How We Remember Our Mothers

Please visit our YouTube channel to watch Rev. Maureen’s video recording of this reflection.

Good morning. Today is Mother’s Day and I understand this month’s theme for Somerset Hills is acceptance. Whether you are a child or an adult child of a mom, a grandmother, or you are like a mom or grandmother to someone, today is the day to savor those relationships. And yes, also, to accept them as they are. And if you are one of many whose mom, grandmother, or mother-like relationship has passed, today is a day you can set aside and appreciate those relationships, but in a more reflective manner. I know a number of members of this congregation have lost their mom this year. The loss of a mom can be the hardest personal loss to endure because of the complexity of the mom/child, mom/adult child relationship. Our moms seem to make us whole. They anchor us. It is the relationship of someone who has known you the longest and has likely provided unending physical and emotional nurturing, and, hopefully, a relationship that has provided you with deep love, affection and joy. But probably your relationship with your mom included anger, frustration, tears, anxiety, and emotional pain. 

Mother’s Day is the day we set aside to honor our mothers, but it is also a day when we grieve the mothers we lost. There are many contending stories for the beginning of Mother’s Day and I like them all. Mother’s Day and Mothering Day anecdotes can be found in the Christian bible and Greek civilization. But the story for us in America that has the strongest lineage is the story we heard earlier and it came from loss. It was largely Anna Jarvis who established the tradition of honoring our mothers out of her own grief for her mother. In this version of the story, the first official Mother’s Day was celebrated at St. Andrew’s Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia, on May 10, 1908. 

During the 19th century, women’s peace groups in the United States tried to establish holidays and regular activities in favor of peace and against war. A common early activity was the meeting of groups of mothers whose sons had fought or died on opposite sides of the Civil War. 

It was Anna Jarvis’s mother, who in 1868 organized a committee to establish a “Mothers’ Friendship Day,” “to reunite families that had been divided during the Civil War.” She established women’s work clubs to improve sanitation and health for both Union and Confederate troupes experiencing a typhoid outbreak. She wanted to expand these activities into an annual memorial for mothers, but she died in 1905 before the annual celebration was established. It was her daughter Anna who continued her mother’s efforts.

But Mother’s Day soon became commercialized by the greeting card and flower industries. Anna, the daughter, resisted those developments to the point where she even tried to rescind Mother’s Day. In her later years she was institutionalized and died in a sanitarium. Ironically, her bills were paid for by the flower and greeting card industries. She never became a mother herself. 

Soon the government got into the act, and in 1914 President Woodrow Wilson established Mother’s Day “as a public expression of love and reverence for the mothers of our country.”

It seems to me that the complexity of establishing Mother’s Day in our country is similar to the complexity of our memories of our mothers as we mature and deepen. President Wilson expressed ‘”love and reverence for mothers,” almost a Madonna effect. Yet as we’ve seen from the results of the pandemic, our culture and our government has not manifested that public expression of love and reverence for mothers in terms of the support they need. 

Similarly, while we may want to remember our mothers without reproach, our memories of our mothers can be full of guilt and unresolved emotions if we ourselves have not fully developed.

Many women my age, who themselves are now seasoned moms and grandmothers, have more freedom to remember their moms with more candid, less glamorized reflections. In addition to their love and their grief for their moms, they also remember bitter fights during adolescence, tears, disappointment, anger, and emotional toxicity. When matured women speak more openly of mom memories, their memories may also include mental illness, sleeping pills, and alcohol as pieces of puzzled childhoods. We recognize our moms’ missed opportunities of college and career advancement because they were mothering us. We recognize the doors that were not open to them because they were women. And in all of that, we recognize our own lived lives. We know the sting of having to stop college or graduate school because of a pregnancy or sick child, not being promoted over men, not getting paid on par, and working endless, sleepless hours to keep up. We didn’t have wives or someone at home to get it all done. As a result, we didn’t mother as we would have liked to have. As we intended. We too have regrets. Some of us want to ask for forgiveness. That too is motherhood.

As a chaplain, I sit with people at the bedside when they are seriously ill. Truth is close to the surface. I hear regrets of mothers and fathers of estranged children or damaged relationships, the wish to do it differently. The poet and author David Whyte writes about regret this way: 

“It may be that a true, useful regret is not a possibility or province of youth; it takes a hard-won maturity to experience the depths of regret in ways that do not overwhelm and debilitate us but put us into a proper, more generous relationship with the future. . . for experiencing timelessness with a grandchild where we neglected a boy of our own. . . .fully experienced, regret turns [us]. . . to a future possibly lived better than our past.”

In having candid reflections, telling our stories, and reframing our memories, we develop the capacity to forgive and to heal our mom-relationships. We see them as us, perhaps as peers, perhaps as friends experiencing a similar life. Even when our moms are gone. Because forgiveness isn’t a matter of forgetting and letting bygones be bygones, but an act of compassion that comes with maturity. With maturity we recognize our own humanness and shortcomings. And when we can forgive and have compassion for ourselves, we expand into the larger field of experience that years provide. We can allow ourselves to benefit from a story larger than the one we’ve been festering and honing for years… to one that includes our own story. 

Eventually, once we expand our identity to be one that forgives, we can begin to assume a defenseless posture, take inventory of our own humanness, and easily ask for forgiveness that doesn’t include a defensive position.

A friend sent me a Facebook post going around, a picture of a mom and child at the shoreline. The inscription reads: “To my children, I’m sorry for the unhealed parts of me that in turn hurt you. It was never a lack of love for you. Only a lack of love for myself.” 

As a child, I attended a good number of family funerals with my mom and dad; my brothers didn’t go. I was the empath. And the behaved one. I was 12 when my Aunt Marion died, and I clearly remember the minister saying that of course we attend funerals to respect the dead, but we listen to hear and think how we will be remembered when we die; we want those present at our funerals to remember us as kind and loving, generous, and unendingly compassionate, especially to our loved ones. 

For those of us who get to be grandparents, we have the opportunity to have Grandmother mind, the grandmother wisdom heart of compassion. We’re not burdened with the nuts and bolts and logistics of parenting. We’ve been through it; we can sit back a bit and take a more relaxed, wholesome approach to our loving.  

But parenting is hard. Alan DeButton speaks about being a parent as something one would not consciously ponder if it were analyzed from a rational perspective, particularly if one considered how it affected our marriages… especially during the early years when you are in survival mode. He says, however, that as we age we find that our capacity and desire to nurture expands. We decide to be mothers and fathers.

And yet many don’t. Our country is (not alone in) experiencing a long decline in birth rates; 2019 was the lowest number of births in 32 years and that was BEFORE the pandemic. And we now know that the expected baby boom from the pandemic may be a bust. Why? It’s not so hard: even before the pandemic, maternal death rates from birth are high, wages are stalled, student debt is crippling, there is a lack of parental leave, the very cost of having a child can be debilitating, and the cost and lack of quality child care can make work prohibitive. And of course there are postponed weddings, people not dating and not meeting each other. The good news is that the teenage birth rate hit an all-time low. 

The economic fears are real, but what about Alan DeButton’s point of people’s never-ending capacity for love and nurturing? There are less-costly substitutes. Pet adoptions are way up. The American Veterinarians Association is providing guidance to vets for how to handle the increase in pet visits in their practice. In my family, three dogs have been adopted in the last six months, and we have a parade of new puppies going through our neighborhood. And, talk about cuddling… did you see the new thing on cow hugs? For $75 an hour you can visit a cow for cuddling. The waiting list is six months.

Maybe I have digressed a bit about Mother’s Days. Or maybe not. As the world has seen the struggles and cost to women (and families) through this pandemic year, maybe we will re-look at how we really have “love and have reverence” for mothers, and make a meaningful commitment to our families. And maybe our adult children who are now parents struggling through this time will have more compassion and understanding for us moms and parents as they mature.

I like to think of Mother’s Day as a day to remember and a day to focus on our future—to expand and heal our relationships, to continue our journey to be the person we want to be, the person we want to be remembered. With Grandmother mind and Grandmother heart. 

Have a blessed Mother’s Day. May your memories bring joy, bring love, and opportunities for growth and healing. Amen. 

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