Mother's DayI don’t generally go to sacrament meeting on Mother’s Day. That’s not an accident or omission; I have purposely stayed away.

I’ve made my peace with some parts of Mother’s Day. I certainly love the cards and the breakfast-in-bedness of it all. What I have a rough time with are the platitudes, often laid on fast and thick at church, about a generic, idealized motherhood and womanhood.

The complication with Mother’s Day and church is that motherhood often is what the greeting cards say: it is life-changing, it is a gift from God, it is a great blessing.

But the greeting cards don’t quite acknowledge the other sides of the story. There’s the difficulty of it, the sheer exhaustion, the 24/7ness of it.

Some women don’t get to be mothers at all. Some have lost a child; others have children but feel inadequate in their care.

Some of us are angry and disappointed that we have a Mother in Heaven we don’t know enough about and aren’t supposed to pray to, on Mother’s Day or any other.

It doesn’t help when well-meaning people, in the face of the pain that litters the minefield that is Mother’s Day, often resort to generalities and platitudes.

But this is a mistake.

What can save the Mother’s Day church experience are flesh-and-blood stories of broken people doing their very best.

As uncomfortable as I become when I hear womanhood or motherhood praised with no real-life context, I delight in hearing people talk about their own mothers. We have all been mothered, whether we were lucky enough to receive nurturing from our own biological mothers or from other women who, like the biblical Anna, positioned themselves in our lives at key points.

A few years ago someone in Relief Society asked me to share something my mother had taught me that I would never forget. I think she was aiming for a tidy life lesson or a spiritual thought, but what I passed along was this: Always put a little dollop of honey in the spaghetti sauce.

The other sister laughed and then said, “No, really, what did your mother teach you that you will never forget?”

I repeated, slowly and stubbornly, “Always put a little dollop of honey in the spaghetti sauce.

I knew intuitively that my mother would want me to keep it real, to be specific, to bring her down from that pedestal.

I have wonderfully specific memories of my mother caring for me. Like the time in high school when I had to pull my first-ever all-nighter to write a paper on Jane Austen, and my mom made popcorn and stayed up too.

Or the time when my nonreligious mother was a direct answer to prayer, walking in the back door just moments after I started violently throwing up one morning during my senior year of high school. She said she’d just had a feeling that she needed to turn the car back around not long after she had left for work, so she headed home instead.

But my mom was also flawed. She sometimes had a temper (at least back then), was a lousy housekeeper, and had a whole matching set of baggage that came from growing up with an alcoholic dad.

Such brokenness didn’t make her less inspiring; it made her more so.

This Mother’s Day in church, I want us to keep it real. I’ve talked with enough Mormon women to know I’m not alone in this. I’m so uncomfortable with lavish sayings like “all women are [insert hyperbole here]” or “women are so much more ___ than men.”

The more I hear those kinds of extravagant expressions about motherhood, the smaller I become.

Instead, tell me about your mother, or someone who was a mother to you. Tell me both the good and the bad, and how knowing that particular woman brought you closer to the heart of God.

And please don’t extrapolate from that example that ALL women are (spiritual/nurturing/loving/angelic) because one person was for you. The last thing Mormon women need is more platitudes.

31 Comments

  1. Kate Holbrook

    Thank you, Jana. Thank you. First I am sad that a Relief Society member would so underestimate the power of a useful cooking tip. Second, can I add a grievance? I suffer when people unwittingly derogate women while attempting to praise their own mothers. “Unlike other women, MY mother was spunky. MY mother stood up for herself. MY mother was smart and well-educated. MY mother loved to read.” In doing so they make it sound like most mothers are illiterate doormats.

  2. The Jane Austen paper story and the story about your mom walking in the back door when you were throwing up are great examples of the sorts of things I tend to hear from Mormons on Mother’s Day. Simple examples of how someone’s mom means a lot to them. Naturally, I also hear stories of a spiritual nature.

    Admittedly, I don’t normally hear people telling stories about cooking advice or about how their mom had a temper, at least not on Mother’s Day. We all know those things about moms, but I think most of us feel like Mother’s Day is a time to get past the prosaic and to talk about the more sensitive things.

    Maybe this has less to do with you being real and other people expressing platitudes, and more to do with you being uncomfortable with expression that is sweet, sensitive and kindly.

  3. My RS asked me to give the lesson on Mother’s Day, specifically because I am an adoptive single mom with a special needs child and they wanted to hear my perspective. I was surprised and have been feeling a little inadequate, but reading your post made me realize that maybe my story is a good one to tell on Mother’s Day. Mothering has not been easy, fun, happy, or full of joyful moments…but it has taught me to love and to not judge any other mothers.

    • That’s wonderful! Good luck. Some people might judge you for speaking “platitudes”, but you should not feel inadequate. One of the Mother’s Day talks I remember most in my life was from a mother who was unable to bear children, but had recently been able to adopt a daughter she had taken in as a foster daughter. Much of what she said could have been described as “generalities” by cynical listeners, but the purity of her spirit and the witness of her love of motherhood was what really came through.

      • Rhett- If an individual gets up there and talks from the heart using general statements and such, that’s one thing. The problem that we see in the LDS church with mother’s day speakers is that in my experience they’re mostly males and they don’t want to talk about anything resembling reality. Yeah yeah yeah we get it, being a mother (or father) is great as a whole. Let’s talk about the real mom, the one who prays nightly for forgiveness because she feels guilty about yelling at her kids. Talk about the mom who, in spite of her best efforts to prevent one of her kids from taking his or her particular faith journey, really guides that child because they have to decide beforehand if this faith is something they’re willing to alienate their mother. Mothers are REAL people and we need to hear about that, not the idealized mannequin mothers that we usually hear about on Mother’s Day.

  4. Thank you for this, Jana. You perfectly captured why so many of struggle with Mother’s Day. Not because we don’t like being mothers, but because we don’t like the over-sentimentalizing of our roles that diminishes our unique struggles, joys, and talents, and our rights to NOT be perfect mothers, and to feel okay with ourselves for it.

  5. Thank you for this, Jana. Last year on Mother’s Day there was a babe inside of me, and this year will be the first year where I have a babe outside, that is mine, so the day is definitely on my mind.

    My mom came to every track meet I ever had, climbed into my bed next to me when I had a difficult day and needed to talk, and let me eat ice cream and wear a tiara when I stayed home sick. She also had/has a bit of a temper, can’t turn left when driving (akin to Zoolander), and gets anxious easily (which third trait I inherited).

  6. Mette Harrison

    My mom’s advice to me:
    1. Never wear green with purple.
    2. Always keep candy and a nook in your purse.
    3. When your husband moves, go with him.
    She raised 11 children, taught us to live reading, but left me w a legacy of confusion about male and female roles.

  7. Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Mother’s Day is not a religious event based on a biblical commandment. It is an American custom like Memorial Day and Labor Day and the Fourth of July or Scout Sunday. It is not Christmas or Easter, or Pioneer Day (July 24). There is nothing uniquely Mormon about it. What do other churches, synagogues, etc. do on Mother’s Day?

    The only two things that I can definitely expect on a Mother’s Day Sunday is a song by the Primary children, and one speaker mentioning the story of the 2000 young Ammonite warriors from the Book of Mormon, who testified that their faith that God would be with them if they were faithful, was taught to them by their mothers, saying “We do not doubt our mothers knew it.” It is told usually with little appreciation for how dire the situation was for those young men about to go into battle for the first time. Even more, there is limited consideration of why those young men were certain of the faith of their mothers. I have seldom heard a speaker using that story talk about how those young men were children when their fathers and older brothers, refusing to take up arms even in defense of their families, walked out in the face of certain death, and the possibility of the death of their wives and children, as they were being attacked by their fellow Lamanites who were angry over their joining a “Nephite” church. Supporting their husbands, and reassuring their children that God would be with them in their extremity, is a level of faith that is a high bar for any mother or father. It is comparable to some of the experiences of Mormon mothers in the early history of the Church in times of persecution and the pioneer migrations, including the many who became widows or whose husbands went off on missions in foreign lands. Hearing about such real heroines is not a bad thing to do at least one day a year.

    Since we depend on our felow members to give the talks in Sacrament Meeting on Mother’s Day (and every other day), perhaps we can hope that those in your own ward will read your blog and think about how they can make their narratives more personal and memorable and worthwhile for everyone, including you, Jana. Better yet, perhaps your bishopric will read this and ask you to give one of those talks as an example of how it can be done. ;-)

    • Jana Riess

      Actually, after I blogged about Mother’s Day in 2012, the counselor in the bishopric came up to me during Primary to tell me, “I wish you had been here in sacrament meeting! I printed out your article and gave it to all the speakers so they would know what NOT to say.” I was floored! And very touched by his obvious efforts to make Mother’s Day a better experience at church for as many diverse women as possible. What a kind man.

  8. My mother gave me poetry appreciation, a love of music, a need for running, joy in doing family history and was also a great example of why you should pay attention when cooking. She almost burned down the house several times. Did you know you can burn a boiling egg? She also taught me about turning to the Lord in prayer, listening to the spirit, and the reality of help from our ancestors. On the flip side, I heard my first swear words from her and have worked to conquer an explosive temper I learned from her also. I struggle with similar problems as she does and have similar strengths. I am grateful for all she did to give me a pretty awesome childhood and all she does now to support me while I attempt the crazy journey that is motherhood. I’ve made peace with my past and forgiven her for not being perfect. She pretty much never says sorry and is never wrong. I’ve accepted that as part of who she is now, though occasionally it can still cause hurt. I love her fiercely and wouldn’t switch moms with anyone.

  9. This brought a surprising flood of emotions to the surface. My Mom died when I was four, and there was not a more uncomfortable place in the world growing up than church on Mother’s Day. It was always a harsh reminder of the seemingly ever patient, ever amazingly domestic, perfect woman who I never really got to know, but was taught through cultural mishaps to idolize and put on a pedestal (and to be like!). In my adult life I have wanted nothing more than to know and imagine her as the imperfect mother, and woman she was. It can be a difficult environment to really let ourselves be simply human in… But the beautiful things about life and motherhood, ARE the messy moments, the struggles for self and meaning, and the diverse and imperfect ways in which we all go about it. We learn as we go. We don’t know all just because we birth a child.

  10. Do I understand your post correctly? You will not be attending church on Mother’s Day, nor have you for several years, denying yourself the chance to partake of the sacrament and to have the chance to genuinely wish your fellow sisters – both young and old – a Happy Mother’s Day, as well as letting others do the same to you because they are imperfect in how they compliment you by NOT mentioning the imperfections of what it is to be a mother?

    Hum. That is sad to me and incredibly flawed thinking. The truth is I can’t remember the last time I heard a platitude in church about Motherhood. I find that most people who prepare their talks are quite thoughtful and sincere even if they speak from the perspective of awe and praise and fail to raise awareness of woman’s brokenness.

    I do agree with your idea of making sure we appreciate all the parts of motherhood in church, out of church, on Mother’s Day and on any other day for that matter. For all of the many joys I find from it, it’s grueling, heart-wrenching, and brings me to my knees often. I’m getting fairly “perfect” in saying to my children, “Oops, Mom just blew that. Can we start that again?” In fact, if I had a quarter for how many times I said this sentence in this past week alone – I would be on a sweet vacation right now.

    But for all my many imperfections and flaws, I have moments where I really can nail it! I can be downright awesome. I score major Mom points. And I also know for all my mistakes- I’m teaching my children solid true principles and values that will take them to great places in life.

    So I will be at church tomorrow with my celebration bells on. I will wish my many sisters a genuine Happy Mother’s Day. I will take every compliment and statement of gratitude that comes my way and lather it on me like lotion. I will also take any woman’s story that highlights a characteristic that I’m not so great at and say to myself – as I do whenever I hear a story of someone who excels in some aspect that I can learn from – “I’d like to rip a page out of her book and try learning that great skill.”

    And should I have someone who hands me a platitude – I will do what my great mother taught me I am clearly capable of doing. I will smile graciously and say “Thank You.”

    • Jana Riess

      Good for you, Jennifer, and I mean that sincerely. I’m glad that there is no sense of disconnect for you at church on Mother’s Day. It is not always that way for many other women.

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