The flower-and-chocolate trade has been in full spate as Mother’s Day is used to plug the nasty retail gap between St Valentine and Easter. All over the country, stereotypically inept husbands and small children wrestle with toasters as they aim for the perfect breakfast-in-bed for the woman of their lives. Motherhood is honoured, as in millions of kindly acts we say thank you to those who have borne us, and quite probably done most of the nurturing, too.
The English Church has historically taken a wider view of this day, seeing ‘Mothering Sunday’ as an opportunity to focus not only on our own mothers, but also on our ‘mother’ the Church, and on Mother Mary. Biologically the Lord’s mother, Mary is by pious adoption the mother of all humanity, the lowly one whom all generations will call ‘blessed’ (Luke 1.48).
But such mother-talk is at best ambiguous, at worst obsolete, at least in the New Testament. Unlike John, who happily depicts the disciple sharing a home with Mary after the crucifixion (John 19.27), the synoptics are less willing to accord her any unequivocal position of honour (‘My mother, brother, sister are those who do the will of my Father,’ says Jesus a little huffily —Mark 3.35; Matthew 12.49; Luke 8.21). Perhaps this is the voice of the far-flung Apostolic Church reminding his blood relatives (notably in Jerusalem?) that belonging to Christ is not through blood but baptism — a lesson the Church of England, with its dainty devotion to ‘family life’, still tries hard to forget. It was with good reason that the mediaeval Church emphasised the role not of parents but of godparents, not simply officers of nature but signals and witnesses of divine adoption and new life.
As for ‘Mother Church’, the notion of a maidenly global gaggle, even one protected by the Spirit’s outstretched wings, is one that might easily grate. ‘Reveal her unity’? Guard her faith’ (Prayer G)? Surely, for better or worse, ‘we’ are the church, and we had better say so. Not driven sheep or sheltered chicks: just people, baptised. Perhaps when we’ve had a thousand years of leadership from people who aren’t straight white men, we may be able to revisit the idea of Church as Bride and Mother, but for now these metaphors represent (and maybe even cloak) such an unjust reality for half the world’s population that their use requires vast numbers of footnotes and riders, and might for now be best abandoned.
Secular Mother’s Day is also far from uncontroversial. In addition to those who find the day difficult because of various sorts of maternal experience given, received or denied, there are many social matters to address. Who best provides children with the love they need, and what sort of domestic arrangements best secure it? Solving that question brings the left and the right in their boxing gloves striding towards the ring. For some, the one thing needful is the love and security children require to grow and prosper. Who gives it (and in what combinations of committed carers — two mums, a dad and a grandma, whatever) is inconsequential. For others, only a man and wife spliced together in holy wedlock can be entrusted with the task, and no number of child cruelty stories begin to shake that fundamental view.
So should Mother’s Day be shelved until we have greater consensus? By no means. We have all been carried by a mother and, no matter how that child-bearing was experienced, we should be grateful to her or to any others who have shown us a mother’s love. It is something to celebrate, without reinforcing gender stereotypes or claiming to identify spurious complementarities between the sexes.
Some mothers will have inspired the admiration of their children by a gentle constancy at home, always ready to feed, bandage or celebrate as appropriate. Others will have been remarkable for resilience and determination in the professional sphere, by labour and ability resourcing their family’s life, freeing husbands or partners to stay at home with the sewing and the school run. Still others will not have been mothers at all. Yet, by accepting (like Mary) an unlooked-for role, they have come to be loved like a mother by their unintended children. Relations and friends, old and young, men and women: they have all with indefatigable love assumed as a willing responsibility of care that which was first known as a biological need to suckle. And now love calls out to love in the ungovernable joy of gratitude.
Some people inevitably paint any social change in colours of deep perturbation. But, more cheerily, I find this particular move away from sexual and gender-governed expectation to be wonderfully liberating. It seems to be evidence of humanity at our best, when we receive what evolution bequeaths us, and evolve it further in response to our needs and legitimate desires. Although motherhood has been for centuries a prime opportunity for malign collusion between biology and culture (learning to mistreat women because we could: the loathsome ‘barefoot in winter, pregnant in summer’ trope), we are finding surely better ways of providing for the perpetuation of our species and recognising the delightful diversity of human love and the scope it gives for permanent, faithful and stable relationships. Alas, we are still scoring negligibly on the violence and ecology papers (so ‘perpetuating the species’ suddenly looks a more questionable act), and we must aim to do urgently and significantly better.
If hardship and sorrow are ever present, we need the guidance, affirmation and support of mothers of either sex, those who know us well, and are committed to us for the long haul. There are relationships that can afford to be virtual, trivial, temporary. But this isn’t one of them. It has to be right. And where nature has failed to provide, inventive humanity must make good the lack.
‘Man hands on misery to man,’ says Philip Larkin. ‘It deepens like a coastal shelf.’ With his analysis we might be content to agree, but his solution is grim and wayward. ‘Get out,’ he says, ‘as early as you can, and don’t have any kids yourself.’
The way to make global progress is not by abstaining from living in committed relationship, but by being boldly involved. For most of us, love will not be particularly heroic or newsworthy, but will be made up of small daily kindnesses, like breakfast on a tray. But even these most basic acts are mother-and-father to new beginnings: they warm hearts till stone turns to flesh. Any kindness communicates the stuff of God, and that’s why Mother’s Day matters. I pray you’ll have a good one, whatever your circumstances.