Life & Health Theology

Joy and Sadness Mixed on Mother’s Day

May 14, 2017

Happy Mother’s Day! For some, it really is a happy day – a day of remembering the selfless love of someone who gave them life, or gave life to those they love. But this year, for probably the first time in my life, I recognize that Mother’s Day can actually be sad. Mother’s Day can be hard for many people. Like the rest of life, Mother’s Day can be a day where sorrow and joy are mixed – and sometimes it’s hard to sort out the sorrow and the joy – it’s hard to celebrate the joyful things without hurting those in sorrow. Some have lost their mothers. Some never knew their mothers. Some may wish they never knew their mothers. Some long so much to be mothers, but can’t – or at least not right now, because of infertility, or singleness, or their choice (or someone else’s choice), or health/medical issues, or finances, or some other deep pain. Some feel like horrible mothers, whether they are right or wrong. Some have had others tell them that they are horrible mothers – and that shame haunts them because they sometimes believe that is true. Some are mothers to children who they can no longer hold, but dearly wish to do so today. Some are mothers to children who no longer wish to hold them, who won’t even call today to say “Happy Mother’s Day.”

To be honest, the first thing I did this morning on Mother’s Day was cry.

That’s a little odd, because I have a mother who deeply loves me. Mother’s Day has always been a happy day of recognizing just how much my mother loves me and cares for me. I’ve seen that very clearly this year as I’ve walked through surgeries and chemo and ER visits. I can’t remember a time I’ve been in the hospital that my mother wasn’t there in the room with me – whether in Michigan or Midland or Houston. She’s always refused to go home and instead slept in an uncomfortable hospital chair just so she can be by my side. She’s loved me regardless of whether she agrees with me or not. For my first surgery to have my colon removed, I remember her feeling so sick that she physically threw up the morning of the surgery she was so opposed to it – but she was there the entire time and wouldn’t leave my side for the 19 days I was in that hospital, even at the risk of losing her job. I’ve seen the same thing during chemo – a choice again that she was not really enthusiastic about (and that’s putting it nicely) – but she has loved and supported me throughout the whole thing. I recognize that, and am deeply grateful to have a mother like mine. God indeed has been gracious to me in this area.

But this Mother’s Day is hard for me – and I would think, hard for my mother too. The other mother I usually celebrate is my oldest sister, Christina. And my eyes filled with tears even writing that sentence, because this is the first Mother’s Day I don’t get to celebrate her. That hurts. There have only been three Mother’s Days that I’ve been able to celebrate her love for her two children together with her. That hurts me deeply. I know it hurts my mom even more deeply, since this is the first Mother’s Day for her without one of her children here to celebrate.

My brother-in-law, Chris (who I practically consider my brother now), will have a joyful and sorrowful Mother’s Day today. I know it hurts him too, since he will have to explain to little Malakhi and Brooklyn why “mommy in heaven” isn’t here to celebrate Mother’s Day with them. God has been gracious to him and to his children, by giving them a wonderful mother in Hannah – but that doesn’t lessen the pain of today with the absence of Christina, their “mommy in heaven.” Hannah comes with her own joys and sorrows mixed, as I imagine her mother-in-law feels the pain of today with the absence of her son, and Hannah’s late husband, Luke. She gets the honor (and challenge!) of being the mommy-on-earth to my niece and nephew. And her wonderful little son, Brady, now gets the joy of play fighting with his new brother Malakhi and loving on his new sister Brookyln, but also has the sorrow of walking through the loss of today with them, and with Chris and Hannah, and Nici (my mom), and many more family members. I can’t even begin to imagine all the different emotions going through Hannah on this Mother’s Day.

As you can see, even just for me and my immediate family: Mother’s Day is very complicated. I know it can be even more complicated for others.

A Mother’s Day Liturgy

I have many good friends who I want to celebrate today, as they are wonderful mothers. Some are very new mothers, and it’s a joy to watch them cherish these baby boys and girls – filling my Instagram and Facebook feeds with way too many pictures of babies in every imaginable situation, even though they can hardly move. Some of my friends have been mothers for some time, and have little flocks of children that follow them around after church. They too, fill my feeds with pictures and videos which mostly make me smile – all of the idiosyncracies of children being children. I want to recognize those wonderful women today, and say that I am glad to know you and to celebrate with you today.

But I know of mothers who have lost children too – and carry the pain that comes with that today. Every “Happy Mother’s Day!” will bring the sharp pain of the loss to their minds, and that makes me incredibly sad. Some have had miscarriages, some have lost grown children, some have estranged older children. I want to recognize these wonderful women today, and say that I am glad to know you and hope I can mourn with you today.

I know of mothers who feel that they are horrible mothers and can never compare to the other mothers out there who seem to have it all together. The word “mother” makes them feel like they are a failure, like they haven’t lived up to their calling in life. There are mothers who are single, and the phrase “single mother” has been used too often of them in a derogatory way that wounds.  I want to recognize these wonderful women today, and say that I am glad to know you and that you are not defined by being a mother, or by what “type” of mother you are.

I also know of many women who long to be mothers, but still aren’t. For them, every “Happy Mother’s Day!” or person who asks “are you a mother?” will highlight their great pain that they are not a mother, even though they so desperately want to be. Some of them wrestle with infertilty, which let’s be honest, is a horrible word to label someone with on top of not being able to have children themselves. Some women I know are single, and would love to be a mother but first need to be a wife, or even a girlfriend, they may think. Some people tell these women that they are “spiritual mothers” and assume that this makes it easier – and I imagine that may help, but it doesn’t make the pain go away. I want to recognize these wonderful women today, and say that I am glad to know you and I recognize how complicated, awkward, and painful today is for you.

I know of women who are not mothers, and honestly don’t feel called to be mothers at all – and for them often Mother’s Day communicates that they are not true women, or that they are not good Christian women unless they become mothers. So today is an awkward day for them, and often they feel out of place and don’t know what to do. Perhaps people keep telling them, “one day you’ll be a mother,” and they don’t know how to respond. I want to recognize these wonderful women today, and say that I am glad to know you and hope that you know you are every bit a true woman even if you never become a mother – that you still bring life into this world that is beautiful.

Finally, I know there are probably other categories of mothers and women that I have missed in this post – and I’m saddened by that. It hurts that days of great celebration like this can also be days of deep sorrow – and often both at the same time. The joy is mixed with the sadness. Sometimes I wish it weren’t so, but sometimes I’m glad they both come together. The sadness reminds me of the joy, and the joy bolsters the sadness. As one of my good friends (who is a woman I’m glad to know) once said, it’s like the blue and yellow globes in Inside Out – you can’t have one without the other, and at times it’s hard to tell where one color begins and the other ends.

Today will be happy and sad in so many ways that I can’t imagine. At my church, little children will hand out flowers to women as they enter the church and say, “Happy Mother’s Day!” In their innocence, they will probably give flowers to women who are not mothers. Also in their innocence, they will probably fail to give flowers to women who are mothers, though they don’t have the children present to show it. Some single women will stay home to avoid this little ritual – so will some mothers.

I hope this odd, broken liturgy for Mother’s Day encourages these women – women who bring so much life and beauty into the world.

God and Mothers

When I think of mothers in Scripture, two images come to mind. The first is of Jesus standing before Jerusalem in Matthew 23:37, weeping and saying “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem… How often would I have gathered your children together as a [mother] hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” The image of Jesus as a mother hen is very tender, and Jesus is probably in some way referring back to an Old Testament passage where God is compared to a mother in Isaiah 66:13, “As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you; and you will be comforted over Jerusalem.” When I visited Israel, one of my favorite places was this small Franciscan church called “Dominus Flevit” (“Jesus wept”) which sits on the edge of the Mount of Olives, overlooking Jerusalem (presumably around where Jesus may have stood and wept for his city). On the altar of the church is the mosaic below, an icon of sorts of Jesus as a mother hen protecting her children (notice the halo around the hen’s head).

I think this is a beautiful picture of Jesus, and a reminder of a God who cares for us like a mother – who not only brings life into the world but also protects that life – who weeps for that life, who also  (as we know) dies for that life. I like to imagine Jesus today looking over all the women who are experiencing Mother’s Day differently today and longing to bring them close under his wing. Longing to protect the ones who haven’t been hurt yet, weeping for those that have; comforting all the same – cherishing the imago dei in the women before him.

The other image that comes to mind is Mary – who I have to admit I have a complicated relationship with, much like Mother’s Day. I don’t always know what to do with Mary. The Eastern Orthodox call her Theotokos – “The Mother of God.” They say that her womb is “wider than the heavens” – she held the creator of the world in such a small space. I don’t really know what to think about that, and to be honest, it makes me nervous (and I’m not sure if it is a good nervous or bad nervous – or maybe both). They also see her as a picture of the Church – the perfect disciple, the first disciple. I like that image. Growing up I always thought the men in the Bible were the best disciples – like Paul or Peter, or maybe John – but never Mary.

Mary is complicated, though, like Mother’s Day. She is like so many of the women I mentioned above in my Mother’s Day liturgy. She’s a girl who is born into a society that, at its worst, limits her value to being a mother. She starts the story out as a single girl (although betrothed) who seemingly gets pregnant out of wedlock (a “single mother”), who has the perfect child and consequently must have felt like a failure of a mother a time or two (like when she left Jesus alone in another city!), who then has her child leave home and eventually sees him tried as a criminal and hung on a cross to die. In Luke, as far as I can tell, Mary isn’t chosen because she’s a spectacular mother, or going to be a spectacular mother – and yet “the Lord is with [her]” – even before she is a mother. And the life that she bears gave life to everything that is – and consequently the life that she bears must also die so that we all may live.

What it must be like to be Mary – the joy and sadness mixed together! Sometimes I wish it were different, but looking at stories like these gives me hope in both sadness and joy. Like Jesus looking down at Mary from the cross with the same love as a mother hen, weeping, knowing the pain she’s about to experience in his death and also the joy she’s going to feel at his resurrection – and that both are necessary for life and beauty to come into this world in the end.

I’d love to hear about your own experience of Mother’s Day (in general, or your specific day this year):

Was it a joy? How did you celebrate (or how were you celebrated)?

Was it a sadness? How did you mourn? What are ways that people can mourn with you?

Was it awkward? How so? What can people do to be mindful of you on Mother’s Day?

Do you have any other thoughts about how we can observe Mother’s Day better? Do you have thoughts about God and mothers?  About Mary, or Jesus as a Mother Hen?

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  • Reply Sandi Glahn May 14, 2017 at 3:36 pm

    This. Is. Fantastic. Thank you!

    I have a complicated relationship with this day. You have to expressed it so beautifully. And I love how your minimalist art of Mary complements your words.

    I’m sorry your sister is not huggable for you today. But I’m thankful that instead of adding bitterness to your pain you have both shared it and used it to heal.

    • Reply Jason Custer May 14, 2017 at 4:26 pm

      You’re most welcome, Dr. Glahn. And thanks for encouraging me to continue designing. The Italy class and your teaching and input both there and in my independent study were really instrumental in helping me see how art can be used beautifully alongside the ministry of words – so thanks for helping bring that to life!

  • Reply Mindy Boulevard May 15, 2017 at 1:11 am

    Wow!!! This is amazingly beautiful! I have 4 children (1 who is estranged right now, 1 in heaven and 2 at home). This is my first Mother’s Day in this position and the first where I’ve really realized that not everyone celebrates this day, that there is sadness amongst the joy or just sadness. Thank you for your beautifully written words. After a trying day they were wonderful to read.

    • Reply Jason Custer May 15, 2017 at 4:32 pm

      You’re most welcome, Mindy. Thanks for sharing. I’m so sorry for your loss(es) and how that complicates Mother’s Day, and I’m sad it was a trying day for you – but I’m glad this post could be a bit of encouragement.

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