The joy and pain of celebrating Mothers’ Day

Photo by Hilary Halliwell on

Today is Mothering Sunday in the UK – or nowadays the British version of “Mothers’ Day.”  The original concept was a celebration of the church as mother but it has evolved into a day celebrating mums everywhere and an opportunity for children to buy mum flowers, gifts and cards.  Churches still tend to do something to recognise the day. Some will focus the worship and teaching on motherhood usually drawing on examples such as Sarah, Hannah and Mary.[1]  A lot tend to be fairly understated with a new tradition having grown up in my lifetime of giving daffodils to all the mums, usually extended to include all adult women.

On Twitter recently, a pastor shared this advice/warning/reminder to fellow pastors about the challenges of the day.

There’s good, wise and loving advice there but I wanted to think a little bit more about how we approach celebration when there is pain as well as joy.  You see, what is true of Mother’s Day is true of so many other events through the year, those fixed in the diary like Fathers’ Day as well as occasional specials like dedications and weddings.  Secondly, as people began to chip in, the list grew.  We might want to add

  • deserted mums/dads and divorces.
  • Adopted and foster children and parents (and those who are going through the preparatory process)
  • Parents who have had their children taken into care
  • Parents who have lost children whether whilst in the womb, small or in adulthood.

Suddenly the list becomes quite extensive and it strikes me that we are looking at a situation where most of us are liable to find certain things hard about many of the fixed and occasional celebrations of life.

It also means that pastors and those involved in leading services are likely to at any given time fit into at least one of the categories.  Moreover, as your pastor steps up to speak on Mothers’ Day or lead that dedication, he is likely to be keenly aware of all of the needs and emotions written on the faces of those looking back at him.

Now, here’s a couple of further things to help us continue to think deeper about how we approach such days. First, this was Graham Nicholl’s comment.

This is spot on. It is right to acknowledge pain and sadness but there is a risk that we impose guilt onto others and rob them of the joy of celebrating.

Now, here’s the thing. Through my life having been both sides of the lectern, my experience has been that oh so often, it is those who have most reason, most cause to feel pain and grief on any given occasion who tend to be the most gracious, most concerned for the needs of others and indeed most willing to enter into the joy of others. 

That isn’t to say that there won’t be others for whom the pain and grief remains raw and intense. We must constantly remain alert for how we can best love and care for them. It’s crucial to remember that we will all respond differently to things based on our own circumstances, personality and pre-existing support.

However, there are also at times those who can become vocal for the pain of a particular constituency whether or not it is their own experience and act as though they have a monopoly on grief and suffering.  They seem to be very good at inflicting guilt on others. And that isn’t a healthy cycle to get into.

Here’s another thing.  Sarah and I have not been able to have children and so, yes there are reminders of this at key events. We talked about how we felt at such occasions.  To be honest, actually neither of us have generally felt put out by the joy of those celebrating. In fact, we delight to be part of the bigger family.  What has perhaps got under the skin more has been when people have gone to great lengths to highlight how hard and painful such events might be. Indeed, those messages can have the opposite effect of making something harder than it needs to be of pointing out to those who don’t fit the category of celebration that they really shouldn’t be there. And I sometimes find an undertone towards pastors that if they don’t share a specific life experience then they are not in a position to pastor a person. So what can a married pastor with four kids say to a single person or a couple with none? What can a single pastor without kids say to the married parents of teenagers.  And you see, because their job is to apply God’s Word to the person’s life, the answer is “actually quite a lot.” I write as someone who has both pastored and been pastored by people who don’t share my life experiences.

And so, here’s the thing. Tim is right, a foil wrapped daffodil on Mother’s Day isn’t going to cut it as pastoral care. There again, I’m not sure that a prayer of lament or qualifying announcement will either. We all feel differently and perhaps for some those things may be helpful on the day. As I’ve indicated, for others they really jar. Sarah hit the nail on the head in our conversation when she commented.

“But the pastoral care should have been happening every day either side of Mothers’ Day”

That kind of pastoral care should enable us to go into a specific occasion and focus on the thing that is meant to be our priority on that day.

You’ve probably heard me talk about Nicola Helliwell. Nicola was my sister’s friend but each year on 3rd March she would turn up at our house with a present for my sister and a little present (usually crayons) for me. Her mum had kindly thought that the little brother might not want to feel left out on his sister’s birthday. It was deeply thoughtful but actually that little boy needed to know that not everything was about him and that there was great joy to be found in celebrating the happiness of others.

We need to prepare each other because there are specific priority needs at any given time. We all turn up at weddings, funerals and dedications with mixed emotions because of our own circumstances but the priority on the day is either to grieve or to celebrate with others.

So, here are my thoughts. We should approach such events as a family or body together knowing that we are called to share both in the pain and rejoicing of one another.  Often, celebrations, just like any given ordinary Sunday are bitter sweet, often both hard and beautiful, often mixed with joy and sorrow.

See that mum receiving a daffodil from her daughter this morning?  She is overjoyed because her daughter has expressed love back with cards and presents.  She loves her children and takes delight in them, they are a gift from God.  At the same time, she’s in the process of starting a grieving journey as she says goodbye to a mum who is getting frailer and whose memory seems to be fading.  She also carries heaviness, her daughter really frustrated her this morning, that grieved her. She is anxious about whether or not her children will grow up in the Lord. She is feeling so guilty and at the moment imposter syndrome is kicking in because she believes she is a horrendous failure as a mum.

See that Sunday School teacher who is smiling as she helps supervise giving the daffodils out.  She is wondering as she does so whether or not she will ever get to marry and have children. It feels less and less likely. She’s just navigated the annual awkward moment where someone has intervened to stop giving her a daffodil “oh you’re not a mum yet” and then someone else has stepped in and said “oh we give daffodils to all the women.” Yet she’s also captivated by the joy in her charges faces as they head back to their mums. She’s looking forward to getting over to see her mum and dad and cooking them lunch after the service. Today is an oasis from a week when she has at times felt alone and lonely in her flat. Here she is with family.

When we get together as God’s family in the middle of messy life whether for normal worship or special occasions, we come as we are with our joy and our pain, our hopes and fears. We do well to remember that and to seek to show grace and love to everyone who turns up. This needs to be the constant day in, week out posture of church life and it is that which will help us to put the focus specifically on rejoicing or on mourning when the occasion calls for that.

[1] Eve rarely gets a look in but given her name is about being a mother of life, she deserves something of a shoutout.

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