Anna Jarvis is credited with “inventing” mothers day back in 1908, and it became an official US holiday in 1914. Shortly thereafter, Anna, realizing what the day had become, spent the rest of her life fighting against what she considered her enormous mistake. (footnote) She fought to abolish the holiday not just because of the pain it brings out in so many people, she realized that it had become just another reason to sell flowers and expensive greeting cards. Mother’s day had turned into another pointless commercial endeavor. I’m all for making a buck; the thorny issue is the agonizing emotional pain this day can bring.
Few holidays elicit such an immediate and emotional response as Mother’s Day. Father’s Day? Yawn. Presidents Day? Big deal. Fourth of July? A BBQ, big whoop. Thanksgiving is bigger than most holidays but not exactly an emotional event. Mother’s Day brings along a tangled string of emotional responses in almost anyone. When one hears the word “mother” it’s part of our shared human experience to have memories ripple through our minds, some loving, some not so loving, but the memories are almost never without deep sentiments.
The mother-child relationship is one of the strongest and most important in our lives, for that reason, it is so celebrated. Because it can be so remarkable, it makes sense that is can also be one of the most painful and damaging of relationships when it goes wrong. For a large percentage of the population, the emotions that this day brings forth are a long way from joy. For anyone involved in ministry, it’s important to be acutely aware of the land-mines this holiday places all around us.
Writing here as one who runs a large orphanage, you can imagine the pain Mother’s Day can bring out in the children in our care. We stopped attending church in our town on Mother’s Day years ago because it was just too agonizing. For our children to attend a service dedicated to honoring mothers, it brought up way too much baggage. They would sit there and listen to how wonderful all the mothers in the church were, they would watch as flowers were passed out to the mothers present, and they would sit quietly holding back the tears. Besides church, every year our kids have to participate in the public school’s Mother’s Day program knowing their biological mothers will never see it. They watch other children being hugged by their mothers and wonder what they did wrong to make their own mothers abandon them. Our staff here does a phenomenal job of loving and caring for the children in our home, but it can still be a very complicated and painful few days around here.
It’s not just the orphaned who suffer through this day. For women who have lost children through illness or accidents, Mother’s Day is a vivid, annual reminder of their tragedy and the dull pain that radiates through their lives. While others are celebrating motherhood, they are mourning the graduations, weddings, and all life’s events they will never see their children experience. Along with the many mothers who’ve lost children, are the 20% of women who, for medical and various other reason, will never have children. Society still tells women they are not complete unless they have offspring, for many, this is not within their control.
For many people, Mother’s Day is a painful reminder that the women who gave birth to them failed at motherhood. Not every mother is Mrs. Brady; not every mother is the ideal that we celebrate. Too many mothers abandon their children, too many are mentally or physically abusive. Too many mothers have drug or alcohol problems or just don’t care. For anyone raised by a women who should never have had children, this day is a painful reminder that they never had a normal childhood. They were never held when they were scared; they were never read to at night, the tooth fairy never came. Not a lot to celebrate here, just an aching void where their childhood should be.
So, what are we supposed to do if we have a church, school, or some other organization that needs to acknowledge this upcoming day? Honor all those mothers who get it right, who have sacrificed so much to raise their children in a loving, healthy way. Encourage them, recognize them, shower them with the admiration they deserve. The mother-child relationship can be a profound, wonderful, literally life-changing experience. The mother-child bond is incredible, and it should be celebrated when it’s done right. BUT, please do so in a way that is sensitive to those in the room that dread this Sunday in May every year.
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