This year, my own momma’s birthday is on Mother’s Day.
But the truth is, I didn’t think much about Mother’s Day or my mom’s birthday this week. You know what I was thinking about this week?
How much my haircut makes me look like my mom. It does. And when I sport a visor or a ball cap? Might as well just call me Bonnie.
Sometimes I look in the mirror and am stunned. Sometimes I hear my laugh and can hear her, and her sisters, and her mom laughing through me. All of the idioms about nuts not falling far from the trees? I’m basically a baby tree.
An acquaintance of mine saw a copy of my first book of letters recently and told me he thought that the dark-haired woman in the photograph on the cover was me. He did a doubletake when he realized it couldn’t be me, given the age of the photograph, and that I must be the little girl in the photograph. That photograph is thirty years old.
The woman in the photograph is my mom, of course. And he couldn’t believe it wasn’t me.
This week, heading into Mother’s Day, I realized I’m the exact age my mom was in that photograph. It’s on the book cover because it hangs in our hallway in a frame, one of the mementos that inspired me to start writing these letters in the first place, wondering about my mom at my age. We did the math last weekend when she was here in town visiting for your birthdays. We were walking home after preschool pickup and a lunch picnic at the park.
The exact age. My age. My mom’s age. Right there in the hallway.
Mom told me last weekend that her grandma—your great-great-grandmother—was freckled and fair-headed and used to say that if you washed your face with the morning dew on May 1, it would lighten your freckles. I love that story for so many reasons, including the fact that I had never heard it before—and of course I Googled it; it’s a folklore-ish custom about May Day dew having magical properties—but I especially love knowing there was a me generations ago in my family tree with freckles just like me, especially as my freckles get darker and heavier every year, and I look more like my mom, as your freckles crawl across your noses, even though I make you wear visors all the time.
You look like me.
Which means you look like her.
On Mother’s Day, the truth is, I’m usually feeling conflicted. For one thing, I just don’t care about Mother’s Day as a holiday. Maybe I’m not sentimental enough, I don’t know.
Also, I think it gets much of motherhood wrong. Too much. Mothering is hard and heart-breaking, holy and absurd, mind-numbing and exhausting. To get through it, with grace, we need space to say those things and not feel ashamed that our lived experience is nothing like what we expected this season to be like. (I know, I know, I feel those things and say those things in order to make that kind of space, but a lot of women don’t have that freedom or support.)
Let’s put it this way: One Sunday a year for thanks-so-much-you’re-the-best-mom-ever does not do mothering justice.
And don’t even get me started on all the clichés attached to motherhood in our culture, maybe especially in American church culture. We sometimes will try to be more inclusive by wishing Mother’s Day to all of those who are “spiritual” mothers, but let’s be real for a minute. That caveat doesn’t cut it. I’ve written before (and yes, gotten preachy about) our lack of sensitivity on Mother’s Day related to infertility, justice issues, complex family systems, and grief. Girls, you know how sensitive my soul can be. There have been many Mother’s Days when I myself feel weighed down with the pain of this broken world.
What about those mothers whose parental rights have been removed by the state? What about those mothers who are suffering from addiction and abuse but trying their darndest to work out their home plans to get their children back? What about those mothers in refugee camps, separated from their children, or unsure of their children’s survival? Or fleeing unsafe homes, cities, countries—some on foot, unable to feed their children, unable to keep them safe? What about those women who have become mothers through traumatic assaults? What about those in our own community without resources to be advocates for themselves and their children? What about women (and men) who were abused by their mothers? Where do they fit in? What about women who are childless through no choice of their own? Those who have grieved the loss of their children? Who are caring for children in chronic pain, with broken bodies, discouraged spirits? And what about those who are grieving the loss of their mothers while holding their newborn babies? Those waiting on the opposite side of the globe from their soon-to-be-adopted babies for bureaucracies to make the call about their family’s suitability?
The more questions I start asking about Mother’s Day in my heart—no matter how much I love the footprint-butterfly Mother’s Day craft you brought home from preschool—the more questions I have about what it means to be a mother in this world, and the more I feel sadness or at least ambivalence about the holiday as a whole.
Girls, it’s not that I’m not full of gratitude on this day.
I’m grateful for my mom, who encourages me and loves me and tells me I’m doing a great job raising you. She’s strong and brave and inspiring, and has great hair to boot.
I’m really grateful for all the moms I’ve got in my life. Seriously, I’ve got an incredible number of strong women who have mentored and loved me through the years, more than I deserve, really.
You have three more-than-spectacular grandmas, multiple more-than-phenomenal great-grandmas, and a spry 95-year-old great-great-grandmother who writes us snail-mail letters with real stamps. Just look at the loopy penmanship on the birthday cards you’ve received over the last few weeks—a testament to the generational love pouring over you! We’ve also got women in our church who care for us, knowing how far we are from our family, and make sure we feel loved all year long. All year long.
So there are many women and mothers to whom I am indebted, and I hope I do a good job of expressing my gratitude all year long.
But I also hope that I am working to provide a space and cultivate a community that is working to come alongside women who don’t have a support system, who are grieving and broken and feel forgotten among the bouquets of flowers and Hallmark greeting cards that litter our social media feeds and advertisements. I want all women to know they are loved on this day, and their stories and experiences are valid and safe and worthy of attention.
Mother’s Day falls during Easter, which means that every year we get to think about motherhood in the context of the Incarnation. One of the beautiful things about the Christian testimony of the Incarnation is that we have a God who knows what it is like to live in a broken world. We have a God who knows what it is like to feel grief at the loss of loved ones, to feel abandoned, to know that life in this world is not the way it was created to be. We have a God who often taught through narrative, turning stories on their heads to show us that we are asking the wrong questions, that we’ve got our priorities wrong, that we’re loving the wrong people, and we are missing out on participating in the Kingdom because we’ve forgotten that Jesus’s face shows up in the least of these.
That’s what the Incarnation teaches us.
That making space for the least of these—listening to them, touching them, inviting them into our homes and our lives—is what living the Gospel is.
So I don’t know. I guess what I’m saying is that maybe we could use a little more of that Gospel message on Mother’s Day, and maybe we can go ahead and stop wishing women who are perfect strangers, whose stories we don’t know and don’t have a right to, “Happy Mother’s Day” at the grocery store.