard not to leave Her out, of my talks, testimonies, and lessons. Welcome!

  11. Suzette Smith says:

    This is so lovely and made me think so longingly of my HM. I weep over her loss. And am working hard to learn of Her and know Her.

  12. Adrienne says:

    I wonder if we rely too much on external sources for knowledge when one of the central principles of our theology that stands separate from other philosophies of the world is our access to personal revelation. Most of my relationships with my Heavenly Father and Savior have stemmed from personal prayer and seeking. If we desire a personal relationship and knowledge of our Heavenly Mother, it’s available. I don’t think it’s necessary to publicly proclaim her existence from every pulpit, every meeting. That won’t validate her existence in my life anymore than if I seek her personally in prayer, which I have done and felt deeply gratified from it. Thank you for delving into the subject, but I do think there is a mama in this theology just as much as there is our Father, but it is just as worthy of personal searching rather than waiting to be fed and begrudging others when we feel we go hungry.

    • Rachel says:

      I love that same access to personal revelation that you mentioned, and have sought for greater light and knowledge of my Heavenly Mother through those avenues. I also agree (and greatly appreciate) that there is a mama in this theology. Simply knowing that She exists Does offer me measures of comfort about my place on earth and in the heavens.

      Still, I do wish that She was more than hinted at in contemporary writings and discourse. Part of this is because individuals need to know of Her, at the most rudimentary level, to even know that that they can seek to develop a personal relationship with Her through individual revelation. Despite having grown up in the Church, I didn’t really internalize Her existence until I was 19: http://www.the-exponent.com/how-old-were-you-when-you-first-learned-about-heavenly-mother/. Mention of Her would really help.

  13. V. Peterson says:

    In answer to your question I say, “She is right under you your feet.” 🙂 She has been there all along for everyone. Always giving, always supporting. Rejoicing when we rejoice. Weeping when we are sad and broken-hearted. She has her own religious followers but She was never meant to be worshipped. She was meant to be loved back, respected, listened too and cared for in return. She is one of my greatest teachers, one of my greatest comforts. I have run to her in all the tragic moments of my life. Mother Earth. Quite literally.

  1. September 25, 2013

    […] felt for a long time afterward, because I knew that we could talk about our Heavenly Mother, but did not hear that speech when I went to church on Sunday. After one particular Relief Society lesson, I understood 1) how desperately I needed to hear […]

  2. August 12, 2015

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  3. January 21, 2016

    […] some of us wonder….”Where’s her mother?” We think that all too-often, don’t we? Oh, there she is! A few pews back, arms reverently folded as she strains to hear […]

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