Sweet But Not Saccharine
call to worship (here)
Mothers Day can be tricky. It is a complicated one for ministers because people’s emotions tend to be all over the map about this holiday. How can we make this time sweet but not overly saccharine? How can we honor the mothers among us and still be respectful of those who may be carrying deep scars that this holiday can rip open?
Our reading this morning addressed some of those issues, but not all of them.
When it first began, Mother’s day was much simpler and perhaps even more controversial. Julia Howe wrote her Mother’s Day Proclamation, which we read earlier, in 1870 as part of a “Mother’s Day for Peace.” Howe was an abolitionist, a feminist, and a Unitarian. She also wrote the words to the Battle Hymn of the Republic.
Howe’s Mother’s Day for Peace was the beginning of what has evolved into our current Mother’s Day. I don’t think she would recognize it, however. It has really changed.
Mother’s Day is complicated because being a mother, or a parent of any gender, is complicated. Most mothers, myself included, love their children deeply and want to do their very best for them. They want to be the absolutely perfect Mom or Dad and to be acknowledged as such by their child or children. Parenting is hard work, and it is nice to get a thank you at least once a year.
Poetry and flowers, candy and breakfast in bed, all of that can be fun and good.
But does anyone really measure up to all of that perfection, to the ideal that is the cultural sentiment on this day. Sweet mothers, saintly mothers, always-patient mothers, anyone really like that here?
Even if you don’t count the really terrible mothers, and there are too many of those in this world, most of us just do the best we can. It may be good enough; it may be just fine. We may be sweet in general, but we are not really made of the saccharine sappy stuff we read on greeting cards.
Sometimes the images expressed around Mother’s Day remind me of that old nursery rhyme I heard rather a lot growing up.
It goes something like this:
What are little boys made of?
What are little boys made of?
Snips and snails
And puppy-dogs’ tails,
That’s what little boys are made of.
What are little girls made of?
What are little girls made of?
Sugar and spice
And everything nice,
That’s what little girls are made of
That’s pretty sexist isn’t it? Little girls are made of much more than sugar and spice and so are adult women. We all have a few puppy dog tails in us too.
Most of you have heard by now of the girls who have been kidnapped from their schools by terrorists in Nigeria. It wasn’t an accident. The group, a religiously fundamentalist one, believes that educating girls is sinful. They think women should just get married and have children and that motherhood is not only the highest calling for women, but the only calling that is even acceptable. This particular group happens to also be Muslim, but there are many Christian denominations that do not believe in giving girls and women equality with men. It is all just a matter of degree.
So Mother’s Day is making me a little more thoughtful this year as I think of those girls, the very brightest from their villages, still being held captive and likely to be sold as child brides.
Being a mother is special, but it should not be sum total of any woman’s life or sense of self worth. It is often said that a mother would die for her children, and that is true in my experience for most of us. The love can be that deep. It does not mean, however, even if you would leap in front of a speeding car to save your child, that your own life has no meaning beyond your role as a mother.
Those of you in this room know that, it is the kind of life you lead and have led. Even if you don’t work outside of your home, you have a sense of who you are that is separate from your children.
So can we say that motherhood is great, that it is a calling, but it is not one that all women must choose in order to be seen as having a worthwhile life? I think we can say that.
Another nursery rhyme:
There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.
She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do;
She gave them some broth without any bread;
Then whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.
What do you think about that one? Does it give you a good Mother’s Day feeling?
There is some reality there. If you have a lot of children, sometimes you don’t know what to do. I only had three and really can’t imagine have 5 or 8.
Maybe I can, though, after all some of you call me Mother Theresa, and while I don’t think of the adults here as children, I do kind of mother you as your minister. No one ever gets too old to not sometimes enjoy a dose of motherly love and caring.
It is hard to take care of children, to have the resources to feed and clothe them. So the old women fed them broth and no bread.
I am not very fond of the line about whipping them and sending them to bed. I frankly don’t think physical punishment works well for children. There are better methods of discipline. I do understand the urge to spank a child, however.
A story from my own life:
As I said, I have three children. The older boy and the girl were very easy and cooperative when they were young. (I am not going to talk about what they were like as teenagers – that is a different story.) Our youngest son, however, was difficult. His twin sister had a bald spot when they were about two, because he kept pulling her hair. We tried time outs. We tried taking away things. We always put him in the front of the stroller so he couldn’t reach his sister.
He also hit his older brother, who never hit him back. Once, while traveling in Canada, in Jasper National Park, our youngest son, who was about 4, ran over, for no reason that we could figure out, and slugged his 8 year old brother hard in the face.
I lost it. I grabbed him and spanked him. He was enraged and would not say why he had done what he had done.
Did the spanking work? No, not really, although I do think it made his siblings feel like I would protect them.
What actually worked happened a couple of years later. Maybe it was partly just growing up. He was in the first grade and really wanted a file cabinet. He grew up to be a CPA so it makes some sense now, although we thought it a bit odd then.
We made a deal with him. If he could go for a full 30 days without hitting his sister or brother, we would buy him a filing cabinet. He went a few days, and then he hit one of them. Uh oh, he then had another 30 days to wait.
He got his file cabinet eventually and in the process learned that hitting should never be the first reaction.
I tell that story, because our kids had two mothers, and both of us did the best we could, but in reality we were just muddling through. I spanked him that time because nothing else seemed to work. That didn’t work either. You just have to keep on keeping on with the parenting thing, doing the best you can. Don’t feel too bad if you make mistakes. It is also OK to apologize to your children when you do. They need to learn that their parents are human too.
Love can be fierce, my friends. It is not always the sentimental, self-sacrificing, self-effacing, love that is portrayed on greetings cards. Love, deep love, is bold and courageous. It isn’t saccharine but it has a rich sweetness.
There is mama bear love and papa bear love. It is protective. It doesn’t stand by when someone is suffering. It doesn’t look away when there is injustice. It nurtures, it cherishes the uniqueness of other human souls, treating them with the dignity and respect we all deserve.
You don’t have to be a parent to practice this kind of love, although many parents feel this way about their children.
That is another thing that is often left out of the traditional messages delivered on Mother’s Day.
Yes, it is a blessing to have a mother, a parent, an older friend or relative who loves and cares for you when you are vulnerable, when you feel afraid and alone. It is a blessing we should be grateful for if it is something we have or have had in our lives.
The relatively unspoken side of this equation is that it is also a blessing to be the giver of that kind of love. We should also be thanking our children for the privilege of parenting them.
So now, let us all say a big thank you in our hearts. Thank you to all who have loved and cared for us and another thank you to all who have allowed us to love and care for them. Love is a circle, without beginning or end.
We can love all the precious children, no matter where they live in this troubled world. We can try to care for them, to help them grow up strong, smart, and tall and without fear.
We can love all of our elders: we can care for them and appreciate the wisdom they still have to offer. We can love and care for our Mother Earth. We can love and nurture the mother spirit that lives within us all, that heals us and makes us whole.
So whatever your feelings are today try and accept them for what they are. You might be missing a mother who has died. You might feel sorrow because the mother you had was not able to be the one you needed. You might have regrets about the kind of mother you have been. Mother’s day is complicated. Take in the sweetness of it as well as what is bittersweet. Most of all, try to love who you are and what your life has been like. Celebrate the fact that we are all human. We all have that very human gift that is the ability to change and to grow. And if you are going out to for a Mother’s Day brunch, have a wonderful time.