In less than two weeks North Americans will celebrate Mother’s Day, a holiday that is not part of the historical church liturgy. It’s a great day for Hallmark and for restaurants. And for a lot of families. But it’s also often the worst day of the year for infertile women. For them going to a house of worship on this holiday can feel more like going to the house of mourning.
During the decade in which my husband and I experienced infertility treatment, lost multiple pregnancies, and endured three failed adoptions, I found it difficult enough to see all the corsages on M-Day. But then, as if to shine the spotlight on some of us who wished to remain inconspicuous, all mothers were asked to stand. Some years, a leader would even call for the oldest and then the youngest mother to be acknowledged…smiling awkwardly when a sixteen-year-old stood. On such occasions I would sit wondering about God’s mysterious ways of supply and demand. Following most such services, each woman with children would receive a carnation as she headed out the door. But to claim her prize, first she had to answer a qualifying question: “Are you a mother?”
On a number of occasions, however, I experienced Mothers’ Day as a day of grace. On the one following my first miscarriage, a message in the church bulletin said, “The altar flowers today are given with love and acknowledgement of all the babies of this church who were conceived on earth but born in heaven and for all who have experienced this loss.” The couple who dedicated these flowers and wrote those tear-evoking words had six children, and through their validation of our pain, we caught a glimpse of the one who is acquainted with grief. The husband crossed the aisle and stood by my husband during the music. And with tears streaming down our faces, we found new strength to bring our sacrifices of praise.
On another Mother’s Day, I really wrestled with staying home. I wanted to avoid making my friends feel survivor guilt, knowing moms deserve every moment of recognition they get. Plus, I loathe weeping in public. But I sensed the Spirit nudging me, assuring me that he’d meet me halfway if I’d just show up. So I decided I’d go—but skip singing in the choir, exchanging the public loft for a private seat in the shadows of the balcony. Way in the back. Where I could cry if I needed to do so without drawing any attention to myself or worrying about pitying eyes.
But as I slid into the sanctuary that morning, the choir was belting out their rehearsal of “Ride on, King Jesus!” And despite my best efforts to hide, friends in the alto section spotted me. They stopped singing and called out, arms motioning, “Hey! C’mon! Join us! You belong up here.” Suddenly, all bass, tenor, alto, and soprano eyes fixed on me. Plus the director’s. And no one would take “no” for an answer. But to my surprise, instead of feeling pressured, I felt wanted. And honestly? That song about the great gettin’ up morning when God will wipe away all tears came as a gift straight from the Holy Spirit.
On several Mother’s Days, the pastoral prayer has included requests that on this special day God would bless the motherless children, those bereft of mothers, mothers estranged from their children, offspring estranged from mothers, infertile women, and those who wish to become mothers but must wait on God’s timing. Apparently someone figured out that about half the church was mourning along with the celebration. On such occasions I felt known.
One year during Mothers’ Day events, I was with a mission team in Culiacán, Sinaloa, Mexico. A man stood at the door after the service handing out carnations to all the mothers. Having heard that my husband I had just experienced another pregnancy loss, he took one look at me through misty eyes and thrust into my hands his entire bouquet.
One of my nieces calls the holiday “mothering day.” In this way she broadens the meaning, making it inclusive enough to include all who nurture. And this re-labeling is consistent with Scripture.
“Who is my mother…?” our Lord asked, before stating that those who do his will are family. Indeed, in this family the person without a mother finds mothers in Christ. The parent without children finds children in Christ. Families of one and of twenty all find a broader family in Christ, where Spirit is thicker than blood.
My mourning on M-Day was not because I wished in any way to diminish our honoring of mothers for the thankless work they do. I myself have one of the best moms on the planet, and it is my joy to honor her. I wished only for the Body of Christ to find ways to acknowledge our mothers’ sacrifices without adding to the grief of those who mourn.
This year on the second Sunday in May, we have the opportunity once again to minister both to the one in six couples who experience infertility and to the rest of those who experience Mother’s Day as a day of grief. In the time we have between now and then, let us plan ahead to make it a day of grace. Because while the preacher in Ecclesiastes said it is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting (Eccl. 7:2), it is also better if that house of mourning is full of those who love well with the arms and tear ducts of Christ, and in so doing remind the mourning of what is true: they belong, they are not alone, and one day he will wipe away every tear.